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Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict
Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he takes up position in an area overlooking a village in Khazir, on the edge of Mosul, controlled by the Islamic State, on 8 September 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict

The US-led coalition’s military assistance to Kurdish forces against the Islamic State (IS) is inadvertently accelerating intra-Kurdish fragmentation. The West should coordinate its aid better, build upon Iraqi Kurdistan’s past efforts in transforming its peshmergas into a professional military, and encourage Kurdish coordination with Iraq’s central government in the fight against IS.

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Executive Summary

Loosely organised in an ad hoc coalition, Western countries rushed military aid to Iraqi Kurds in the face of a lightning assault by the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014. They failed, however, to develop a strategy for dealing with the consequences of arming non-state actors in Iraq, a country whose unity they profess to support. Rather than forging a strong, unified military response to the IS threat, building up Kurdish forces accelerated the Kurdish polity’s fragmentation, increased tensions between these forces and non-Kurds in disputed areas and strengthened Iraq’s centrifugal forces. Delivered this way, military assistance risks prolonging the conflict with IS, worsening other longstanding, unresolved conflicts and creating new ones. A new approach is called for that revives and builds on past efforts to transform Kurdish forces into a professional institution.

Despite Western concerns, doing so is unlikely to enhance chances of Kurdish independence. Kurdish parties have become even more dependent, not less, on their alliances with Turkey and Iran since IS’s arrival. Turkey, the country with the ability to give the Kurds the independent revenue stream from oil sales they would need to move effectively toward independence, has given no indication it is prepared to do so and every indication it wishes to preserve Iraq’s unity. Western states’ current practice of channelling weapons to the Kurds via Baghdad and encouraging the two sides to resolve their outstanding disputes over oil exports and revenues also will keep the Kurdish region inside Iraq. Indeed, the development of a professional Kurdish military force is a necessary condition for effective coordination with the Baghdad government in joint operations against IS and in preparing a post-IS political plan.

Coalition military aid is premised on a belief that giving weapons and training to Kurdish forces, known as peshmergas, will in itself improve their performance against IS, a notion Kurdish leaders were quick to propagate. But the evolving state of Iraqi Kurdish politics makes for a rather more ambiguous picture: the dominant, rival parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), have been moving away from a strategic framework agreement that had stabilised their relationship after a period of conflict and allowed them to present a unified front to the central government as well as neighbouring Iran and Turkey. Moreover, their historic leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, are on the political wane, triggering an intra-elite power struggle.

This is, therefore, a particularly fragile moment. Rather than shore up Kurdish unity and institutions, the latest iteration of the “war on terror” is igniting old and new internecine tensions and undermining whatever progress has been achieved in turning the peshmergas into a professional, apolitical military force responding to a single chain of command. In doing so, it is also paving the way for renewed foreign involvement in Kurdish affairs, notably by Iran. And it is encouraging Kurdish land grabs and a rush on resources in territories they claim as part of their autonomous region, further complicating their rapport with Sunni Arab neighbours and the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

On the face of it, after an initial delivery directly to the KDP in August 2014, Western military aid has been provided to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with prior approval from Baghdad. In practice, however, weapon deliveries from a variety of donors are unilateral, mostly uncoordinated and come without strings regarding their distribution and use on the front lines. As a result, they have disproportionately benefited the KDP, which is dominant in Erbil, the region’s capital, and thus have pushed the PUK into greater reliance on Iranian military assistance and an alliance with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel organisation in Turkey. In this context, the KDP and PUK, formal partners in a unity government, have shown little inclination to distribute roles or mount joint operations, preferring competition over coordination. As a result, Kurdish forces have been less effective in fighting IS than they could have been.

While coalition members have tied military assistance to acceptance of the central government’s sovereign role in its distribution, they are jeopardising their stated interest in preserving Iraq’s unity. Indeed, by upsetting the fragile equilibrium among Kurds, between Kurds and Sunni Arabs and between the Kurds and the governments in Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, they risk weakening it; moreover, by empowering Kurdish party-based forces, they hasten the state’s de-institutionalisation and invite external interference. Given how fragile and fragmented Iraq has become, one can only wonder how pouring more arms into it could have any chance of making it stronger.

Coalition members, working in coordination, need instead to persuade Kurdish parties to complete the reunification of their parallel military, security and intelligence agencies within a single, non-partisan structure by empowering the KDP-PUK joint brigades and the peshmergas’ most professional elements; to cooperate with non-Kurdish actors in the disputed territories; and to develop a post-IS plan with the central government that cements security cooperation in these territories and moves forward the process of resolving their status through negotiation.

The KRG leadership is overdue in putting its own house in order. It may revel in momentary support for its fight against IS, but old problems will soon return, arguably posing a far more serious threat to the region’s stability than IS by itself could ever represent.

Mutanabbi Street on a Friday afternoon. 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Baghdad

Despite their traumatic history, Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to their country’s political failures. Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy visited Baghdad in October-November 2018 and returned with portraits of its people’s search for normalcy.

Iraq has endured decades of sanctions, war, invasion, regime change and dysfunctional government. These span Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and crippling UN sanctions throughout the 1990s. Those difficult years gave way to the traumas of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath, which brought the insurgents of the Islamic State to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in 2014.

While governments form and collapse behind the blast walls of Baghdad’s Green Zone, life in the rest of the city has grown resilient to the disruptions of politics. Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to collective problems that politicians and state are failing to address.

Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy joined our Senior Iraq Adviser Maria Fantappie in the city in October and November 2018. Her images portray a people whose public spaces – main streets, coffee houses and marketplaces – bear the scars of all its upheavals. But they also communicate Iraqis’ ambition to overcome them and capture moments in their search for normalcy against enormous odds.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

It’s late October 2018, and the new prime minister is forming his government. He is promising meaningful reform to a dysfunctional political system. This change is hard to imagine, since political actors and rules of the game remain largely the same. The next ruling coalition is likely to be a “government of enemies”, one of our interlocutors tells us. But the streets of Baghdad feel distant and indifferent to the details of the struggle for power within Iraq’s narrow political elite.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Mutanabbi Street, named after a 10th-century Iraqi poet, is the heart of Baghdad’s book trade. Even at peaks of violence and political crisis, Fridays here have remained a melting pot for Iraqis of all backgrounds. Enjoying calmer hours on this Muslim day of prayer and rest, booksellers in the pedestrian zone mix with vendors of tea, songbirds, street food and antiques.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

For less than a dollar, anyone can buy a bird in Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street. The buyer then frees the bird, believing this will avert the evil eye of bad fortune and bring good luck to the bird’s liberator.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Iraqis born after 2000 have grown up in a city divided by checkpoints and the invisible walls erected by sectarian conflict. From northern Iraqi Kurdistan to southern Basra, whatever their sect or ethnicity, young people share similar grievances and seek rights as citizens. But political participation among young Iraqis is still overshadowed by a legacy of division and parochial politics.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Shahbander Coffeehouse in Mutanabbi Street reflects Iraq’s resilience. Open since 1917, the coffeehouse outlasted a deadly bombing in 2007 and has preserved many architectural features of old Baghdad. Despite the city’s volatility, its owners take pride in hosting several generations of established and aspiring intellectuals.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

An image of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most contentious figures in post-2003 politics, hangs on a Baghdad street corner. The Shiite cleric moves in and out of Green Zone politics. He led calls for the formation of a militia that fought against the U.S. occupation in 2004-2008. His Sa’iroun electoral list won 54 seats in the May 2018 elections, the largest number of seats of any party. The Sadrist movement has proved canny at capitalising on the changing moods of the Iraqi street.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A Friday morning walk in Mutanabbi Street.

1 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Inside the walls of the Green Zone where senior politicians operate, the formation of the latest government continues. On 2 October, Adel Abdul Mahdi was tasked with forming a cabinet. On 24 October, several technocrats were sworn in as new ministers and charged with important reforms. Yet the survival of this government, as with those that preceded it, still hinges on maintaining a balance of power between ethnic and religious groups and fragile coexistence between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq.

3 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Though widely underrepresented in government, women are a leading force in civil society. Initiatives here are trying to shape new policy agenda focused on society’s needs rather than the self-serving interests of politicians. But civic-minded activists and politicians remain disconnected, blocking the way for new figures and new ideas to be channelled into decision-making.

4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Baghdad’s millennials are the beating heart of citizen-led initiatives. Civil society has grown more vibrant as politicians fail to resolve the challenges affecting people’s daily lives, whether ending the economic crisis or preventing the rise of the Islamic State. Civil society groups are prioritising issues often neglected by politicians, including family law, ecology, urbanisation and archaeological conservation.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When we ask ordinary Iraqis about what they expect from the new government during informal conversations, their answers frequently highlight their continuing distrust of politics and politicians. People want reforms that have a direct, positive impact on their everyday lives.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 has reduced violence, but Iraqis still have to cope with an economic crisis aggravated by the fall of oil prices. Iraq remains completely dependent on oil revenues, which feed a bloated public sector. The private sector, far from rewarding independent business owners, remains an extension of the politicians’ patronage network.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A family prepares for an evening outing on the Tigris. In the summer of 2018, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which supply almost all of the country’s drinking and agricultural water, fell to the lowest levels in living memory. Water shortages provoked a series of riots in Basra during the summer heat in mid-2018. Iraqi officials blame Turkey and Iran for drawing off too much water from both rivers and their tributaries but still do not consider water management a policy priority.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The sun sets over the Tigris River running through Baghdad.