As expected, Iraq has now declared war on Kurdistan with the stated war goal of seizing control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the state of Iraq has been divided into a self-ruling Kurdish territory in the North, which has at least technically remained part of Iraq, and the Shiite-dominated Arab bulk, with occasional flare-ups of Sunni Arab insurgency, most notably in the form of ISIS, which still controls parts of Northern Iraq.
Under the influence of the USA, these two parts of Iraq — the Shiite and the Kurdish — have peacefully coexisted in what was an awkward compromise, aimed at maximizing oil profits and minimizing geopolitical problems caused by the long-suppressed Kurdish push for independence and the fact that America had unwittingly created an Iraqi state that felt a strong affinity for Iran.
In recent days, however, this status quo has rapidly eroded, with the ebbing of the threat of ISIS, which lost control of Mosul earlier this year and has faced further setbacks, and a recent referendum on full Kurdish independence that produced an inevitable “Yes” result.
These events have emboldened both the Shiite Iraqis and the Kurds. Also, in neighbouring Syria, the US-supported Kurdish forces have now successfully taken over the former ISIS capital of Raqqah, with ISIS forces agreeing to be bussed out to ISIS territory further east.
Another key factor in the present conflict was the recent eradication of a pocket of ISIS-controlled territory south of Kirkuk that effectively served as a buffer zone between Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Now, with Iraqi forces close to Kirkuk and bolstered by their recent victory over ISIS, the temptation to seize Kirkuk has become too strong.
But the Kurdish forces must not be underestimated. In recent years a lucrative oil deal with Exxon has given them ample resources to arm and equip their forces with modern weapons, including large numbers of tanks. Also, questions remain over what role Iraq’s Sunni Muslims will play in this conflict. Could the Kurds even find common cause with ISIS in their present struggle? That is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.
But whichever way this plays out, it looks like a definite lose-lose situation for the US.
Formerly America tried to ally with Sunni Arab elements in Syria — cue those famous pictures of “Mad Dog” McCain with the top brass of ISIS — but ISIS’s colourful PR activities essentially made this option toxic, forcing Uncle Sam to rely increasingly on the Kurds as their main allies and proxies in Syria, while also tacitly supporting them in Iraq.
This basically means that if the Kurds lose in Iraq, American power and prestige in the region takes a hefty hit. But even if the Kurds succeed, America still loses. This is because this would only strengthen the “Shiite alliance” of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where President Assad is now clearly dominant, while also pushing former US ally Turkey onto their side. In a weird mirror image of Spanish and EU attitudes to Catalan independence, these countries have extremely strong vested interests in continuing to make Kurdish independence as uncomfortable as possible.
Also, if the Kurds ally with Sunni Arabs, which, given the forces arrayed against them on the ground, is quite a possibility, this will effectively see US allies lining up with ISIS, something that foreign policy wonks and a bloviating President will have a hard time explaining to Joe Public.
America, it seems, is not well equipped to do realpolitik anymore.