By David L. Phillips
After seizing Kirkuk, Iraq’s Prime Minister Heider al-Abadi is doubling down in a bid to occupy all of Iraqi Kurdistan. He has enlisted Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Turkey, in an insidious effort to subjugate the Iraqi Kurds. The United States barely responded to Iraq’s aggression, looking weak and irrelevant.
Ninety-three percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence on September 25, 2017. The referendum was supposed to set the stage for patient negotiations on a friendly divorce between Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead Abadi issued an ultimatum and attacked. Kirkuk’s Governor Najmaldin Karim barely escaped assassins sent to kill him.
To stabilize the situation, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offered to freeze the results of the referendum and start a political dialogue with Baghdad on the basis of Iraq’s constitution. But instead of a ceasefire, Abadi reloaded and resumed the assault.
Yesterday, Iraqi federal forces were repulsed from two towns. Today, three border crossings were attacked. U.S. officials blithely called the firefight a "misunderstanding." Kurds vow to defend their homeland against Iraqi aggression. They know from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, surrender means death.
What inspired Abadi to disavow dialogue and pursue a military solution?
Abadi’s Dawa Party relies heavily on Iran’s political backing. Iran also supports Shiite militias in Iraq called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The U.S. indirectly supports the PMF; Iraq transferred sophisticated U.S. weaponry to Iranian-backed forces in violation of the Leahy Amendment. Qasem Soleimani, commander or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, controls the PMF and calls the shots. He could remove Abadi at a moment’s notice.
Weakness is contagious. In addition to Iran, Abadi is subservient to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan. Just last year, Erdogan warned Abadi: “Know your place. First know your limits.”
Abadi went to Ankara this morning. What insidious collaboration are they plotting? Will Turkey suspend oil transfers to the Port of Ceyhan, strangling Iraqi Kurdistan? Will Turkey help Iraq take over the Faysh Khabur border crossing, depriving Iraqi Kurdistan of customs revenue? Are Iraq and Turkey colluding to attack Turkish Kurds in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq?
Both Iran and Turkey are preying on Abadi’s weakness. Iraq’s dysfunctional government has created a gap, which allows Iran and Turkey to project power in Iraq at the expense of pro-American Kurds.
America’s silence is shameful. Not only did the U.S. betray the Kurds in Kirkuk. Now the Trump administration is turning a blind eye to Iraq’s continued aggression against the provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ceding to Soleimani puts Iran in prime position in Iraq. It also positions Iran to dominate other countries in the region — Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
The United States must support its allies instead of trying to placate its enemies. Instead of strong principled leadership, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issues meaningless platitudes.
Surely, U.S. officials recognize that the best way to drain the swamp of support for the Islamic State is by creating conditions of freedom. Democracy and human rights are the most effective antidotes to extremism.
Loyalty is critical between friends and allies. Abandoning Iraqi Kurdistan is more than a geopolitical blunder. It puts the U.S. on a slippery slope to defeat and irrelevance, allowing Iran and Turkey to dominate the field.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State. Phillips is author of Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East, and An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.