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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
Reconciling Iraq's Hard Realities
Reconciling Iraq's Hard Realities
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.

Reconciling Iraq's Hard Realities

In a Berlin speech to German and Dutch officers, diplomats and civilians, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann argues that any attempt to help Iraqis piece their country back together again needs to take into account local realities, the grander geopolitical picture, and especially regional powers Turkey and Iran.

One of the key challenges in talking about Iraq – or any place, really – is to connect the large with the small, the overall geostrategic picture with the minutiae of daily life, but also the optimistic vision of the way ahead with the hard, depressing realities imposed by local politics, economics and conflict that block the implementation of that vision.

I want to bridge that divide: to present you with the hard realities, but then to leave you with some hope – to combine in a way last night’s uplifting, forward-looking presentation by former Federal President Christian Wulff with the one by the International Organisation for Migration’s Dino Silipigni that gave us a realistic close-up view of the nitty gritty of fixing Iraq – of helping Iraqis to fix Iraq – through the example of community policing.

Western nations are a party to the conflict

First, we have to understand our own role as Western nations in Iraq. The international coalition to fight the Islamic State – Daesh – is by definition a party to an international armed conflict, a belligerent that is pursuing its own interests and objectives in Iraq and Syria. The coalition cannot be non-partisan. It has chosen sides by fighting Daesh.

Two, in fighting Daesh this coalition has favoured certain Iraqi actors over others. These have become allies. They each have their own agenda, which may not be the same as the coalition’s. For most Iraqi actors, Daesh is not their primary target but a secondary one – an obstacle that needs to be defeated on the way to what really matters: outcompeting their local or regional rivals. And also: a means to derive benefits from the international coalition.

Because of this, the Western fight against Daesh will have unintended consequences, namely the strengthening of its chosen allies against their competitors, whose grievances may be no less understandable and whose aims may be no less legitimate. In this way, the coalition may solve one problem – Daesh – while creating new ones. These could be even more dangerous to Western interests.

Allies are setting the agenda – their own

How does this happen? The coalition’s allies derive three sets of benefits from agreeing to sacrifice their men on behalf of this alliance. These are:

  1. Weapons and military skills. The question is: what will these be used for in addition to the fight against Daesh, and against whom? An example: it is clear that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani is deriving great benefit from its exposure to American military skills and training on American weaponry. It is already using these assets not just to fight Daesh but to push into areas taken from Daesh and emptying them of their Arab population. This is happening in officially named “disputed territories” to which Kurdish leaders have long laid claim and which they now see an opportunity to annex to the Kurdistan region. But unilateral moves will not solve this longstanding dispute.
  2. Credit in the form of political support and possibly political recognition. In northern Iraq, Barzani feels so emboldened by the coalition’s support that he has announced his intent to stage an independence referendum later this year. He is doing so even though the objective conditions for Kurdish independence are far from ripe. His calculation is that regardless of conditions this is the best time, because Western support, which is notoriously fickle, is currently solid, and is critical to obtaining wider international recognition. But Iran and Turkey oppose Kurdish independence, and have the means to sabotage it. Even riskier, Barzani is pushing for the referendum to be held in the disputed territories, such as Kirkuk; this could start a civil war.
  3. Reconstruction aid. The coalition’s allies can steer aid toward themselves and their allies and away from their rivals. This is a particularly salient problem in the KDP-dominated Ninewa Plain with its diverse population.

Perceptions matter

While the coalition may see itself as a nonpartisan actor in Iraq apart from the fight against Daesh, Iraqi actors don’t see it that way. They see the coalition as wholly partisan through its choice of local allies. What is worse, Western NGOs are not immune from being seen through this lens either. There is a long history of Middle East people’s perceptions of Western intervention as multi-pronged and sinister in intent. This may sound conspiratorial, but it has an empirical basis. Many people in the Middle East lump Western NGOs in with Western military intervention. Paradoxically, the “Common Effort” here in Berlin reinforces that notion. (But from our Western perspective, the “Common Effort” makes a lot of sense in terms of efficiency, and I’m not discouraging you from proceeding on this path!)

The power struggle between Turkey and Iran

The situation is compounded by a geostrategic power competition in Iraq between Iran and Turkey. To understand what is going on, we first have to understand what drives these two states.

Iran wants three main things in Iraq, in each case to counter a specific threat. It wants:

  1. An Iraq that is relatively weak and as pro-Iran as possible, a state that will not attack Iran (as it did in 1980).
  2. Strategic depth against a hostile Arab and Sunni world – another lesson it learned from the Iran-Iraq war.
  3. Maintaining its “forward defence” against Israel, its main enemy in the region. For this it uses Hizbollah as a deterrent against an Israeli attack. But a strategic asset such as Hizbollah is only as strong as the supply line that supports it, and since 2014 Iran has had an opportunity to forge land routes through Iraq to Syria to supplement its air channel. What happened in northern Iraq two days ago (when Iran-backed Shia militias for the first time pushed all the way to the Iraq-Syria border through predominantly Sunni tribal territory) is a stunning illustration of this.

Likewise, Turkey wants three main things:

  1. A strong Iraq that can act as a buffer against Iranian influence and also can control its northern border, where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) roams.
  2. Preserving its post-Ottoman economic influence in northern Iraq, especially the Mosul area.
  3. Defeating or at least containing the PKK in the absence of an Iraqi state able to do so.

Additionally, Turkey would like to be able to draw on Iraq’s energy wealth.

A better way forward

So what is the better way forward? First, we must recognise that while the members of the Western coalition to fight Daesh in Iraq have a relatively small footprint, they can do a disproportionate amount of harm, given their superior weapons, military skills, political weight, and reconstruction funds. As Dino pointed out last night, the first maxim should be to do no (further) harm. This means: only providing arms to local allies if there are strings attached: military assistance should be conditional on these allies’ use of weapons in the fight against Daesh only, and on military conduct consistent with international humanitarian law. In other words, no ethnic cleansing and associated destruction of entire villages, or forced removal of IDPs.

Beyond that I would say:

  1. If you can’t be non-partisan, you can still make every effort – and be seen to be making every effort – to be balanced and fair, to be “colour-blind”, especially in distribution of reconstruction funds and establishment of projects. For example, if you are going to help rebuild Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi villages in the Ninewa Plain, there should be a parallel effort to rebuild Arab villages, as well as Mosul, not to mention Falluja, which remains in ruins. Be aware of how Iraqis see you. You will face opposition by the local powers that be. You need to push back.
  2. Promote reconciliation between a broad range of actors, even in the absence of trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will trust be; indeed, trust may emerge long after the parties have established peace. Trust came decades after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia was signed, not leading up to it. But building trust is a critically important objective, and the foundations can start to be laid now through specific mutually beneficial agreements in the economic sphere, for example an oil revenue-sharing deal between Baghdad and Erbil.
  3. Help Iraqis help themselves and each other. Enable them rather than impose solutions.
  4. Involve youth in all these efforts, including in decision-making.

Is hope realistic?

In proceeding on this path, while we should not lose sight of the complexities of Iraq, we also cannot afford ourselves to lose hope. One source of hope is the remarkable resilience we find in Iraqis every day.

I’ll just cite one example. I have been part of efforts for the past nine years to build an intercommunal framework for debate in Kirkuk as a basis for improving governance and ultimately solving the tricky matter of its political status. Kirkuk is a contested region with a diverse ethnic population and rich in oil. When we first brought a number of Kirkukis together in Jordan from across the ethnic and political spectrum, they were barely able to speak to each other, even though they all knew each other from local politics. Through further workshops in Berlin, Beirut and Amsterdam, I had the pleasure to observe that over time they developed warm personal relationships. They still found themselves unable to meet as a group back in Kirkuk, however, mainly because external parties kept pulling at them in opposite directions and undermining any of their efforts to achieve local consensus. Yet their personal relationships have become the foundation for future cooperation on security, governance, and settling Kirkuk’s status.

So I want to end on that note of hope. The odds may sometimes appear overwhelming, but with a balanced approach and a good deal of goodwill, members of the Western coalition and other external actors can help establish an environment in which Iraqis can start addressing, and perhaps even solving, their own problems.