Among the growing Baghdad-Barzani rift, various claims have been made about who knew what and when, and who said what and why.
The three competing perspectives are as follows:
* US betrayed Kurds by failing to stop the invasion by Iraqi forces, Iran-backed Shi’a militias, and the IRGC. Kurds have been strong allies to the US during the fight against ISIS, and have peacefully voted to secede from a state, which is increasingly manipulated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thus is not a good fit for the significant Kurdish population. The oil fields can and should be peacefully negotiated by the two governments, but the Iraqi forces have no business invading Kurdish-held territories, which the latter have liberated from the ISIS presence. Moreover, Iraqi Constitution, Article 140, provides for Kurdish independence, and given that the Constitution was comprised with the assistance from US lawyers and the State Department, US is well aware of that provision and should be respectful of it.
* Kurdish leadership new full well from CIA, State Department, and Pentagon statements before the referendum that US was strongly opposed to secession and would not be supportive if Baghdad decided to take back its territory in the aftermath. Barzani blatantly lied to its population, leading them to believe that the US was deceptive about its support for Kurds. There was no reason to believe that the independence referendum had international support. Barzani overstepped his authority in the attempt to distract from his own illegitimate hold on power despite the constitution.
* The well trained Iraqi forces, armed by the United States, had significantly more field experience in long-term operations than Peshmerga. Furthermore, Baghdad was planning to invade Kirkuk regardless of whether or not Kurds held the referendum, so it was only a matter of time before the region was overrun with Iraqi forces coupled with Iran-backed Shi’a militias. Barzani did not necessarily count on the Talabani faction to sell out to the IRGC, but had decided to call the referendum, knowing that they would be taken over regardless, to draw attention to the upcoming takeover, and also to start taking active steps towards the future, knowing that putting that off would likely make it less, not MORE likely to gain international support and recognition with time. Furthermore, regardless of US statements, it was in the US interests to support Kurds and to avoid clashes between allies, so regardless of US statements about the referendum, it was reasonable to expect that they would mediate in a manner that would avoid violent takeover and could help negotiate oil. It’s not in the US interests to have IRGC presence regardless of how the US administration feels about Baghdad’s claims to Kirkuk, or or other issues complicating Kurdish path to independence.
These three narratives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. And the Kurdish people should have had realistic expectations of the US role in their own story, and had demanded better preparation and organization of troops, clear communications, and an actual plan from the Barzani government, not to mention dealing with the election issue instead of going for populist slogans. However, none of these considerations takes away from the legitimacy of the following concerns:
Whatever the concerns of the US in balancing various interests in the region and preventing further destabilization, failure to take a leadership role in preventing conflict, actually led to the very destabilization it was trying to prevent. Pentagon’s denials about the role of IRGC in this avoidable situation are not helping the US credibility, and further, play into the hands of the very actors no one wants to see play a decisive role in the future of Iraq and Kurds. These lies and denials make US look treacherous, deceptive, anti-Kurdish and do nothing to dissuade the Kurds from moving forward with whatever faulty narrative Barzani may be peddling. In fact, it is pushing them into the embrace of the Russians, while IRGC and Baghdad government feel emboldened to disregard Kurdish claims, and act in a matter that is punitive and vindictive, rather than defensive of Baghdad’s legitimate claims and interests. As a direct consequence of US failure to intervene, several disturbing developments occurred:
IRGC, dressed as Shi’a militias, and in conjunction with actual Iran-backed militias, have continued plundering and raiding their way through the territory, up to Al-Qosh, increasingly placing minority civilian populations and Jewish and Christian historical sites in danger. Minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, have been forced to choose among three factions – Kurdish Peshmerga, the PMU units, now linked to Iran, and Iraqi forces, in order to protect their civilians and interests. That does nothing to simplify the situation, as the continuous clashes may force these groups to pick up weapons against each other. Christian militias that run their own defense in Nineveh are paid by PMU, which is troubling to US interests in preventing Iranian financial transactions that benefit the IRGC, recently designated as a terrorist organization. Qasem Soleimani, despite being recognized as a terrorist by the State Department in a recent statement, continues to play an active organizing role in the planning and implementation of the regional takeover.
Second, Turkey and Iraq are moving to cut off Kurdish access to Syrian and Turkish overpasses, which will ease the likelihood of future Turkish entry into the area. Turkey views Kirkuk as its own sphere of interests, and considers the prevention of contiguous Kurdish territories between Iraq, a likely Syrian Kurdish federation,and Kurdish territories in Turkey as central to its interests. There is also a growing possibility that Turkey may target the oil pipelines remaining under Kurdish control, which will deprive the Kurds of their essential livelihood and further empower and embolden Erdogan’s expansionist neo-Ottoman ambitions in the region. Turkey is becoming an increasing threat to US interests in the region and elsewhere, and this additional step will make that much harder for the US to defend its foothold, access to energy, defense of minorities, or relationships with more stable and less aggressive allies.
For now, however, Iraq is more likely to gain control of that pipeline and has already taken steps to bypass the Kurdish region in providing oil to Turkey. Iraq and Turkey are on the same page with regards to Baghdad’s regaining control and dominating Kurdistan, and Turkey has already made a similar security agreement with Iran. This triumvirate will ultimately prove hostile to US interests in the region, and should be broken up by the US, regardless of Barzani’s flaws. US needs to prioritize what is at stake. Iran-oriented Iraq is no great ally and will likely prove a hindrance in the US’s future battles against Iranian aggression. And Turkey is proving increasingly less of a friend and more of a menace as it opposes US presence in the region, detains US citizens, interferes with US strategy in Syria, and threatens US allies. The more time the US wastes maintaining supposed neutrality that only strengthens our enemies, the more likely we are to find ourselves friendless when our neutrality inevitably backfires.