The decision by US President Barack Obama to launch airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State (IS) following its advance into Kurdish-controlled territories has raised eyebrows, particularly after Washington’s reluctance to use force when IS militants seized nearly one third of Iraq in June and threatened Baghdad.
Obama said he authorised the use of force to protect Americans, safeguard Christians and members of other minorities who have fled for their lives, and press Baghdad to form an inclusive government to end the political crisis. But his message was loud and clear: the US would protect the independence-seeking Kurdistan Region.
As questions are being raised about Obama’s airstrikes strategy in Iraq, the Kurds, who are in a tug-of-war with Baghdad, seem to be the only beneficiaries of the US military’s return to Iraq two years after the troop withdrawal and Obama’s pledge to avoid direct military involvement in the beleaguered nation.
A little background may be necessary to put into perspective the conclusion that the US military intervention has come primarily to support its Kurdish allies or, as was bluntly put by Obama himself, to “stop the advance on [the Kurdish capital] Erbil.”
When the jihadists of the Islamic State captured Mosul in June and made headway into other Sunni-dominated cities in western Iraq, Kurdish leaders, at loggerheads with the Shia-led government, were quick to blame the Iraqi security forces for the advance which had rattled the violence-ripped country and threatened to tear it further apart.
To further discredit the Iraqi security forces that had failed to withstand the IS offensive, Jabar Yawar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Peshmarga forces and a key Kurdish spokesman, claimed that some of the 200,000 retreating Iraqi forces had joined the jihadist rebels.
Though the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul stunned the world, the reason Kurdish leaders trumpeted its defeat was to portray the Baghdad Shia-led government as being incapable of protecting Iraq in the face of creeping danger, a pretext they later used to justify their seizure of large swathes of land in three provinces, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani also moved swiftly to ask the Kurdish parliament to establish an electoral commission and set a date for a referendum on independence, vowing that the newly acquired territories would be defended by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Such was the feeling of triumphalism that Kurdish leaders boasted that the Peshmerga, meaning those facing death in Kurdish, were a formidable force that would rather die in defence of the newly acquired territories than surrender.
What may seem to be Kurdish bombast and political opportunism drew criticism from Shia politicians who charged the Kurdish leadership with complicity in the IS capture of Mosul and with exploiting the Iraqi army’s defeat to grab territories and break away from Iraq.
In a fiery statement, outgoing prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki accused the Kurdish Regional Government of failing to “provide an example of patriotic partnership” by hosting leaders of the Sunni insurgency and IS terrorists in Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
In protest, the Kurdish leadership ended all participation in Iraq’s national government, and the outgoing Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari put the blame squarely on Al-Maliki, saying the prime minister and his security officials were to blame for the rise of the Sunni Muslim insurgents.
In their turn, many Iraqi Shia politicians capitalised on the Peshmerga’s retreat to ridicule the fighters, who pride themselves on being a well-armed, trained and battle-tested force, for failing to fight the less-experienced IS fighters. They accused them of abandoning hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Turkmens to the terrorist group.
What seemed to be blame-trading and mud-slinging has now turned into grand political farce. Both the Baghdad government and the Kurdish leaders have failed to deal with the IS danger, paving the way for the group’s rise and now to a new American military adventure in Iraq that may escalate the sectarian and ethnic strife that afflicts the country.
With IS increasing its gains and keeping its murderous machine in motion, the noisy debate between Baghdad and Kurdistan may have abated. Simplistic analysis has tried to use the Arabic proverb “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” to explain the present convergence as a matter of necessity and one that could lead to a breakthrough in Iraq’s lingering governmental crisis, also a prerequisite set by Obama for further military assistance to Iraq.
But the core of Iraq’s problems today is the crisis triggered by IS control over vast Sunni territories and the Kurds’ declaration that they intend to go for independence after capturing large swathes of land.
Not everyone is convinced that Obama’s two-pronged strategy of pursuing airstrikes on IS and pushing for the formation of an inclusive government in Baghdad will restore stability and stop Iraq’s dramatic descent into the abyss.
Most analysts agree that the US bombings of IS positions are ineffective and cannot hold off the extremists who are now slaughtering people or forcing them into submission. They wonder how limited airstrikes on IS artillery, or the few hundred advisers earlier dispatched to Iraq, can fix something that couldn’t be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of US troops that were in the area for over a decade.
The other stated goal of the operation, to help protect minorities, can also hardly be expected to save these hundreds of thousands of people and help them return to their towns and villages that are now under IS control.
The point to remember here is that the United States and the West waited for a long time to move to protect the Yazidis and Christians weeks after IS started its carnage of the minorities in Nineveh, while the Kurdish Peshmerga stood idle or abandoned their posts and fled. In fact, the Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks have now become hostages to the Kurds, who claim that their towns and villages belong to Kurdistan and have long been exercising a policy of Kurdisation to change their religious and ethnic identities.
The goal of protecting US diplomats and other personnel in Iraq through airstrikes on IS positions is not even worthy of discussion. If Washington was simply concerned about its staff’s well-being, it could evacuate them. But they are there largely to implement US policies in Iraq and are needed there despite the risk.
As for Obama’s instance on ending Iraq’s governmental crisis in order to provide sustainable military assistance, the prospect seems unpromising even after Iraqi President Fouad Masuom nominated Haider Al-Abadi as the new prime minister.
With Al-Maliki refusing to step down, the country’s power struggle could be further intensified, worsening the IS threat and the country’s sectarian conflict.
With two-thirds of Iraq now out of Baghdad’s control, the time has passed for any new government, which will be formed by the same corrupt politicians, to stem the IS advances, let alone to stop Iraq plunging into further political chaos.
It should be asked of Obama’s pledge of military action in Iraq whether it can prevent the country from falling apart or whether it is simply the last act in a process of disintegration triggered by the US-led invasion in 2003.
By all accounts, what the Obama administration has done so far, in the words of Rudaw, a Kurdish news outlet close to Barzani, is to boost world support and recognition of the Kurdish Region.
“The liberation of the Kurdistan Region was also achieved by the international reaction to the crimes of Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1991,” wrote Ako Mohamed, the director of Rudaw Tuesday.
Two developments are also worth watching here. First, the American airstrikes have helped the Kurdish forces reclaim a few towns from the Islamic State, and second the United States has also started arming the Peshmerga.
While it is not clear if all the Christians, Yazidis and Shabak will consider returning to their homes under the looming danger, the US military involvement will clear the way for the Kurds to consolidate their control of these territories. The greater weapon supplies will, meanwhile, facilitate the long-feared fragmentation of Iraq.
For many years the Kurds have lamented the fact they had “no friends but the mountains” as they fought successive Iraqi governments for autonomy. Now, with the Americans at hand and at a decisive moment in their long-awaited independence, they have a mighty friend with global reach at their side.
But the question remains of how long this will prove to be the case.