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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
Iraq Rebuild can Help Abate Sectarian Tension Across the Region
Iraq Rebuild can Help Abate Sectarian Tension Across the Region
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.

Iraq Rebuild can Help Abate Sectarian Tension Across the Region

Originally published in The Hill

Iran and Saudi Arabia are actively fighting one another in the media, through armed proxies, in cyberspace and with Western lobbyists. But in Iraq they should both see the case for détente.

When International Crisis Group recently asked officials and analysts from Saudi Arabia and Iran to list their key interests in Iraq, we discovered that Riyadh and Tehran may agree on more than either side realized.

As Iraq’s newly-elected parliament negotiates to form a government, Saudi Arabia and Iran should take that list as a starting point to support Baghdad — and advance their interests too. 

The United States, which has invested 15 years, hundreds of billions of dollars and nearly 5,000 soldiers' lives in the name of Iraqi stability, has a vital interest in encouraging this détente so that Iraq does not become a battleground for foreign interests yet again.

The moment to begin is now, because Saudi Arabia has recently returned to Iraq after 25 years of estranged relations. Riyadh reopened ties in order to roll back Iranian influence as part of their broader push throughout the Middle East.

As Iraq’s newly-elected parliament negotiates to form a government, Saudi Arabia and Iran should take that list as a starting point to support Baghdad — and advance their interests too.

Iraqis, however, warmed to the rapprochement out of a need and a desire to strengthen their longstanding relations with the Arab world and balance Iranian influence without, however, triggering a confrontation between the two sides.

Iraqis have family members across the border in Saudi Arabia. They share a language, a culture, a music and a history with cousins to the south. Their country also needs help — funds, capital, expertise — to rebuild devastated cities and a torn national fabric.

Yet, if Baghdad is to succeed rising above 15 years of conflict, Iraqis are keen that outside powers avoid the temptation to settle scores on Iraqi territory. 

Now might seem like an impossible moment to suggest Saudi Arabia and Iran cooperate. Tensions in the region are higher than at any point in recent memory, thanks to conflicts in Yemen and Syria, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and a Palestine seething over the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and the killings of unarmed protesters in Gaza.

Tehran and Riyadh are actively fighting one another in the media, through armed proxies, in cyberspace and with Western lobbyists. This supposed regional cold war is in fact quite close to a boil. 

But in Iraq they should both see the case for détente. Before all else, countries of the region share a desire to prevent another iteration of the Islamic State, al Qaeda or other forms of jihadism.

That means ensuring Iraq’s cycle of conflict doesn’t restart — and it especially means that Saudi Arabia and Iran can’t bring their disagreements to Baghdad, Najaf or Mosul.

In addition, Iran and Saudi Arabia believe strongly in Iraq’s territorial integrity. Both sides urged the Kurdish regional government against a September 2017 independence referendum and saw its outcome as illegitimate. In its aftermath, they have urged Kurds in Iraq to find political solutions to their concerns with Baghdad.

Iraq’s struggling economy offers more space for accommodation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reconstruction is vital to maintaining calm in stressed provinces where opportunity and jobs are few. With needs estimated to total $88 billion, there are more than enough reconstruction projects and industries for regional donors and partners to find a niche.

With these common interests, some in Iran see Saudi Arabia’s re-engagement with Iraq as a net gain. Yet, an even more powerful reason has to do with sectarianism, the devilishly entrenched narrative that has written itself onto regional strife.

Both Riyadh and Tehran bear some responsibility, but cooler heads in both capitals now realize how dangerous and out of control it has become.

The potential to rewrite that story begins in Saudi Arabia. Both in domestic public appearances and in his tours of Western capitals, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has promised to moderate Islam in his kingdom.

Acting just at home, MbS could deal sectarianism a blow. If he goes beyond rhetoric and actively curbs intolerance, takes defamatory rhetoric off the airwaves and improves the lives of Saudi Arabia’s own beleaguered Shiite community, extremist arguments could start to lose their potency. 

But Iraq offers yet another theatre to unwind regional sectarian narratives because it is host to the center of Arab Shiism, the Holy City of Najaf. Senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani is both the spiritual and civic guide to Shiite communities across the region. He is revered across confessional lines in Iraq for being staunchly anti-sectarian and refraining from overt politics.

Saudi policymakers working on Iraq say they know their relationship with Shiite communities is broken, so they are re-engaging there first and foremost. Saudi officials have formed strong personal relationships with Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi and the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, whose electoral coalition won a plurality of votes this month.

Sadr has refused to meet American officials. But he went to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in 2017 with a stack of proposals about how the Gulf can come back to Iraq and win the trust of Shiites.

Just days after the meeting between Sadr and MbS, Saudi Arabia requested permission from the Iraqi government to open a consulate in Najaf. The proposed mission would improve lives for Shiites in both countries, allowing them to travel back and forth for pilgrimages in Mecca and Najaf.

Saudis readily admit it was their mistake not to engage with Iraq sooner.

Some in Iran view Saudi outreach to Iraqi Shiites as both threatening and deeply insulting. It’s true that Riyadh has a monumental task ahead in rebuilding the trust of a community that its clerics have long defamed as infidels.

But here’s a chance to liberate Iraqis — and maybe others too — from the identity war that regional politics have stamped upon their lives. During a visit to Najaf earlier this year, I was surprised to find enthusiasm from clerics about a Saudi return.

Saudis readily admit it was their mistake not to engage with Iraq sooner. Today, they are back, and with a bit of humility. “It’s our fault” that Iraq turned toward Iran, a Saudi royal family member said. “We left a vacuum.” 

Riyadh will need to foster that humility in the coming weeks and months. Iraq’s election results were a transparent reflection of a national ambivalence, torn between optimism at defeating ISIS and the scepticism bred during years of war.

That cynical side saw many stay home from the polls, sure that nothing about Iraq’s corrupt political system would change. Defiantly optimistic voters cast ballots, including for Sadr and his coalition with Iraq’s Communists that devoted their campaign to anti-graft.

As negotiations start now to form a coalition government, expectations are both high and low again. Perhaps their new government will attract investment for reconstruction, fight corruption and even become a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Even gains at the margins of these issues would help. As one Iraqi security analyst put it, “Iraqis have learned to take deep breaths.”