The risks that come with Kirkuk
These are tense days for Turkey in foreign affairs. As Ankara continues to reel from the United States’ recent ban on issuing visas within Turkey, critical developments are also taking place beyond our southern border.
In Syria, despite Ankara’s objections the U.S. has raised a flag in Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in cooperation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian extension Democratic Union Party (PYD), recently captured Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after fighting for the past four months.
Meanwhile, important changes have also been made in the map of our neighbor Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been in the international spotlight since it conducted an independence referendum on Sept. 25, has had to withdraw from Kirkuk and other locations where it settled after the Iraqi army’s retreat from the ISIL insurgency in 2014.
Kirkuk and its oil reservoirs could have been used as a capital resource for a possible independent Kurdish state, but they are now under the control of Iraqi national forces, cooperating with the Hashd al-Shaabi militia supported by Iran.
Armed conflict highly likely
As preliminary reports regarding the Iraqi central army’s approach to Kirkuk came in, it was commonly believed that the withdrawal of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was a result of an agreement between its rival Jalal Talabani-led Patriots Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Baghdad.
Another claim is that the KDP and PUK withdrew in alliance. According to this view, Barzani’s Peshmerga appeared to remain as the PUK withdrew only because the decision took a while to reach the front line.
But whatever the truth, the KRG has now gone back to within its borders, as decided by the 2005 Iraqi Constitution and as continued until 2014.
There have been no presidential elections in the KRG since 2009. Barzani’s term, which officially ended in 2013, has been extended twice. An economic crisis, together with this territorial loss and the interrupted democratization process, could worsen tensions between Kurds. An armed conflict between Iraqi Kurdish groups is also highly possible. A conflict environment could provide another opportunity for ISIL, which continues to maintain a presence in rural areas.
Increasing Iranian influence
Iran has been cited as the main actor in the operation to recapture oil-rich Kirkuk. Qasem Soleimani, the top general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is believed to have helped the militia with its Kirkuk strategy.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who harbors animosity towards Tehran, has said Washington is nevertheless “not rooting for any sides,” putting the U.S. somewhat on the same side with Iran as the Iranian-trained militia proceeded into Kirkuk with the Iraqi army.
This move is interpreted like this:
Indeed, the U.S. government has secretly supported the Kirkuk operation. Its aim is to support Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi because it sees him as a figure who can make sure Iraq remains a united state, despite the approaching election season and sectarian conflict. The U.S. also sees al-Abadi as a useful balance against Iran’s growing presence in the region.
As Iran’s arms reach into Kirkuk, these developments must also concern Ankara because of Turkey’s role as regional player and because of the Turkmen population in the affected areas.
Like Iraq and Iran, Turkey opposes Kurdish independence. In the event of the establishment of a Kurdish state, a serious problem could arise at the Bashiqa base near Mosul, where Turkish soldiers are posted.
Bashiqa has been under the control of the Hashd al-Shaabi ever since the KRG lost its presence there. Baghdad once demanded that Turkish soldiers be removed from the base, but the military presence continued, enjoying some support from Barzani. Now the Iraqi government could push even harder for the soldiers to pull back.
Another risk is posed by the Hashd al-Shaabi presence in the Bashiqa region. The group has threatened Turkey in the past, vowing to “fight Turkey if necessary.”
In every situation, each new step brings about a new risk. The Iraqi Kurds’ recent independence bid has only complicated the politics of the region. Although some of the dangers are predictable, others are not.