what is Kirkuk, and why is it in the news?
What just happened?
“It started,” writes Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State swept out of the Syrian desert and captured a huge swath of northern and western Iraq, rolling over the Iraqi Army in the process.” In the following days, ISIS tried to penetrate Iraq’s Kurdish region, but was turned back by Kurdistan’s regional army, the peshmerga – “those who face death” in the Kurdish language, who then took up the broader fight and became “the most effective fighters against ISIS, often earning the praise of American commanders,” according to Filkins, and it was this military campaign that “galvanized the Kurds’ determination to go forward with their plans for independence.”
On September 25th, Kurdistan did indeed go ahead and hold a referendum on its independence, despite threats from Iraq, Turkey, and Iran – and despite the US’s unwillingness to back the plan – and when more than 92% of Kurds voted in favor, “those same governments lined up to isolate the Kurds.”
According to Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet, Iraqi forces, which included “the US-trained Counter Terrorism Service and the Iranian-backed mainly Shi’ite Hashd al-Shaabi” along with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a militia that actually fought against Americans during our most recent Iraq war, began a coordinated attack early Monday morning and entered the city of Kirkuk in the afternoon, quickly lowering the Kurdistan flag and hoisting the Iraqi one in its place. In the hours following the conquest, the peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar, a city northeast of Kirkuk with a population of about 90,000 – and in 2014, the site of an ISIS genocide against the local Yazidi population – and Iraqi forces quickly swept in and took control (with the help of Yazidis, just to complicate the picture). The Iraqis also took control of the oil fields outside of Kirkuk, and allowed people who’d fled during the attack to return to their homes.
Why Kirkuk, of all places?
Kirkuk’s close to Kurdistan but technically not a part of it; however: the Kurds have claimed it as theirs since 2014, when Baghdad abandoned it to an advancing ISIS, and an independent Kurdistan would need the revenue generated by the region’s oil fields – which comprise a whopping 40% of all of Iraq’s oil fields, and thus represents much of its wealth – to function. Like so many recent conflicts in the region, it’s all about the oil, and the immediate threat a wealthy, autonomous Kurdistan would present to Iraq, Iran, and Turkey – each of which have sizable Kurdish populations.
How did the peshmerga, which successfully fought back ISIS, give way so quickly to Iraqi forces?
Well, simply put, a large chunk of its forces stood down or melted away, which, according to one of the peshmerga’s commanders, was about preserving the lives of the Kurdish fighters, who were outnumbered. According to Filkins, though, a deal was struck between Qassam Suleimani, “Iran’s chief spymaster,” and the survivors of Jalal Talabani, a former Iraqi President and longtime chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., one of the two main Kurdish political parties. “Within hours,” writes Filkins, peshmerga attached to the P.U.K. started abandoning their posts, clearing the way for the Iraqi army. “It was a horrible, horrible betrayal,” according to one senior Kurdish official quoted by Filkins, whose version of events was confirmed by New York Times reporter David Zucchino, who told NPR that Iraqi forces “managed to split the Kurds by cutting a deal with one faction of the Kurds to have them pull back and let government forces come through.”
Why does this matter?
There are three big reasons why this conflict is so important, and may, depending on how it turns out, have reverberations throughout the region:
- All of the parties directly involved are US allies;
- It is, as a Pentagon spokesperson calls it, a “distractor” from the primary goal of destroying ISIS;
- It potentially cedes US regional influence to Iran, and may turn out to be a flashpoint in what’s rapidly starting to feel like a brewing conflict between the two countries.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these.
The issue of an autonomous Kurdistan has plagued multiple US presidents, the most recent being Barack Obama, whose administration refused to support a Kurdish campaign for independence on the grounds that it would further destabilize the region. In this latest conflict, the US response has basically toed this line, although there’s been a little wiggling, most notably from a famously ‘maverick’ senator:
- The State Department issued a statement calling on all parties “to coordinate military activities and restore calm”;
- The US Embassy in Baghdad condemned the hostilities and “deplore[d] any loss of life,” urging all parties to return to the fight against ISIS;
- President Trump stated twice that “we’re not taking sides,” and said “we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing”;
- Senator John McCain (R-AZ) urged Iraq to stop attacking “one of its own regional governments” threatening “severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way.”
Ultimately, after 14 years in Iraq, nobody in the US is eager to embroil its military in what would effectively be a civil war. Trump’s oft-stated goal in the region has been to defeat ISIS, and the US is going to stick to this stance, barring something unexpected.
As of this writing, ISIS has officially lost control of Raqqa, the Syrian capital of its self-declared caliphate in the region. Which is a really big deal. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), “a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters,” has taken over, although “there [are] still pockets of resistance,” according to US officials.
ISIS now controls just “a small strip of territory along the Euphrates river in northern Syria” – an area that also happens to be relatively close to the Iraqi-Kurd conflict that’s spread, as mentioned, to Sinjar, a city near the northern Syrian border. It’s conceivable, should this conflict drag on and capture more and more resources and attention, that ISIS could make some gains in the area.
According to a Newsweek report, “the Kurdish military has condemned the attack [on Kirkuk] as a declaration of war, claiming the assaults were orchestrated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps through its international special forces, the al-Quds brigade.”
By lassoing Kirkuk – and more importantly, the oil fields attached to it, which produce “some 500,000 barrels of oil per day,” according to that same Newsweek report, Iraq consolidates some of its power. The Kirkuk takeover, however, is also a victory for Iran, which wields increasing influence over Baghdad – Tehran “has been the principal backer of [the] mainly Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces,” which make up a huge chunk of the Iraqi forces, and some of the officials high up in the ranks of the Iraqi government have strong ties to Iran.
The attack on Kirkuk also comes just a few days after President Trump refused to certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal – and labeled the Revolutionary Guards Corps “a corrupt terror force,” ordering the Treasury Department to slap sanctions on them. These moves unified Iran’s hardliners and moderates, who’d previously been in the process of polarizing: Hossein Shariatmadari, an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told CNN that “Trump has done us a great service…we have reached more cohesion and unity amongst ourselves.” Shariatmadari also claimed, tellingly, that “Trump’s major problem with us is our influence in the region, not our nuclear program” – an assertion that appears to be true: Trump had complained more than once that Iran, while in technical compliance with the deal, was in violation of its spirit, the basic charge being that Iran is funding terrorist groups (or anybody, really, who is fighting against the US). Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, and Hassan Rouhani, its president, have also called for unity and expressed support for the Revolutionary Guards.
What all of this amounts to is an exponential racheting up of tensions between Iran and the US, just as the destruction of ISIS is nearing completion. Poor timing, in other words. Or, maybe, as Thanassis Cambanis argues in The Atlantic, it was always going to unfold this way, because “at best, the war against ISIS pressed a ‘pause’ button on the unspooling narrative of conflict and fragmentation…[and now], the sad story will pick up exactly where it left off in 2014.”