Iraq’s ban on international flights to the Kurdistan Region is having no impact on US military and humanitarian aid to the embattled Kurds, Pentagon officials told Al-Monitor.
Regional airlines are abiding by last month’s order from Iraq’s Transport Ministry to reroute international flights to Erbil and Sulaimaniyah through Baghdad, despite disruptions to passengers and cargo. But airports in both Kurdish cities remain open for domestic flights from Baghdad, giving the United States a lifeline to provide weapons and other supplies to Erbil.
The Defense Department indicates those deliveries have continued despite the expiration of a yearlong agreement to provide salaries and arms to peshmerga fighters in September.
“Military and humanitarian flights into and out of Erbil have not been affected by the situation in the Kurdish region,” a spokesman for the US-led operation against the Islamic State (IS) told Al-Monitor. “We will continue to work with our partners in Iraq to take the fight to [IS] and eliminate them as a threat to the Iraqi people, and to the world.”
Kurdish peshmerga troops played a key role in establishing a defensive perimeter around Tal Afar, where Iraqi security forces scored a quick victory over IS this summer after clearing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. But the recent conflict in Kirkuk between peshmerga fighters and Iraqi forces supported by Iranian-backed Shiite militias risks fracturing the coalition, with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) alleging the peshmerga were attacked with heavy weapons and Abrams tanks supplied by the United States.
The Donald Trump administration authorized a military sale in April worth nearly $300 million to equip two peshmerga brigades and arm them with 36 howitzers and small arms. The Pentagon’s budget request for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 called for $270 million in peshmerga stipends and $95 million to sustain the force. It’s not clear how the expiration of last year’s memorandum of understanding will impact those funds.
While peshmerga spokesman Brig. Gen. Hajar Omer Ismail said the Kurdish force has not received US weapons shipments for some time — contradicting the Pentagon’s account — the Kurds do not seem to think the flight ban will prevent those deliveries in the future. The US Defense Department paid out the last $22 million stipend to peshmerga fighters taking on IS in September.
Yet the ongoing ban could still have a disruptive impact on contractors trying to enter the country, including engineers who are relied on for infrastructure projects and to provide support to peshmerga forces. Those workers can still enter Iraqi Kurdistan by a land route via Turkey.
“If the coalition wants to keep sending boots, ammunition and fuel to the peshmerga, there’s no reason why that can’t happen right now,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What Kurdistan cannot survive is the international contractors not being there.”
But as Baghdad aimed Oct 25 to gain control of a border crossing shared with Turkey and the KRG, which enjoy a large trade relationship centered around oil and gas, former US officials are increasingly questioning Ankara’s role in mitigating the conflict. On Oct. 25, KRG officials offered to suspend the results of September’s independence referendum, calling for immediate talks with Baghdad.
“The question now is what [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is doing,” said former US ambassador to Iraq and Turkey James Jeffrey, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not in his interests for the Iraqi government and the Iranian-backed militias to push back into the legally Kurdish areas.”
“If you remove all of these quasi-independent authorities from the Kurds, you’re giving it to Baghdad, and they’re dancing to the tune of Qasem Soleimani,” Jeffrey added, referring to the Iranian commander responsible for coordinating Tehran’s military efforts throughout the Middle East.
The flight ban could further compound the KRG’s efforts to draw European and American support to their cause, experts say, by preventing its leaders from leaving the country.
“This is really about locking the leadership in,” Knights told Al-Monitor. “It’s there to stop them from getting out of the country. Some of them would be going around Europe and America trying to get help.”
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