Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Whose side are the Kurds on in the war against IS?

It is not hard to read the intrigues behind the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s stance in the war against the Islamic State group, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

 A major offensive by the Iraqi armed forces to retake the Islamic State (IS) group’s stronghold of Mosul in the north of the country has been stalling for weeks now, despite a revamped US military build-up to help train and assist Iraqi fighters in beating the militants.

Almost six weeks into the operation, the Iraqi forces have seized just a few villages from IS on a plateau which is set to be a key staging ground for a future assault on Mosul around 60 km further north.

Reports suggest that Kurdish armed forces, or Peshmergas, whom the United States has been counting on to be the bedrock of the offensive, are apparently not showing a serious commitment to fighting the terrorist group in the city.

The Kurds are seeking to break away from Iraq, and they certainly have no interest or motivation to work closely with the Baghdad government to drive IS from the territories it has seized or help Iraq restore its sovereignty over them.

The Mosul offensive, which started on 24 March, has stalled after Iraqi forces met resistance from IS fighters who have succeeded in halting the assault force at Makhmour on  the Himreen Plateau, an area largely controlled by the Peshmergas.

The faltering start has cast renewed doubt on the Iraqi security forces, which partially collapsed when IS militants captured Mosul and large swathes of the country in summer 2014.

The initial target of the offensive was the strategic town of Qayara on the Tigris River, which would have cut one of the supply lines to Mosul, but Iraqi forces have so far failed to recapture the hill-top villages on the eastern side of the river.

There is also the question why the Iraqi command and its American allies have chosen this route to advance towards Mosul.

There has been some debate on mistakes on the planners’ part as a result of what many experts believe to have been bad planning for the offensive, especially for choosing the Makhmour axis for the initial stage in the assault on Mosul.

Yet, the error was not so much a miscalculation as a blunder, since the Kurds refused to let the Iraqi army initiate the battle from a more direct and short-cut route to Mosul from areas under their control north and east of the city. 

The blunder has been rolling on since then. Immediately after the assault started, Kurdish officials began laying the blame on the Iraqi army in what looked like a deliberate and a well-orchestrated campaign to discredit the government forces.

In multiple leaks to the international media, Kurdish officials ran amok in suggesting that the long-awaited decisive battle against IS had stalled because Iraqi forces had broken and run away from the battle once again.

 Jabar Yawir, secretary-general of the Kurdish Peshmergas ministry, told the Turkish Anadolu news agency on 6 April, less than two weeks after the initiation of the operation, that the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) was worried about “the slow progress” made by the Iraqi security forces in the Mosul offensive.

Yawar went as far as saying that the Iraqi units fighting in the area had “failed in achieving their objectives.”

Other KRG officials made other accusations and raised serious doubts. On 4 April the Kurdish outlet Aranews quoted Sirwan Barzani, KRG President Masoud Barzani’s nephew and a Peshmergas commander, as saying that members of the Iraqi armed forces had been leaking confidential security information about the Kurdish forces to IS.

Kurdish officials have even been questioning Iraqi plans for the “day after” in Mosul, which they say could be an even bigger problem than the assault itself.

“We are afraid after we liberate Mosul of how we will rule,” Najat Ali, the commander of the Kurdish forces in Makhmour, told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius on 28 April.

Some KRG officials have been rather blunt in expressing why the Iraqi Kurds should not engage in efforts to beat IS.

On 24 April, Hiwa Afandi, head of the KRG Department of Information, tweeted that “strategically, it is a huge mistake to eliminate IS before we are done with the Hashd militiamen.”

Afandi was referring to the Popular Mobilisation Force, or Hashd, which is widely considered as being crucial in the war against IS, but is mostly despised and feared by the Peshmergas.

In all the KRG leaks and public statements one issue has been highlighted: the fact that the Iraqi troops have failed despite the advanced weapons in their possession and the international community should have provided the Peshmergas with similar weapons.

Worse, reports in the US media have suggested that the KRG has supplied weapons to IS and refrained from fighting it in the initial stage of the onslaught. 

In an article in the US magazine Newsweek last month, Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, disclosed that the KRG had “apparently supplied Kornet anti-tank missiles to IS in order to weaken the central government” with which Barzani has been locked in a political dispute.

Rubin, a long-time expert on Kurdish affairs, also reported that Barzani had refused repeated requests by the Yazidi community first to send Peshmergas reinforcements to defend them and then to at least provide the Yazidis with weaponry to defend themselves.

As IS advanced, the Peshmergas fled, leaving the Yazidi communities unarmed and undefended. The mass murder of Yazidi men and boys and the enslavement of Yazidi women had been the direct results, wrote Rubin.

The Obama administration, which is closely watching the Mosul operation, has seemingly been worried about the Kurdish intrigues over the offensive that the administration had hoped would culminate in taking the city back from IS before the end of Obama’s term in office.

During a surprise trip to Iraq last month US Vice-President Joe Biden travelled to Erbil, the Kurdistan Region’s capital, reportedly to express Washington’s concerns to Barzani.

Biden underscored US continued support “for a unified, federal and democratic Iraq” and encouraged close cooperation with the government of Iraq, according to his office.

While Kurdistan’s intrigues are hampering Baghdad’s war against IS, they are also diverting Washington’s attention from the war to Iraq’s political divisions as obstacles hampering the city’s fall before Obama leaves office in January.

Behind the KRG attempts to paint the Mosul offensive as a failure even before it takes off is its strategy to continue manipulating the war against IS, which has created new opportunities for the Iraqi Kurds to pursue their independence.

Immediately after the IS advances, the Peshmergas overran Iraqi army positions and captured large areas of the country, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and declared them to be part of their self-ruled region.

In January, the Peshmergas forces started digging what officials say are security trenches in areas bordering territory controlled by IS. The trenches will stretch 1,200 km from northern areas of Mosul to Khanaqin in the Diyala province on the border with Iran. 

The Iraqi government has expressed concerns that the Kurds may be attempting to set up a de facto Kurdish border as part of a process towards the region’s independence from Iraq.

Barzani has said he wants a referendum on secession to take place before the US presidential elections in November.

Now the KRG is utilising Iraq’s governmental crisis to sever its ties with Baghdad.

Last week, Kurdish MPs who had returned to the Kurdistan Region following the breach of the parliament building in Baghdad by protesters said they had no plans to return to the Iraqi capital.

Kurdish ministers followed suit in what seems to have been the first steps of a divorce from Baghdad.

“A separation is the only option remaining,” wrote Masrour Barzani, the eldest son of the KRG’s president and head of the region’s security apparatus in the Washington Post on 5 May. 

“We want to move ahead with a vote on independence, but we must first work with Baghdad to pave the way for an amicable split that secures our mutual interests. That process has begun,” he stated. 

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