Jonathan Spyer: Baghdad and Tehran’s goal is the destruction of Kurdistan

Dr. Jonathan Spyer

BY JONATHAN SPYER
First published in Jerusalem Post

The assault by the Shi’a militias and the Iraqis, it should be noted as a final irony, is being carried out largely with US-supplied weapons.

The advance of the Iran-supported Iraqi government and paramilitary forces against their Kurdish opponents moved forward this week.

The Kurdish Regional Government, in a statement issued on the morning of October 25, offered to “freeze” the results of the referendum on independence conducted on September 25, in light of what it called the “grave and dangerous circumstances” currently prevailing.

The KRG proposed an “immediate cease-fire” and a halt to all military operations in the Kurdistan Region, along with the commencement of “an open dialogue between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Federal Government on the basis of the Constitution.”

The proposal was swiftly rejected. The spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iran-backed Shi’a militias, described it as “worthless.” The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants the total annulment of the referendum’s results.

The KRG’s proposal had a certain feel of desperation about it. And not by chance. The Kurdish predicament in the north of Iraq today is indeed grave.
The full dimensions of the Iraqi government and its backers’ intentions regarding the future of Iraqi Kurdistan have not been precisely announced. Rather, the preferred dimension in which Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi representatives like to operate is one of carefully fostered confusion and ambiguity.

But as the fighting continues, it is beginning to become apparent that the ambitions of Baghdad and its backers go beyond merely a return to the pre-2014 status quo.

Rather, the intention appears to be to prevent any further notion of secession – by crippling the KRG militarily and economically and taking control of the nodes connecting it to the outside world.

This policy has proceeded along a number of axes in the month since the referendum.

Its application began immediately following the vote, with the abrupt and unexpected announcement of the closure of the airports at Erbil and Suleimaniya to international traffic. The announcement led to a rushed exit for many foreigners who had come to observe the referendum. The airports were closed on September 29.

The second phase was the move into Kirkuk Province. The Iraqi Army and Shi’a militias attacked the city on October 14. With the fall of Alton Kupri, just 50 kilometers southeast of the KRG’s capital in Erbil, on October 20, the Iraqis secured their control of the province. In so doing, they cut the oil production capacity of the KRG by 50% with a single stroke.

Government forces have not at this stage attempted to move into Erbil Province. Rather, the action is shifting westward, to the Iraqi-Syrian border area and the effort by the Iraqis to cut the KRG’s land links to the outside.

On October 17, Iraqi forces, led by the Interior Ministry troops of the Federal Police, seized the Rabia border crossing, which had constituted the main land link between the KRG in Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish-controlled area, known as Rojava or the Federation of Northern Syria.

Iraqi forces have continued northward in recent days. They are now located just south of the Tigris River. To the northeast is the Fish-Khabur-Semalka border crossing, which links the KRG and Rojava by way of a bridge and barges. It is the last link between the two Kurdish entities.

The vital Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline also runs through the village of Fish-Khabur. The Iraqis appear determined to secure control of both the pipeline and the border crossing. If they do so, they may then continue northeast toward the Khabur/Ibrahim Khalil crossing, just a few kilometers further east. This is the last open link between the KRG and Turkey. Its loss would cut the KRG off from the outside world, making travel to it possible only by way of Iraq itself and sealing the Kurds in.

Further south along the long front line, the Kurdish Peshmerga are clashing with the Iraqis in the area of Telskop and Baqofa, and further south again in the area of Makhmur (the latter area includes also the KRG’s main oil field at Khurmala). Reports concerning the direction and extent of the fighting are confused and unreliable. The Peshmerga are claiming to have stalled the advancing Iraqis at various parts of the line.

Information is emerging, meanwhile, of large-scale ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the area of Tuz Khurmatu near Kirkuk, after the entry of Shi’a militias on October 16. Nearly 35,000 civilians have fled the area over the last 10 days.

Lynn Maalouf, director of research for the Middle East at Amnesty International, described the situation in the following terms, in a statement on the Amnesty website: “Thousands have lost their homes, shops and everything they owned. They are now scattered in nearby camps, villages and cities, wondering whether they will ever be able to return.”

A number of Kurdish civilians have been killed in random attacks.

So as of now, the emerging picture is one in which the Iraqi government and Iranian client forces have set their war aim as the reduction of the Kurdish Regional Government to the status of a broken, divided, dependent and surrounded entity, lacking links to the outside world and with emphatically no remaining hopes of secession or self-determination.

That is, an attempt is under way to reverse the gains made by the Iraqi Kurds over the last 25 years.

Should such a goal be achieved, it would represent an impressive victory – for Baghdad, certainly, but more profoundly for Tehran and for the methods of the IRGC/Quds Force and its leader, Soleimani.

It would also be recorded by all regional forces as a resounding defeat for the West, and conclusive evidence that it pays little to be aligned with the US and its allies in the Middle East, since when the crunch comes, you will be on your own.

The assault by the Shi’a militias and the Iraqis, it should be noted as a final irony, is being carried out largely with US-supplied weapons.

The days and weeks ahead promise to be fateful ones, primarily for the Iraqi Kurds, certainly, but also for the broader power balance in the region. Baghdad and Tehran’s goal at present appears to be the defeat and effective destruction of the KRG in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is Director of the Rubin Center (formerly the GLORIA Center), IDC Herzliya, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, 2017) and The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010). He is also a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His reporting on the war in Syria and Iraq has been published in a number of major news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, Weekly Standard and many others. His blog can be followed at: http://jonathanspyer.com/.

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