25 October, 2017

Kirkuk: a noisy silence

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The blitzkrieg style operation which led United States (US) manufactured M1 Abrams tanks and Humvees to roll over Kurdish Peshmerga positions in Iraq’s Kirkuk province surprised many analysts and governments worldwide. The absence of international reactions to Baghdad’s offensive against the Kurds is quite remarkable, especially considering that the operation might have compromised future cooperation between the main forces fighting Daesh in Iraq. Such military and political implications are inextricably interlinked especially if the role of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) is taken into account.

The Iraqi army operation, aimed at re-establishing Baghdad’s control over the city of Kirkuk and its oil-rich surroundings, was spearheaded by the US-trained counterterrorism forces Iraq Special Operation Forces (ISOF), and led only to minor military clashes. The fulminous advance of Baghdad’s forces - comprising ISOF, the Federal Police and Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) - and the largely peaceful withdraw of Peshmerga fighters, marks a definitive and important territorial shift in a contested province. Such a shift was deemed as necessary by Iraq’s Council of Representatives, following Erbil’s decision to indict an independence referendum aimed at separating the Kurdish autonomous region from the rest of Iraq. On the other hand, however, it arguably represents a dangerous deviation from the fight against Daesh. The terror group still controls roughly 50% of Iraq’s Al-Anbar province including the strategic city of Al-Qaim and large chunks of the Iraqi-Syrian border. As already experienced by the US and NATO in Afghanistan in the past, pausing a military campaign against a dangerous and resilient terror group on its last legs has proven to be risk. This is equally applicable to the present situation in Iraq, in which, additionally, one of the main pull factors for local fighter to join the ranks of Daesh, the presence of Iran-controlled powerful violent militias, is still very relevant to Iraqi Sunnis. 

One of Iran’s main foreign policy objectives in Iraq is to avoid the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq which would strengthen the self-determination aspiration of Kurds in Iran. Such an objective is shared by Erdogan’s Turkey and is prompting the formation of a new Tehran-Ankara axis. The explicit and clear role of Iran in prompting the offensive of the Iraqi army against Kurdish Peshmerga positions is clearly evidenced by the presence of prominent members of Iran’s IRGC on the field. Emblematically, the new Iranian ambassador in Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, appointed in December 2016, is a Brigadier General of the IRGC who was previously tasked with coordinating the 

training of Iraq’s Shiite PMUs. Even more crucially, underlining the importance of controlling Iraq’s security apparatus in Tehran’s Middle East strategy, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei sent General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the al-Quds Force – the IRGC’s elite unit responsible for extraterritorial operations – to oversee all actions undertaken by the Iraqi security forces since 2014. The impact of General Soleimani, the rising star of Iran’s military, during the Kirkuk operation, can be examined by considering two major factors. Despite the involvement of the ISOF, the best trained and equipped units of the Iraqi Army, it was the IRGC-trained PMUs that conduct most of the fighting and lead the first line of advance. The need of their involvement and the prominence of their role suggests that the Kirkuk offensive was high on Tehran’s agenda. Soleimani’s presence in the field also explains why Iraqi authorities have resisted pressure, mainly from the US, to prioritise the fight against Daesh in Al-Anbar rather than advancing on Peshmerga-controlled territories.

On the other hand, oddly, Iranian anti-Kurdish activism on this particular occasion was met by the silence of all of Tehran’s long term regional rivals. In particular, on the international scene, the American administration seems unwilling to draw attention on an operation which highlights that sophisticated US-made ground vehicles are in possession of Iran-backed militias, while the EU seems too concerned with internal self-determination issues in Catalonia. The other big regional power, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, might be prioritizing its strategy to offer Baghdad an alternative option to an alignment with Tehran. The widespread international silence threatens to weaken and compromise the self-determination efforts of one of the very few inclusive and democratic societies in the Middle East, such as the one populating Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.

By Antonino Occhiuto