WASHINGTON — Two key American allies in the war on ISIS, the Iraqi military and the Kurdish peshmerga, have now turned their guns on one another — exactly one year from the day the two US-backed sides announced the start of their joint offensive to retake Mosul.
The sudden outbreak of fighting — which saw Iraqi forces and allied militia seizing the disputed city of Kirkuk from the Kurds — shows that even as the US insists that the war on ISIS remains the top priority, its two main partners on the ground have decided to move on.
"ISIS is a distraction," a Kurdish official told BuzzFeed News by phone from northern Iraq, where Kurdish leadership has been scrambling to address the crisis. "It has distracted the West for three years. It has distracted from the real problems in the country."
The success of the offensive to retake Mosul — the one-time Iraqi capital of ISIS's self-styled caliphate — relied on Iraqi and Kurdish cooperation. Brokering that cooperation between the two historical adversaries was a major success for the US officials who put together the battle plan. The early days of the offensive saw a rare moment of unity and goodwill between the two sides. As one Iraqi special forces convoy rolled north from Baghdad through peshmerga checkpoints, Iraqi soldiers cheerfully greeted the guards in basic Kurdish.
But the battle in Kirkuk shows an inherent flaw in US strategy, which is that in its push to roll back ISIS, it has failed to address Iraq’s deeply entrenched political disputes, which have long threatened to put the US’s two allies on a course to war. Absent a coherent political plan, ramped-up US military support for both may have helped to bring the conflict to a head.
“We chose a strategy that had a very large risk of producing exactly this outcome,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“The US arbitrarily decided in 2014 to focus exclusively on the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and to subordinate any other policy considerations,” she said. “We ignored the fact that our anti-ISIS strategy allowed, if not encouraged, a very large buildup of Iranian proxy capability in Iraq, which is now being used in Kirkuk. And we made pragmatic and tactical decisions about where to use Kurdish forces against ISIS which set conditions for the post-ISIS war that is now unfolding by bringing Kurdish forces into disputed territories.”
Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that instead of dealing with the difficult politics surrounding the war on ISIS, the US has preferred to focus on the military campaign.
“We love this war against ISIS. We’re winning it, we’re good at it, it doesn’t cost very much, and it ticks the boxes the president likes. So the whole machine of the US government really likes the simplicity,” he said. “Whereas all this other stuff is more complicated.”
The history of conflict between Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds — who control a semiautonomous region in the north — dates to the founding of the country, with the Kurds long pushing for independence and Iraqi forces often responding with brutal force. It reached a head under the Saddam Hussein regime, which targeted the Kurds with a campaign of genocide. Later, after the Persian Gulf War, the US imposed a no-fly zone that helped to protect the Kurds and allowed them space to carve out autonomy. The Kurds thrived after the US toppled Hussein, as violence with Baghdad ebbed. Until recently, disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad revolved around more pedestrian issues like oil revenues and military supplies.
Tensions ramped up considerably last month when the Kurds, emboldened by three years of US support against ISIS, carried out a referendum intended to set the stage for their eventual independence. Iraqi forces — backed by Shiite militia forces and tough rhetoric from Iran — had been threatening an incursion ever since. The fighting in Kirkuk represents the worst bout of bloodshed between the two sides since the fall of Hussein.
The Kurdish official found shades of the old days of Hussein’s Baathist regime in the scenes of Iraqi forces marching through the streets of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that has long been disputed between the two sides. “Iraq has declared war on us. It’s reminiscent of the Baathists — Iraqi tanks rolling into Kirkuk, images of Kurds killed inside the city,” he said. “And in the meanwhile the Americans are just watching this unfold."
He accused the US of abandoning the Kurds in the face of aggression by Iraqi forces and militia groups who act as Iranian proxies. "I feel betrayed by one of our closest friends — the US,” he said. “The question for the Americans really, and I hate to put it in such simplistic terms, is a choice between Kurdistan and Iran.”
The peshmerga took control of Kirkuk after the Iraqi military fled the city in the wake of its rout at the hands of ISIS in Mosul in June 2014. On Monday, Baghdad television stations showed Arab residents of Kirkuk celebrating the arrival of Iraqi government forces. “Finally we have been liberated, thank god,” one resident told the correspondent of a channel close to a Shiite militia.
And regime leaders in Iran hailed the Iraqi government offensive as a victory. “Today, the Kurdish forces' defeat foiled [Kurdish leader Masoud] Barzani's plots against the region,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, according to the Tasnim news agency. “Barzani's plan, which was also Israel's behind-the-scene plan, was to seize the oil wells in Kirkuk in favor of Israel.”
Despite reported involvement of forces loyal to Iran in the offensive, neither the US nor other major western powers indicated that they would take any action against Baghdad. US military officials declined to condemn the Iraqi offensive in public comments — and suggested that the US would stay out of the dispute between two key allies. Col. Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, even seemed to place the blame for the violence on the Kurds. “Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to defuse ongoing tensions and long-standing issues,” he told reporters in Washington. “We call on all actions in the region to focus on this common threat, and avoid stoking tensions among the Iraqi people.”
In a statement, the US Embassy in Baghdad expressed concern over the violence and implored both sides to keep the focus on ISIS: “ISIS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace.”
Though ISIS has lost its major territory in Iraq, it still maintains pockets of control in the country, while the threat from the militants remains in the form of terror attacks and insurgency. In Syria, ISIS has ceded control of Raqqa and other key strongholds but is planning a last stand based around the province of Deir el-Zour, on the border with Iraq.
The US wants its local allies to keep up the fight against ISIS, continuing to roll back its remaining territory and ensuring that the militants don’t find a foothold to mount a comeback. But as the Kurds and Iraqis alike have made clear — the former with their independence push and the latter with the Kirkuk invasion — both now see the other as the main enemy.
Despite US efforts to keep the focus on ISIS, in fact, other forces in the region have likewise shown that they, too, are preparing to move on — consolidating their positions in preparation for the end of the major phases of the US-backed ground war. In recent days, Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad violated the terms of deescalation deals to storm rebel-held quarters of eastern Damascus and Homs. Meanwhile, Turkish troops have moved into northern Syria’s Idlib province — in large part to prevent Syrian Kurds, the main US ally against ISIS in that country, from their own bid to expand the territory they have seized from ISIS and now seek to control.
Daragahi reported from Istanbul. Vera Bergengruen contributed from Washington.