Iraq's Kurds weigh opportunities, risks in wake of Soleimani killing

Can the Kurdistan Regional Government help out the United States as it faces Iraqi anger over the Soleimani killing, and does the KRG want to risk doing so?

al-monitor US Vice President Mike Pence and his delegation meet with President of the Kurdistan region in Iraq Nechirvan Barzani in the VIP terminal at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraq Nov. 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Jan 7, 2020

As the tremors unleashed by the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani continue to reverberate across the region, Iraq’s Kurds are quietly weighing the opportunities and risks posed by the demise of Iran’s most influential soldier and strategist ahead of a potential trip to Washington by Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani at the invitation of US President Donald Trump.

A resolution passed by the Iraqi parliament Jan. 5 urging the country’s caretaker government to kick out around 5,000 American troops has added a new layer of uncertainty, and as some Iraqi Kurds see it, a chance to advance their long-cherished dream for an independent state with US help.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has denied reports that the United States was pulling out of Iraq; his statement came in response to a leaked letter addressed to Iraq’s Defense Ministry from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely that speaks of "onward movement” of US forces in “due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister.” 

But administration sources, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor the possibility of a US withdrawal is real because of the Iraqi government’s sharply hostile tone, albeit under Iranian pressure, and mounting force protection worries amid Iranian calls for revenge.

Might Washington turn to the Iraqi Kurds to redeploy US forces from Arab-dominated Iraq to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where the United States and coalition forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) within Iraq and in neighboring Syria, already have a sizable presence? And how would the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) respond?

Sources familiar with KRG thinking say the only condition under which they might consider agreeing to a continued US military presence (if and when US forces are formally evicted by Baghdad) would be in exchange for recognition of their independent state and written guarantees that the United States would protect the KRG from attack.

Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “It will seem like a great opportunity for [the Kurds]. But I see this as completely different than, say, 2014 when [IS] attacked or other moments when a US shift to the KRG could have worked well.” He told Al-Monitor, “In the wake of Soleimani’s killing, no one really wants to be seen as America’s ally, and if the Kurds try to take advantage of this moment, I fear they will get collectively get hammered for doing so.”

Pollack sad moving US troops to KRG territory without Iraqi government authorization would be illegal under international law, constitute de facto American recognition of Kurdish independence and invite Iranian and Iraqi attacks on the KRG and the American forces there. Moreover, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey might all choose to blockade and close their airspace to flights to and from the KRG, which would “put tremendous economic pressure on the KRG and make it impossible for the United States to supply its troops in the KRG.”

Iran could also reignite tensions between the Barzanis and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Kurdish factions went to war in 1996, with Iran weighing in on the PUK’s side to drive the Barzanis out of Sulaimaniyah.

KRG officials say they do not feel any imminent danger of an Iranian attack. Iran would be loathe to settle its scores with the United States within Iraq because this would invite US retaliation of a kind that would harm the Iraqi people and undermine Iraqi Shiite support for Iran. As US sanctions bite harder and harder, Iraq has become an economic lifeline for the Iranians.

Other analysts argue that the collapse of Iraq as a state seems increasingly inevitable. This would give IS an opportunity to regroup and the United States could feel compelled to keep troops in Iraqi Kurdistan. In chaos that might ensue, Turkey for instance might be persuaded to drop its objections to Iraqi Kurdish independence in exchange for US acquiescence for Ankara’s annexation of long-coveted Mosul and for the Pentagon scrapping its support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units and helping eradicate the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), among other things.

A PKK source disagreed, saying the more likely outcome in the event of Iraq’s collapse would be a Turkish invasion to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence. Turkey already has several thousands troops deployed inside Iraqi Kurdistan, notionally to hold the PKK in check. “The Iraqi Kurds are dreaming if they believe Turkey will allow an independent Kurdistan anywhere,” he said.

In any case, the withdrawal of US troops would be disastrous for the Iraqi Kurds under any circumstances, leaving them even more exposed, said a Western diplomat based in Erbil. “The KRG is desperate for them to stay but do they even want to? It's hard to predict with this [Trump] administration,” the envoy told Al-Monitor. 

Ramzy Mardini of the University of Chicago, who has written extensively about the Iraqi Kurds, said, “It's unlikely that Kurdish leaders will rely on an unstable, unpredictable and unreliable American foreign policy, certainly not when the strategic interests and risks are high.” Mardini told Al-Monitor, “A pivot by Erbil away from Baghdad and Tehran and toward Washington would be a major gamble. A more prudent approach would be to aim for a foreign policy of neutral engagement. That would better safeguard the multiple strategic relationships the Kurds need to balance and offer an opportunity to act as a mediator between them in time of rising tensions in the region.”

While Iraqi Kurdish leaders mull their options, their government is facing intense pressure from both Iran and the United States to pick sides. 

Barzani was tentatively expected to meet with Trump at the White House this month; however, it remains unclear whether the invitation relayed in November to the Iraqi Kurdish leader by Vice President Mike Pence during an unannounced trip to Erbil still stands. 

A Trump administration official told Al-Monitor that the visit was “not going to be happening very soon.” The reason for the postponement was not because of Soleimani’s death but rather linked to the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in late November. The administration official declined to elaborate. 

Barzani is, however, expected to hold talks with US officials on the sidelines of the Davos summit in Switzerland later this month, sources told Al-Monitor. 

The invitation to the White House was calculated as a means to mitigate anger over Trump’s greenlighting of Turkey’s Oct. 9 assault against the Syrian Kurds. Mazlum Kobane, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a former PKK fighter, was supposed to be hosted there but Turkish fury proved too much of an obstacle. Barzani, who has good relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emerged as a face-saving substitute, sources familiar with the administration’s internal debates speculated. 

Over the past month as tensions between Tehran and Washington skyrocketed, Barzani and his cousin, KRG Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, have sought to tread a middle ground between not provoking Iran and humoring Washington. It's a near impossible task.

Today, the KRG's most influential figure and former president, Massoud Barzani, waded in with a tweet emphasizing that the Iraqi Kurds ought to remain neutral, saying, "If the process of resolving the current issue in the Middle East region is in accordance with a path of reason and wisdom, we are certainly ready to cooperate. However, we cannot be involved in any proxy wars."

Even before Soleimani died Jan. 3 in a US drone strike, Washington was nagging the KRG to formally condemn Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi militias who besieged the US Embassy in Baghdad last month, providing KRG officials with a draft statement, according to well-informed sources. The sources told Al-Monitor that the pressure came from David Schenker, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and Joey Hood, the principal deputy assistant for the bureau. Schenker, a Trump appointee, was apparently disgruntled by the delay in the KRG’s statement and with what he viewed as its limp wording when it finally came out, the sources said.

US officials have reminded the KRG of Soleimani’s role in helping Iraqi forces retake the contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk from the Kurds following their ill-fated referendum on independence in September 2017. The Iraqi Kurds respond that the United States sat on its hands and ignored Kurdish pleas for help while this happened.

Still, all but one Kurdish lawmaker, the deputy speaker of the parliament who attended on procedural grounds, boycotted Sunday’s session in Baghdad to debate the call for the ejection of US troops. KRG leaders were instrumental in persuading Sunni lawmakers to stay away as well, denying the parliament the necessary quorum. This time, Washington registered its approval. 

“Kurdish parliamentarians acted very bravely by staying away from the parliamentary vote,” said Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. He recalled that Kurdish lawmakers had received threatening letters from Shiite militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, whose founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis perished alongside Soleimani in the US strike. 

Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi Kurds are sensing menacing rumblings from Iran. Tehran’s man in Erbil, Nasrollah Rashnoudi, aired his displeasure in an interview with Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish media outlet that is close to Nechirvan Barzani. The Iranian consul general said he was disappointed at local reaction to the death of Soleimani. “We expected more on this terrorist act. We expected a clearer and louder denunciation of what happened.”

Iran may well have been upset by the fact that not a single Barzani showed up at the Iranian Consulate to sign the condolence book set up for Soleimani; the KRG instead dispatched its foreign minister, Safeen Dizayee, and other senior Kurdistan Democratic Party figures. 

Ominously, publications such as Iran's Kayhan newspaper have run provocative headlines accusing the Iraqi Kurds of conspiring with the United States in Soleimani’s death and of supposedly being thanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for doing so. 

Masrour Barzani, the KRG prime minister, called such claims “fake news.” Nechirvan Barzani addressed a letter of condolence to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying Soleimani’s death was “a source of grief” for the people and government of Kurdistan. Barzani lauded Soleimani for his role in standing with the Kurds in the fight against IS and said he hoped the slain commander would “rest in paradise.” The Western diplomat said the move was a bid to appease Iran. 

Barzani, like many fellow Iraqi Kurds fleeing slaughter from Baghdad, was born in exile in Iran and speaks fluent Farsi. He was known to have had a good working relationship with Soleimani, who rushed to Erbil’s defense when it came under attack from IS in 2014, providing the KRG with weapons as Turkey looked the other way. There may have been more than a hint of sincerity in his words.

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