Iran-backed Iraqi military forces attacked the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk this week in response to the Kurdish referendum on independence.
Iraqi forces advanced into the disputed province on Monday. It took less than one day for them to capture Kirkuk. Kurdish officials claim the attackers were armed with US weapons. This clash, which pits two US-backed forces against each other, threatens to undermine the fight against ISIS.
The US has relied heavily on the Kurds and their resources in the fight against ISIS, but we also owe allegiance to the Iraqi government because we helped install it. We have also helped train both Iraqi and Peshmerga forces.
Republican Senator John McCain condemned Iraq’s “misuse” of American-made weapons against the Kurds, and has threatened “severe consequences” if it continues.
“The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight [ISIS] and secure itself from external threats – not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States,” said McCain.
Baghdad has described Monday’s advance as largely unopposed. Some elements of Kurdistan’s Patriotic Union Party (PUK) reportedly agreed to withdraw in coordination with Iraq forces. The ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) slammed the PUK for ‘betraying’ Kurdistan by surrendering positions.
Monday’s advance marks Iraq’s most decisive step yet to block the independence efforts of the Kurds, who have long governed a region of land in northern Iraq.
The Kurds responded to the attack by shutting down two oilfields in the region, but have reopened them following threats that Iraq would seize the fields. It remains unclear whether the Iraqi government will attempt to retake control of all of Kirkuk’s oilfields.
It’s all about the oil
A large percentage of Iraq’s oil is located in the area that would become “Kurdistan” should the Kurds gain independence. The Kurds have controlled this region since 2014 when the Iraqi army crumbled in the face of an Islamic State push.
Between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels of oil come out of this region every day. These exports are made possible with the help of Turkey, which for many years has supported Kurdistan’s oil and gas industry.
The Kurdish vote on independence has complicated things, but Kurdish oil exports are still critical to Turkey’s economy.
Always seeking opportunity, the Russians have involved themselves by seeking an energy deal with the Kurds. The pact is rumored to include a stake in the Kirkuk oil field, investment in the expansion of a key oil pipeline, and an investment in a natural gas pipeline from Kurdistan to Turkey and Europe.
Russia injects tricky dimensions into future negotiations, including peace negotiations in Syria. It also has a profound effect on Turkey, which sought energy cooperation with the Kurds as a way to break the grip Moscow had on its own energy supply.
The decision where to cast allegiance is huge for the Kurds, who may look to Russian assistance at the UNSC should Iraq or other powers try to impose sanctions on them (Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the Kurds with economic sanctions).
In return, cooperating with the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) gives the Kremlin leverage over Iran and Turkey both in the Kurdish question and in oil and gas exports.
In the meantime, you have Iran, which like Turkey worries that the referendum in Iraq could incite its own Kurdish population to follow suit. Iran has already responded to the referendum by shutting down flights and borders to the Kurds in Iraq. There are about 6.7 million Kurds in Iran.
Where does the US stand?
The failure to solve the “whose oil is it?” question in the Middle East has been devastating for the people of the region. “The United States should consider more active diplomacy on the resolution of the future of Kirkuk in hopes that persistence this time around might show better results than past efforts,” reports Newsweek.
President Trump has stated that the US will not take sides in a civil war between Iraq and the KRG. “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides,” said Trump. “We’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been there in the first place.”
Editor’s note: The Kurds have been the staunchest and most reliable allies in the region. I’m hoping they don’t get massacred by the Iraq/Turkey alliance, as the Saddam Hussein government would have done.