Author: Irina KHALTURINA
The balance of power in the Middle East changed substantially in October when two main news hit the headlines: Islamic State is failing by continuously losing its positions and the operations of the Iraqi army against the Kurds raise difficult questions about regional perspectives. Possible answers to these questions are extremely disappointing, as regional situation in the near future is not encouraging.
Officially, units of Iraqi army, supported by al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF) mostly formed of Shi'ite militia, overthrew the Kurds in territories occupied since summer 2014 outside the so-called Iraqi Kurdistan. In particular, the Kurds ceded control of the oil-rich Kirkuk, then Sinjar, areas around Mosul, including the most powerful barrage in Iraq on the Tigris River, as well as the border crossings between Syria and Turkey.
The Iraqi army, which had remained hesitant in confronting the IS militants, demonstrated a surprisingly well-coordinated and rapid advancement tactics. On the contrary, detachments of Peshmerga known for their longstanding successful confrontation with IS, have reportedly evaded the battles at all retreating to Erbil. Why did the Kurds, who were insisting on the independence just a few days ago, suddenly decide to retreat? Why did they deliver oil money of Kirkuk and Mosul over to Iraqi authorities risking their own image?
Allegedly, the main reason is a split in the ranks of the Kurds - between President Masoud Barzani (Democratic Party of Kurdistan, DPK), who has initiated the referendum, and the Talabani clan of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In fact, DPK controls the northern and central parts of the region from Erbil, while PUK oversees the southern region from Sulaymaniyah. Supporters of Barzani argue that PUK has conspired with Iraqi authorities.
For some reason, only a few media outlets report that Iran, or Iran’s proxies, as claimed by American media and think tanks, is aggressively supporting the Iraqi campaign against the Kurds. Tehran's interest in pacifying Kurds is obvious, as the Kurdish issue challenges Iran, albeit less seriously as Turkey, and because of the close ties of Kurdish authorities with Israel and the U.S. According to some reports, the deal with the Talabani clan was signed by the representatives of al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, strongly influenced by Iran and often referred to as running dogs of the latter. Interestingly, The National Interest’s report published in 2016 indicates that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) provides varying degrees of support to approximately 80% of 100,000 fighters of PMF. It turns out that Tehran has more interests and influence in the ongoing events in the north of Iraq than Baghdad.
Meanwhile, PUK claims that it was Barzani who surrendered Kirkuk after negotiations with Turkish President R. T. Erdogan, as he was afraid of freezing oil transit through Turkey. In fact, Erdogan accused Masoud Barzani of treason because of his decision to hold a referendum. Either way, the role of Barzani in ongoing events raises many questions. There were speculations that he has initiated a referendum on independence not so much because of patriotic hopes, but rather wishing to strengthen his own power. It is clear that without guarantees from stronger players in the region, he could not do this. Hence the conclusion: Barzani was either “fooled” or the players use increasingly sophisticated methods to achieve their goals, subterfuge that is.
The latter is evidenced indirectly by the fact that both the U.S. and Israel, which have a strong influence on the Kurds, apparently lost this round of game. After all, it is hard to believe that they have simple-mindedly let Iran and Hezbollah to strengthen their positions in the region. Incidentally, Washington remained emphatically neutral during the Iraqi campaign against the Kurds, urging the parties to avoid escalation and focus on the fight against terrorism. However, the course of ongoing events may well be in line with an intricate plan, which envisages a probable conflict between the countries of the West and Iran, and includes the same rhetoric of the Obama administration about the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic. Can we take a risk of a new war between Israel and Hezbollah for granted?
On the other hand, an even stranger situation develops around the oil fields of Kirkuk. Recently, the Russian oil-giant Rosneft reported about multi-billion contracts secured with Erbil to develop five oil blocks in Kurdistan and the acquisition of a stake in autonomy’s main oil pipeline. In fact, the Kurds may conclude deals without reporting to Baghdad, but only on the territory of the autonomy. As Kirkuk is not part of this territory, hence the military campaign of Iraqi army and al-Hashd al-Sha’abi launched recently. According to Iraqi oil minister, Jabbar Luaiby, concluding oil deals without the knowledge of Iraqi federal authorities “is a blatant interference in Iraqi internal affairs and a violation of its national sovereignty and a clear violation of international norms.” It is hard to believe that Russia was unaware of the planned military campaign against Kirkuk given its close ties in this region with Iran. By the way, Moscow ignored Baghdad’s statement, advising Iraqi authorities and the Kurds to solve their issues internally. Similarly, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia was ready “for full-scale return to Iraq and working together with Baghdad to ensure the security of its companies.” As advised by Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin, negotiations between Baghdad and Erdebil are likely to start soon or ongoing already. The regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan invited the government of Iraq to ceasefire and dialogue, expressing its readiness to freeze the results of the referendum. So, perhaps, the experts were right claiming that the whole idea of the referendum was to establish the status of Kirkuk. The only question is who will control the Kurds.
The Kurdish factor has become a prominent issue in neighboring Syria as well. The world media are mass reporting about the defeats of ISIS. The strongholds of terrorists are falling one after another: Mosul in Iraq, Tal Afar, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa in Syria. Terrorists have lost more than half of the monitored territories. Colonel Ryan Dillon, the official representative of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, said that the inflow of foreign militants in IS has virtually ceased. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu believes that the operation against terrorists in Syria is ending.
It all means that at least some political involvement will be required soon to reconcile the situation on the war-torn parts of Syria. It is no surprise that the neighboring Turkey is trying to minimize possible risks associated with the potential separation of “Syrian Kurdistan”. But, similar to situation in Iraq, the Syrian Kurds are an excellent coercive leverage over major regional players. Hence the efforts of the U.S. to reconcile Ankara, which reportedly “coordinates its actions” in Syria with Moscow and Tehran. Recently, the Turkish media has reacted touchingly to posters bearing the images of Abdullah Ocalan during a victory parade in Raqqa, which was liberated from ISIS by Arab and Kurdish detachments. Equally sensitive were the Arab fighters and civilians.
As a result, the Turks, taught by bitter experience, entered the Syrian province of Idlib heading towards the mountainous Sheikh Barakat area, which is a perfect spot to control the territory of the rebels loyal to Turkey, and the Kurdish canton of Afrin in Aleppo held by YPG. The Turks are trying to prevent the unification of territories controlled by the Kurds. Reportedly, the Turkish army will create 8 military bases and 14 observation points in Idlib. According to Turkish officials, these actions are in line with the terms of the Astana agreement reached with Russia and Iran to end the clashes between the rebels and the Syrian government. In other words, Moscow and Tehran approve Ankara’s actions. But do the U.S. approve them?
Either way, the biggest question is the future of the oppressed ISIS militants. Will they be able to regroup and strike back? Or, will they gradually dissolve among the law-abiding citizens? Are they returning to their countries of origin? Will they be pushed into other regions, and if so, where? Hence, it is worth recalling the history of Al-Qaeda and the birth of the Islamic State in the region. Well-equipped and specialized in urban warfare and marketing through the social networks, the militants have been able to capture the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and Fallujah swiftly and violently, watching how the Iraqi soldiers and bankers were fleeing, leaving heaps of weapons and gold bars behind. We also remember the aftermath of civil clashes for democratic reforms in Syria, which turned into a bloody and endless conflict of all against all. Therefore, it is possible to foresee the future of ISIS, which instead of disappearing may well transformed into something new. And this is the main danger for the countries of the Middle East.
Alas, the first two decades of the 21st century are as full of contradictions, betrayals, bargains, interfaith and ethnic enmity as all the preceding history of the Middle East. The current borders of Syria and Iraq were determined by the West based on its own perception of the global division, rather than a desire to ensure the justice and welfare of regional nations, which means the remaking of history is far from over. That is why the territories of Syria and Iraq are not states per se. Rather they represent the zones of interests, a combat range, or modern colonies. A vacuum of power will contribute constantly to new regional conflicts.