The Iraqi government claims to now be in full control of Kirkuk after taking the city centre and surrounding areas. Hours ago, Iraqi forces re-established control over the main city administration building as Kurdish Peshmerga have begun a mass retreat.
Iraq’s position, which is in keeping with Iraqi and international laws, is that troops were sent in to re-establish formal control over a city that was previously occupied by ISIS, and since around 2014, has been partly in the hands of Kurdish militants and self-proclaimed political leaders. Crucially, Kirkuk falls outside of areas designated as autonomous Kurdish regions, even though the Kurdish regime in Erbil attempted to claim Kirkuk by placing it on the map of a would be Kurdish statelet, as part of the 25 September secession referendum. This provocative move was among Iraq’s gravest grievance against Erbil during the course of the referendum.
Earlier, Kurdish media released a statement from the Peshmerga stating that Iraq will pay a “heavy price” for what it described as a “flagrant declaration of war”. However, it is theoretically impossible for Iraq to declare war on forces whose very existence in Iraq is conditional upon the previously agreed autonomous status for Kurdish areas, in accordance with the 2005 Iraqi constitution. These areas and in the case of Kirkuk, an important city beyond, have been thrown into chaos due to the unilateral secessionist referendum which was boycotted by Arabs and Turkomen who overwhelmingly support Baghdad.
Prior to the 25 September referendum, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed levels of regional autonomy that are unique in the context not only of the Middle East, but of most of the world. Even many Kurdish sympathisers are beginning to blame Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani for overplaying his hand by holding a provocative referendum that was condemned by every major world and regional power with the notable exception of Israel.
With Peshmerga forces rapidly retreating and with no real chance for Israel to supply Iraqi Kurds without a massive military operation that would incur the wrath of the wider region, including and especially Turkey, the Kurds in Iraq are now effectively as materially isolated as Turkish President Erdogan warned that they would be, should they continue their provocative post-referendum stance.
The only other conceivable scenario is for the US to supply Iraqi Kurds from their bases in Iraq. This however would mean that the US would effectively be declaring war on Iraq. As I previously discussed, there is every possibility that the US is covertly hoping that a Kurdish insurrection in Iraq provokes a wider conflict that the ISIS insurgency would effectively draw Iran deeper into Iraq, making Iranian forces subject to attacks from US proxies or even US forces themselves. There is little doubt in my mind that such a scenario has already been put into action. However, today’s events mean that these scheme may have failed before it even had a chance to be fully realised.
Given how rapidly Iraqi troops have been advancing, taking seemingly all of Kirkuk after a surge which begun approximately 24 hours ago, even a superpower as brazen as the US is running out of options. This is especially true as the Turkish President has yet again reiterated his commitment to secure northern Iraq with the cooperation of Baghdad, a promise whose seriousness is only enhanced by the fact that recent reports have indicated the presence of PKK activity in Kurdish regions of Iraq.
Unless the US wars to destroy what remains of its relationship with Baghdad while also fighting both Turkey and Iran, there are fewer and fewer options for America’s would-be proxy war against Iran.
After years of division, Iraq is unifying around support for the operations in Kirkuk and so too is the region ever more united behind the legal Iraqi position. What’s more is that words like “war” and “aggression” and worse yet, talk of retaliation, is only coming out of Kurdish propaganda outlets. Iraq continues to calmly state that it is merely re-establishing control of an Iraqi city. Iraq’s Prime Minister has further stated that troops have been told not to fire upon Kurdish Peshmerga militants, although of course they have and apparently are exercising the right to fight back in instances when Peshmerga are not in full retreat.
As was the case in respect of the secession referendum, both Russia and the US have stated that they condemn all violence, but that both view the recent clashes as an unfortunate incident rather than a larger or more profound existential crisis. To put it another way, both the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US Department of State are being highly diplomatic. In Russia’s case, this is standard procedure. In respect of the United States, I personally suspect it is a matter of keeping one’s cards close to one’s chest.
The Kurdish regime in Erbil as well as its known and supine puppeteers have seemingly bitten off more than they can chew. Furthermore, with Peshmerga forces retreating en masse, reports from recent years, stating that the Peshmerga reached covert agreements with ISIS to relinquish control of certain parts of northern Iraq, rather than engaging one another on the battlefield, now seem eerily believable. In trying to create a clean break from Iraq, the Kurdish regime is instead airing some very dirty laundry, all while taking major steps back from its previously comfortable autonomous status quo which is now in jeopardy due to the actions of Masoud Barzani.