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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.

Barham Salih, Iraq's President meets with Nobel Peace Prize laureate,Yazidi activist Nadia Murad at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A Way Forward for Sinjar

Sinjar, the Iraqi district that was the site of the Yazidi genocide in 2014, still carries the wounds of that horrible time. But today a confluence of national and international interests holds the promise to revitalise the area and deliver it to local governance.

Sinjar, on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, is still recovering from the trauma of occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, the jihadists seized the district, targeting its Yazidi majority in a genocidal campaign of killing, rape, abduction and enslavement. Now an opportunity has arisen to steer the area toward a safer future.

Both Iraq and its autonomous Kurdish region have formed new governments that seem ready to resume talks about the status of Iraq’s disputed territories. These are fourteen administrative districts – of which Sinjar is one – nominally controlled by Baghdad but claimed by the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. A new UN special representative for Iraq has brought fresh momentum to the task of resolving the disputed territories’ status. Meanwhile, Nadia Murad, a UN Good-will Ambassador who survived the Yazidi genocide, has won the Nobel Peace Prize, attracting renewed international attention to Sinjar in particular. The new government and the UN should jump at this chance to work with Yazidi leaders to rebuild Sinjar as an example for all Iraq.

Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar.

A Region Yet to Recover

Sinjar became the scene of atrocities in August 2014, when ISIS militants murdered and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, driving tens of thousands more to flee their homes in terror. ISIS is gone; Iraqi and Kurdish forces finished retaking the district in mid-2017. But many of the Yazidi displaced remain huddled in makeshift shelters in the nearby Dohuk province, unable to return due to insecurity and the stagnant economy. Since 2003 a succession of outsiders – first Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), then ISIS, then factions affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), then the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (the militias that presently patrol Sinjar) – have controlled the district or parts thereof, pushing the population to take up arms and dividing local elites.

In a February 2018 report, Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar. We called on Baghdad to mediate between factions and restore local governance, in order to allow the displaced to return, lay the groundwork for reconstruction and end foreign interference. We urged the federal government to merge competing militias into a unified police force and open administrative jobs to skilled locals regardless of which outsiders they had aligned themselves with before.

Ten months later, Sinjar is scarcely better off. Both the federal and Kurdish regional governments have been busy with elections in 2018, and neither has paid due attention to Sinjar’s challenges, which they may deem minor. In May, Baghdad tasked the National Reconciliation Committee, a government body with a mandate to facilitate inter-communal peace, with formulating a roadmap for reinstituting governance in Sinjar. The Committee’s thirteen-point plan includes, among other provisions, calls to restore security, as well as basic health care, education and agriculture, to enable the uprooted to return. In late October, Baghdad and Erbil tried to reach a deal on the return of Sinjar’s local councils to the district. As yet, however, there is no progress either in implementing the roadmap or in bringing back the local councils. Sinjar remains dominated by the Popular Mobilisation Units. 

It is tempting to surmise that the area can regain its footing only if Yazidi politicians and military leaders free themselves from dependency on Iraqi, regional and international patrons. Local supervision of governance and security would encourage the displaced to come back to their homes and lands.

Confluence of Interests

Yet Baghdad and Erbil still have a role to play – and so do Iraq’s international partners.

Baghdad’s stake in stabilising Sinjar stems from its newly appointed government’s interest in engagement with Erbil. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the new prime minister, has long enjoyed strong relations with the Kurdish regional government. Cooperation with the Kurds could allow him to counterbalance the growing influence of Shiite factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Units. Barham Salih, the new president, likewise has expressed a desire to reaffirm Iraq’s commitment to accountability and reconciliation in the post-ISIS era, and in particular to address the disputed territories question as a way to strengthen his office. Sunni Arabs in Parliament belonging to the Islah bloc could profitably ally with the Kurds to press the Popular Mobilisation Units to withdraw from the disputed territories, home to their main constituencies. The yet-to-be-named defence minister, a post usually assigned to a Sunni Arab, might also back such an agreement, especially if he comes from Islah.

Key international players would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity.

For its part, Erbil wants to engage with Baghdad as a way to recoup its losses (in both autonomy and territory) after the September 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence. The KDP’s Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s architect, hopes to use senior party officials in ministerial positions in Baghdad to negotiate a settlement on outstanding issues, such as security and governance in the disputed territories, oil exports and revenue sharing. Competition between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could block a settlement, however, as government formation unfolds in Erbil. The KDP’s ambition for hegemony in Iraqi Kurdistan could push the PUK closer to Iran as a way to consolidate its position in Baghdad. A further breach in the KDP-PUK relationship, following a decade of close cooperation in both the Kurdish region and Baghdad, would complicate efforts to settle the disputed territories issue. Yet the two parties still have common interests there. This suggests that as long as the KDP’s engagement with Baghdad endures, it has an interest in working with the PUK to move toward a deal with the federal government on the disputed territories, including Sinjar.

Key international players – the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, U.S. and EU – would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity, enhancing the prime minister’s power and ensuring the government’s stability. Sympathy with the Yazidis’ plight makes Sinjar a strong entry point for renewed international diplomatic engagement in Iraq.

Recommendations

To capitalise on this confluence of interests, Yazidi leaders in Baghdad, the Kurdish region and Sinjar district, including Nadia Murad with her moral authority, should advocate that Sinjar become a model for addressing the disputed territories’ status. The Sinjar councils should commit to honouring the thirteen-point roadmap presented by Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee in May.

Yazidi leaders should take the following steps:

  • Agree on a new candidate for Sinjar district director (mayor), as a sign of Yazidi unity and Yazidi leaders’ commitment to help mediate political negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil;
  • Support the Yazidi members of the elected Sinjar district and sub-district councils until the next local elections. In the meantime, hammer out an agreement among all security actors deployed in Sinjar (Popular Mobilisation Units, Peshmerga and Yazidi militias) that would integrate their Yazidi fighters into the interior and defence ministries;
  • Support negotiation of a deal that would see the withdrawal of non-Yazidi militia commanders from civilian areas in Sinjar in exchange for the right (for now) to stay on the district’s border with Syria.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi should continue the work of his predecessor in tackling the Sinjar question through an agreement with Erbil, and step up efforts to reach a security arrangement in Sinjar that includes the Popular Mobilisation Units.

The Abdul-Mahdi government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Negotiate an agreement to integrate members of all irregular security forces in Sinjar into Federal Police units in charge of protecting Sinjar district and sub-districts, to be placed on the interior ministry payroll;
  • Integrate local Yazidi fighters deployed on the Syria border into Iraqi army battalions also stationed there, and transfer them to the defence ministry payroll to reduce smuggling and their fealty to non-Yazidi commanders;
  • Negotiate with Kurdish leaders the return of the Sinjar district council and sub-district councils to Sinjar, and secure joint commitment to the National Reconciliation Committee’s thirteen-point roadmap. 

The president of Iraq should continue public commitment to addressing the case of Sinjar, including by seeing through completion of the National Reconciliation Committee’s roadmap by an agreed-upon deadline.

The Kurdistan Regional Government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Continue negotiations with Baghdad on the return of the Sinjar council and sub-district councils to Sinjar in exchange for supporting the merger of KDP-affiliated Yazidi forces into local Federal Police units and deploying Peshmerga only up to the checkpoint before the shortest route home for Yazidis displaced in Dohuk;
  • Reopen the Dohuk-Sinjar road to allow Yazidi civilians free movement in and out of Sinjar and to enable the displaced to go home.
Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners.

Iran and Popular Mobilisation Unit officials should agree on merging the Units’ Yazidi fighters under the authority and on the payroll of the interior and defence ministries, and otherwise withdrawing from Sinjar, in exchange for allowing non-Yazidi commanders continued access to Sinjar’s border with Syria (with the proviso that, eventually, the Iraqi army will reacquire full control over the border).

The U.S., EU and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq should take the following steps:

  • Facilitate Baghdad-Erbil dialogue on a mutually acceptable security arrangement for Sinjar that would consist of merging Yazidi fighters belonging to various militias with federal forces;
  • Work with the Sinjar district council to start UN-sponsored and other reconstruction programs;
  • Assist the National Reconciliation Committee in carrying out its thirteen-point roadmap for Sinjar;
  • Prepare the ground for free local council elections in Sinjar, ensuring representation of all communities. 

The Sinjar District Council (once it has come back to the district) should facilitate the return of all displaced Sinjar residents, including non-Yazidis, to their homes. With the help of the Baghdad and Erbil governments, as well as the UN, it should establish a mechanism for reconciliation between Sinjar Arabs and Yazidis (as well as other minorities that suffered at the hands of ISIS).

The UN, working with the National Reconciliation Committee, should lead Sinjar’s reconstruction in a way that takes into account inter-communal tensions and the risks involved in favouring one community over another, or giving that perception.

Now’s the Time

Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners. The pain of ISIS depredations is etched in Yazidis’ collective memory, leaving survivors with feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Unable to obtain justice by institutional means, many feel an impulse for vengeance. But things need not go that way. The moment presents an opportunity for a concerted push by local leaders in Sinjar to make overdue administrative and security changes in the district with the help of both the federal and Kurdish regional governments. If they succeed, they could turn Sinjar into a model for addressing the wider disputed territories question that has long divided Baghdad and Erbil.

This possibility, combined with knowledge that the calculations in Baghdad and Erbil may change, should prompt rapid action. The time is now to chart a new way forward for Sinjar.