Hawija as a bellwether for civil war between the Kurds and Baghdad
As the Islamic State (ISIS) has been pushed out of major territories in Iraq and Syria, one would think the alliance arrayed against the extremists would take the opportunity to increase efforts to annihilate the group as a major player once and for all.
Surely the time is ripe to definitively shatter the irrepressible, victorious self-image that ISIS has cultivated.
It stands to reason that the alliance between the Kurds, the Iraqi government, Shia jihadists and the US coalition plans to capitalise on ISIS’s crumbling position to defeat the group and show that a future of peace, security, cooperation and stability is a distinct possibility.
As with most things in the Middle East, the epic imagery and colourful imagination associated with the above good-versus-evil narrative often comes to nothing and even more often results in the threat of further violence. ISIS is not Sauron, and the US-led coalition, the Iraqi government and a motley crew of pro-Iran Shia jihadists are certainly not the heroic people of Middle Earth battling an omniscient evil force.
While ISIS is certainly guilty of horrifying crimes, the same can be said of the Iraqi government and its allies, which are poised to tear each other apart over the Kurdish independence referendum, with the ISIS-held city of Hawija a possible catalyst.
Hawija lies in Iraq’s northern Kirkuk province, named after the disputed city of the same name that lies across vast oil resources. ISIS, battered and bruised after losing Mosul and Tal Afar in quick succession, is holed up there and has been marshalling its forces for what is looking like a vicious last stand.
The Iraqi military and the Kurdish peshmerga, who hold Kirkuk, have moved units to Hawija, though it looks like they may be tempted to kill each other as well as ISIS, something the extremists could take advantage of.
The reason they may come to blows is over the Kirkuk provincial council’s decision to take part in the Kurdish independence vote, even though Kirkuk is not technically part of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory but should be under Baghdad’s control.
When the Iraqi Army fled Kirkuk in 2014, the peshmerga moved in and, with US support, pushed ISIS back. The peshmerga have refused to withdraw and the inclusion of Kirkuk in the plebiscite irked Iraqi politicians who demand the Kurds respect the Constitutional Court ruling stating the referendum is illegal and must be postponed.
In response, and despite the ISIS menace on everyone’s doorstep, the KRG has threatened to draw its own borders by force.
With the fall of Mosul constituting ISIS’s biggest battlefield loss since the crisis erupted in June 2014, the recapture of Iraq’s second city and the resumption of Baghdad’s control over it conjured up fantasies of ISIS’s total defeat. Pundits and analysts lauded the success of the alliance in pushing ISIS back. However, this analysis betrayed a lack of understanding in how divided the alliance was from the beginning. The only glue holding them together was ISIS.
It is, after all, no secret that the KRG ruling from Erbil and the Iraqi government seated in Baghdad despise each other. The KRG has been complaining about not getting the 17% of Iraq’s annual budget that it is entitled to and Baghdad accused Erbil of pilfering Iraq’s national oil stocks from Kirkuk province and selling them abroad through Turkey’s Ceyhan Port.
Now that both sides no longer see ISIS as an existential or even territorial threat and believe the militants to be isolated in a few narrow pockets, they have resumed old rivalries and begun sabre rattling in earnest.
Still reeling from being forced out of Kirkuk by ISIS, Baghdad will use Hawija as an excuse to move troops into the disputed territory, while the KRG will use this Iraqi version of a Mexican stand-off as an opportunity to show the Kurdish people that it can and will hold territory it has taken through force of arms.
As such, whatever happens in Hawija could act as a bellwether for the Baghdad-Erbil conflict. Either both parties will be forced into discussions by international powers, such as the United States and Iran, or the conflict over Kirkuk could degenerate into open warfare and civil war.
As the belligerents tear into each other, ISIS could use the chaos to not only prolong its survival but ensure it. If that occurs, both Baghdad and Erbil might regret having counted their chickens before they were hatched.