Friday, November 3, 2017

Further Military Escalation Remains Likely in Iraqi Kurdistan

Jennifer Cafarella and Omer Kassim

America’s Ambassador to Iraq is attempting to restart negotiations between Iraq’s Kurds and the Iraqi Government. The U.S. is hoping the resignation of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani on November 1, 2017 will incentivize the Iraqi Government to accept a compromise with Iraq’s Kurds. Masoud Barzani was the driving force behind the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25th, which provoked the ongoing retaliation by the Iraqi Government and Iran. The US state department is attempting to unite Iraq’s Kurds behind the region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy Qubad Talabani in order to resolve the dispute with Baghdad ahead of the 2018 elections. U.S ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman met with them in Arbil on November 2nd. He relayed the US position that the long term stability of Iraqi Kurdistan depends on a unified and federal Iraq, and that the two sides must find a “peaceful resolution of disputes under the Iraqi constitution.”

Iraq’s Kurds have thus farrefused to negotiate on Baghdad’s terms. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi demanded the handover of the Fishkhabur and Ibrahim Khalil border crossings on October 26th. The Kurds instead continue to appeal for a ceasefire and return to political negotiations. Barzani’s resignation does not appear to have seriously changed Kurdish calculus.The KRG reiterated its appeal for “constructive and genuine negotiations to reach a comprehensive agreement” on November 1st after the Iraqi Government rejected a Kurdish proposal for the U.S. – led anti-ISIS coalition to deploy observers to the Fishkhabur area in order to enforce joint Iraqi Government-Peshmerga control. The KRG also called for joint control over disputed territories until their final status is determined through a three step process outlined in article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.[1]

Iraq and Iran’s proxies are poised to take new military action against Iraqi Kurdistan if the US diplomatic effort fails,as ISW initially warned on October 30th. The combined force positioned near the Fishkhabur crossing include elements of the 15th Iraqi Army division, the Emergency Response Division (ERD) and a considerable deployment of Iranian proxies including forces from three brigades of the Badr Organization as well as units from Asai’b Ahl al Haq, Katai’b Sayyid al Shuhada, and Harakat al-Nujaba. Iranian proxy leaders are coordinating with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) commanders and may even direct the military operation. 

[1] Article 140 calls for 1) rectifying the demographic changes that took place in disputed territories; 2) conducting a census; 3) holding referendum on whether to integrate these territories into Iraqi Kurdistan.