Kurdish rout in Kirkuk puts the US in a bind

October 22, 2017
Kurdish fiasco. Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and Iraqi security forces members in Kirkuk, on October 16. (Reuters)

Washington- Tensions between Kurdish forces and Iraqi govern­ment troops over the city of Kirkuk mark an embar­rassing setback for the United States at a time Washington wants to keep its partners focused on dealing a decisive military blow against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Trump administration watched with unease as troops of the Baghdad government moved into Kirkuk on October 16 to pre­vent the Kurds from taking per­manent possession of the oil-rich region following the independence referendum by the Kurdistan Re­gional Government (KRG). Central Iraqi government troops also took control of other previously Kurdish-held areas in northern Iraq, aban­doned by Kurdish fighters.

The confrontation between two crucial US partners in the fight against ISIS produced highly visible signs of America’s problem. News reports said US-backed Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, destroyed at least five US-supplied Humvee vehicles used by Iraqi forces.

As Kurdish troops left the city to the Iraqi Army and fighters of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), US President Donald Trump said the United States would not get involved in the confronta­tion between the Kurds and the Iraqi government forces. “We’re not taking sides but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” Trump said.

A US military spokesman down­played the fighting in Kirkuk, de­scribing it as a result of “miscom­munication.” Other officials denied there had been fighting at all, even though the president had talked of clashes. “I know some have re­ported it as attacks,” said Heather Nauert, the US State Department spokeswoman. “We look at it from the standpoint of coordinated movements. As we watch the situ­ation unfold in Iraq, we continue to call for calm, to call for calm on the part of the Kurds, on the part of the government in Baghdad as well.”

These statements could be inter­preted as signs the administration was keen to stay out of the fray for lack of a better plan, analysts said. “I think the administration doesn’t have a clue what to do,” said Owen Daniels, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Anxious to avoid taking the wrong steps, the Trump administration was “not doing anything.”

He added US officials had not ex­pected things to escalate so quickly. “They were probably surprised by the speed” of events in Kirkuk, Dan­iels said.

Trump critics in Washington said they are aghast that US military equipment, handed to the Kurds and the Iraqi government to fight ISIS, was used in an internal conflict that appeared to open the door for an increased Iranian influence in Iraq.

“The United States provided equipment and training to the gov­ernment of Iraq to fight ISIS and secure itself from external threats — not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States,” Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “I am especially con­cerned by media reports that Ira­nian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault.”

Another prominent senator from Trump’s Republican Party, Marco Rubio, warned the escalation in Kirkuk could slow the drive against ISIS. “These hostilities are divi­sive at exactly a time when unity is needed to finish the fight against ISIS,” he said in a statement. “We cannot forget the Iranian regime provides cash, weapons, training and military orders to Shia militias that are right now near Kirkuk and only nominally take orders from the civilian government in Baghdad.”

The fight for Kirkuk came as the battle against ISIS entered a new phase. With the jihadists on the run after losing the Iraqi city of Mosul in July and the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of its self-styled cali­phate, on October 17, the question is what shape the extremist group will morph into, Daniels said.

One possibility is that ISIS is changing from an organisation that holds territory to a terrorist network along the lines of al-Qaeda. In that case, military partners such as the Kurds or the Iraqi Army could have “less significance” for the United States in the future, Daniels said.

In the short term, the United States will try to calm tensions be­tween the Iraqi Kurds and the cen­tral government. While praising the Iraqi Kurds as valuable partners, Washington said the KRG should remain part of a united Iraq and not become an independent state. Nauert said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “making calls to the region.”

Some observers suggested Washington could threaten to stop supplying military hardware to pressure the two sides to find compromises. “The United States can employ its military assistance as leverage, threatening to cut off either party if it refuses to com­promise, while making clear that it will help the Kurds militarily if Iraqi forces try to push into the KRG’s core provinces,” Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in an analysis for Defense One, a news website focusing on defence and security issues.