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The Kurdish, Iran, Iraq and US Quadrangle

Kurdish battle positions Kurds as US ally against Iran.

Credit: digidreamgrafix - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Kurdish President Massoud Barzani vowed last month that the overwhelming vote for Kurdish independence "won't be in vain.”
  • Iranian involvement in the Iraqi blitzkrieg has sparked anger in the US Congress.
  • The US provides an estimated $1 billion in annual military assistance to Iraq.
  • US and Saudi officials have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of attempting to achieve regime change in Iran.

The Kurds may currently be licking their wounds and venting anger over deep-seated internal divisions that facilitated the Iranian-backed Iraqi blitzkrieg. But there may be a silver but risky lining for Kurdish nationalists in their devastating loss of Kirkuk and other cities on the periphery of their semi-autonomous region.

Mounting popular anger, coupled with U.S. Congressional fury, could position the Kurds as a key player in potential U.S. efforts to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and counter the Islamic republic.

They could thus benefit from President Donald J. Trump’s tougher approach towards the Islamic republic.

Kurdish referendum “won’t be in vain”

Former Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, in his first comment on the military rout of his Peshmerga forces, vowed last month that the overwhelming vote for Kurdish independence in a controversial referendum “won’t be in vain.”

Refusing to take responsibility for the rout, Mr. Barzani blamed the Kurdish predicament on his political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that allegedly ordered the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Kirkuk.

Technically, that may well be correct. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard general and close associate of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani known as Eqbalpour, accompanied by two Iraqi military commanders, reportedly met on the eve of the Iraqi assault on Kirkuk with Kurdish officers in the offices of the PUK in the city. Eqbalpour urged the Kurds to surrender the city peacefully.

The Kurdish withdrawal, prompting a Kurdish exodus from the city, was a stab in the back of the PUK’s arch rival, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which is headed by Mr. Barzani.

That, in turn, has sparked a wave of popular anger against Iran that could complicate any effort to negotiate a compromise between the Kurds and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad.

U.S. anger

Iranian involvement in the Iraqi blitzkrieg has also sparked anger in the U.S. Congress, even though the United States, which enabled Kurdish autonomy within Iraq, vowed to remain neutral in the Kurdish-Iraqi dispute.

The United States provides an estimated $1 billion in annual military assistance to Iraq. It has designated some elements of the PMU as terrorist organizations.

In a statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain called on Iraqi forces to “take immediate steps to de-escalate this volatile situation by ceasing their advances. I am especially concerned by media reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault. Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way,” Mr. McCain said.

Despite Iraqi denials that the PMU have access to U.S. weaponry, Kurdish emphasis on the role in Kirkuk of the Iranian-backed militia and assertions of use of Abrams tanks and Humvees was designed to garner U.S. support.

Iraq’s embassy in Washington charged that the claims constituted “a concerted misinformation campaign by elements in the Kurdish region to cover up their sinister actions in attempting to disrupt the coordinated and professional movements of the Iraqi security forces.”

The Kurdish assertions amounted to an attempt to make it difficult for the U.S. Department of Defense to certify, in accordance with U.S. law, that Iraq has ensured that U.S. military assistance does not fall into the hands of extremist groups that include those elements of the PMU that have been designated by the State Department.

Aiming to garner U.S. support

The Kurdish position aims to weaken Iraq’s position in any future negotiation and garner U.S. empathy if not support. It also positions the Kurds as a potential U.S. ally in any upcoming attempt to counter Iranian influence in Iraq or destabilize the Islamic republic with the help of ethnic groups that populate its borders.

Mr. Trump signalled his tougher approach towards Iran by refusing to certify that Iran was complying with the terms of a two-year-old nuclear agreement that opened the door to the lifting of international sanctions.

A potential re-imposition of sanctions by Congress in the next 60 days could throw the accord into jeopardy.
U.S. and Saudi officials have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of attempting to achieve regime change in Iran. The Kurds, like the Baloch in Pakistan, could play a key role in any such effort.

It is a strategy that would likely exploit anti-Iranian sentiment among Kurds in the wake of the Iraqi blitzkrieg, enjoy support from Israel which has already publicly come out in favour of Kurdish independence, and build on past U.S. and Israeli support for Kurdish nationalism.

That is support that ultimately did not help the Kurds fulfil their aspirations. There is no guarantee that a repeat performance would fare any better.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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