Iraq: Hitting Back at ISIS

Published on August 6, 2014

There is little love lost between what is left of the Iraqi central government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil. But a revived, two pronged threat by the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams) forces, under the grand moniker now of the Islamic State, on both the north and south of Iraq has united the two foes into launching what will be a coordinated counteroffensive against ISIS.

*** In the wake of the fall of the towns of Sinjar and Zammar on the Kurdish border regions to ISIS, the execution of Yezidi minorities, and a wave of refugees fleeing the brutal forces of ISIS, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have mounted a major counteroffensive in the north. The objective is not just to re-take the fallen villages, but to recapture Mosul itself, starting with the eastern, and heavily Kurdish, parts of the city. ***

*** Kurdish sources maintain that the Peshmerga have successfully repelled an ISIS attack on the Mosul Dam, the fall of which would have been “an unmitigated disaster.” From what we understand US advisors have been providing assistance throughout to the Kurdish Regional Government from the nearby base of Dohok. Importantly, the Iraqi government has also now started to provide some limited air support cover to the Peshmerga fighters. ***

*** Our understanding is that Baghdad is also planning to re-launch a major offensive simultaneously, in coordination with the Peshmerga offensive, against ISIS farther south, to once and for all retake the city of Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein. ***

Political Process is Dead

While the common enemy of ISIS has fostered a degree of military coordination, if not cooperation, between Erbil and Baghdad, that cooperation is not likely to extend to the political arena, namely in efforts to form a more inclusive government to replace the current Maliki administration.

The KRG has put forth a President (traditionally Kurdish), that all parties have agreed on, – Fuad Masum – and parliamentarians ostensibly have been hard at work in search of a Shi’ite candidate for Prime Minister from one of the two major factions in parliament who would be more representative than the highly partisan Nouri al-Maliki (Sunnis traditionally get the third prize of Speaker of Parliament).

But that “political unity” process, officially endorsed by the international community, including by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is from what we understand going nowhere, despite yet another deadline passing this week for the formation of a government.

We have been unable to elicit any realistic and viable name from Iraqi politicians for a potential candidate which the various factions may be coalescing around, despite the western media speculating and bandying about all sorts of alternatives some weeks back.

And perhaps most importantly, while a good portion of the anger and resentment of both the Sunni and Kurdish populations is directed at the policies and person of Maliki himself, when pressed we have found little enthusiasm for actually falling behind another Shia alternative either, even a moderate such as Adel Abdul-Mahdi when the option of a fully independent state for the Kurds is so clearly in sight.

Furthermore, Kurdish sources point to the reality that even under a new leader, Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which they classify as “anti-Sunni and anti-Kurd,” would have 96 (it has 180 on paper) seats in parliament. Beyond having provided a President with no result to date, they complain that there has been little reciprocity shown them beyond threats, and the cutting off of funding from Baghdad, in return for their allocation of resources to the central government that includes even the manning of the Green Zone in Baghdad by Peshmarga troops.

Whether all those complaints are justified or not, much of the rhetoric from KRG President Massoud Barzani has been about what Kurds are calling a “new reality.” And despite the stated objective of the US government to defend the territorial integrity of Iraq even if under a federalist structure – the feeling in Erbil undeniably is of cautious sympathy from Washington as well as from Brussels and even from Ankara for Kurdish national ambitions.

Those mixed messages were evident in the non-committal response by US government authorities to the Iraqi legal challenge (July 28, followed by a more recent criminal charge in Iraqi courts against the Kurdistan government on Saturday) to the unloading of a tanker of crude oil from Kurdistan in the port of Galveston in Texas that was exported by the KRG without the authorization of Baghdad.

Kurdish officials believe these legal, jurisdictional, and political challenges over oil rights will ultimately be settled in their favor, and expect that in an environment with some semblance of stability they would be able to ramp oil production in their territory back up to 800,000 barrels/per day or, even, optimistically, 1 million by the end of the year.

And while the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline from Kurdistan northwards through Turkey has been sabotaged by ISIS and out of commission now for months, Kurdish officials point out that the KRG has already started the process and completed some alternative,  smaller pipelines from the oil producing region of Kirkuk into Turkey that circumvent ISIS controlled, or in the long run non-Kurdish, areas.

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