It began with arming the Iraqi Kurds. The September 25 non-binding referendum on Kurdistan did not help and should never have happened. Both are signs of the continuing bankruptcy of US and coalition diplomacy in the Middle East.
Of course, destroying Islamic State (ISIL) was and continues to be the coalition priority and that of almost every regional power. The Kurdish army known as the Peshmerga was available and willing to take on ISIL in Iraq and Syria. With US, EU and Canadian advisors on the ground, its wasn’t long until the Peshmerga began achieving results where the Iraqi army had failed miserably. Everyone remembers the pathetic images of the uncoordinated retreat of the Iraqi army from Mosul in summer of 2014 leaving hundreds of armored vehicles and other arms in the hands of ISIL fighters. The Western coalition would need to rearm the Iraqi army since most of the captured equipment originated from the coalition warehouses and coffers.
So, the coalition was now arming both the Iraqi government forces and the Kurds in northern Iraq at the same time. Not for once thinking that these two forces would one day be fighting against each other once ISIL’s case had been more or less solved. As if Western diplomats were unaware that Bagdad and the northern Kurds were already fighting over the ownership and management of the oil fields including control of the city of Kirkuk, the new Eastern Jerusalem for the native Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians all of whom have competing and legitimate historical and cultural claims.
Coalition and Peshmerga forces retook Mosul in July 2017. Now the Syrian prize of Raqqa is in the hands of the YPG Kurdish forces. The military game plan is working perfectly. Too bad the political and diplomatic strategy did not follow. So, the Iraqis headed by Prime Minister al-Abadi took things into their own hands in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and retook it as Peshmerga forces melted away much to the chagrin of their chief Barzani in Erbil.
The importance of Kirkuk to all the parties should not be underestimated and it was highlighted by the anger set off after the Kurdish referendum. For the parties, Kirkuk is their political and cultural capital just like Jerusalem is for the Jews, Arabs and Christians. The Turks are anxious to hold influence there because of the presence of the Turkmen ethnicity and the oil pipeline that passes through Kirkuk to the west. The Sunni Arabs are also a party as are the Kurds who view Kirkuk as their natural capital. Control over the city is capital and the recent Iraqi incursion has demonstrated the divisions in the Kurdish camp.
One can make a case for arming the Kurds to rid the region of ISIL. It is also understandable that the coalition needs a stable Iraqi central government with a well-equipped army to defend it from ISIL and possible Iranian pressure and infiltration. Muqtada al-Sadr’s popular force of Shia activists and militia is still in play and represents a factor of instability in Bagdad.
Kurdish Referendum on Independence
However, the next step is unforgiveable. It stands as a blunder of major proportions, a trigger that will ignite the region. On September 25, the Iraqi Kurds held a non-binding referendum on independence, which passed easily. None of the regional powers recognized its validity. No one thought to advise President Barzani against this course of action which puts the Iraqi government on notice that Kurdish independence is only a question of time. The coalition did nothing to prevent this and, in doing nothing diplomatically, the result was a fresh outbreak of violence in Kirkuk this week between the Kurds on one side and the Iraqi forces supported by the ethnic Turkmen and Arabs on the other.
It was a no-brainer. Arming the Peshmerga would inevitably alienate the central government in Bagdad. In the aftermath of yet another American brainchild idea like invasion of Iraq as payment to Al Qaeda, Iraq had become an uneasy federation of three groups – the emerging Kurds in the north, the resurgent Sunni tribes in the middle and the dominant Shia majority in the south. The Shia dominated government was already angry with the autonomous Kurds over the question of oil, a good quantity of which is located in the north, and the management of that resource. Arming the Peshmerga while essential to reduce ISIL’s power and territory has also laid the basis for an armed conflict between Bagdad and the Kurds
Barzani’s September 25th referendum simply put salt into what was already an open wound.
The retaking of Kirkuk by Iraqi government forces was the result.
The Kurds have apparently learned nothing from the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which ignited the hope for a Kurdish trans-national homeland. Without a regional champion, and given the resurgence of the Turkish state from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the Kurds dream fell on hard times. Although the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave them new hope, the lack of a regional champion coupled with a divided Kurdish movement along ideological, generational and tribal lines remains the major stumbling block. The coalition arming of the Peshmerga has simply upped the ante, divided further Iraq and weakened its stability and made a dangerous region even more fraught with violence. In return, the coalition has been able to tighten the noose around ISIL at the cost of Kurdish blood. For the Kurd, there will be no prize other than the relative peace they have been able to establish in the north at Erbil. The long-suffering Kurdish people are still far from their historic destination.
The Turks are clearly concerned about the coalition arming of the Kurds and the recent coalition victory in Raqqa. Both are warning signs for the Turkish authorities who, like other regional states, were extremely critical of the Kurdish referendum arguing that it has no validity. The fact that it was ‘non-binding’ was a convenient ploy to prevent concerns. It did not fool the Turks or the Iraqi government in Bagdad. Although the Turks are in a war against the military wing of a section of the Turkish Kurds (PKK), the Turks play a shrewd game by working with Barzani and Erbil while opposing any effort to create a trans-national Kurdish state. Much of Erbil’s infrastructure is a result of Turkish construction companies with contracts as lucrative as their back shish to the Barzani family. As such, the Turkish government is largely supportive of Iraqi government military action to curb Kurdish independence such as the dispatch of Iraqi forces to Kirkuk. The Turks are supportive of their Turkmen brethren in Kirkuk and would be loath to have control of the city fall into Kurdish hands. Another consideration for both Kurds and Turks is the oil pipeline that flows through the oil fields of Kirkuk and ends at Ceylan in southern Turkey. Economic considerations are also paramount in determining the Turkish strategy vis-a-vis the different Kurdish factions.
Enter Turkey’s Euphrates operation number two aimed at securing the Idlib pocket on the eve of the Kurdish victory in Raqqa. Supposedly, the Idlib pocket operation was agreed to by the Iranians and Russians at Astana. It makes perfect sense from a Turkish security perspective and sends a warning to YPG Kurdish forces in Raqqa not to approach the Turkish border. In Syria, the coalition refused to arm any moderate factions of the Syrian rebels with the result that a) many were co-opted into extremist Islamist battalions and b) Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen have been able to hold onto power. Yet, in Iraq, coalition thinking was radically different albeit still illogical and politically naïve. In Iraq, both sides were armed and now we have resumed fighting in both countries.
The Trump Factor
The continued bankruptcy of American and coalition diplomacy is mainly due to the current sitting President in the White House. Active diplomacy and not the art of the deal is required in the Middle East and Barzani should have been warned about the consequences of holding his referendum. Yet, there was no diplomatic or formal mise en garde.
Let me explain why. When the US President is Donald Trump, foreign policy suffers from a lack of knowledge, insight and vision but more importantly a lack of vigor. Diplomats carry out routine tasks but do not believe in what they are doing. There is no initiative since diplomats do not know what policy the White House is following from one day to the next. There is no policy, there is only deal making or deal ruining. Such is Trump’s vision for foreign policy. Knowledge, history, culture, ethnicity etc. are of no intrinsic value when it comes to promoting US strategic interests and values abroad.
The entire US diplomatic effort is being sapped by a weak and incoherent foreign policy. One has only to take note of Senator John McCain’s cogent critique of Trump’s incoherence. With the legislative and executive branches at odds over foreign policy, Obama’s destructive policy of ‘leading from behind’ has given way to Trump’s ‘not leading at all’ in the Middle East. In the presence of a diplomatic vacuum, military considerations take precedence over political issues. The destruction of ISIL is surely important but the way in which it is done will determine whether the victory will be sustainable over time. In the case of Iraq, the diplomatic inaction and precedence of military considerations has resulted in igniting a crisis threatening the entire region. The results are similar to ‘leading from behind’ – disruption, chaos and social and political disorder.
Trump’s art of the deal may not work the same way in North America as it does in the Middle East. For example, in the NAFTA negotiations, one can always attempt to create an adversarial relationship between Mexico and Canada with the lure of a sweet heart bilateral deal for one of them to the detriment of the other party. Perhaps one of the parties will be silly enough to imagine that a bilateral deal with the United States may be better. In the Middle East, a flippant nature like that of a Donald Trump can only result in bloodshed and severe long lasting regional trauma. As if the Americans had learned nothing from their first Iraqi carnage.
In the end, Trump may be worse for Iraq and the Middle East than anything George Bush and the neo-conservatives had thought up.
*Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.