The US President Donald Trump’s refusal to certify the Iran deal grabbed public attention hitting mainstream media headlines. But the gaze should shift to another flash point as a major war in the Middle East involving many actors can spark at any moment. With Islamic State almost squeezed out from Iraq, the country is being dragged to the brink of a civil war. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad are at loggerheads since the Sept. 25 vote, which delivered an overwhelming yes for Kurdish independence.
October 16 is a deadline for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed positions, especially the city of Kirkuk, the main flashpoint of the dispute. The Iraqi government’s ultimatum declared on October 15 was extended by 24 hours. The ultimatum was rejected by Kurdish commanders. They say the Kurdish forces are ready to fight. According to the Kurdistan Security Council, Iraq plans to attack pretty soon. A photographer with Agence France-Presse reported seeing armored vehicles bearing the Iraqi national flag on the banks of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish authorities have sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront what they call Iraqi "threats." Iraqi forces and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish Peshmerga militia fighters in the oil-rich Kirkuk province. Dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles of Shiite militias had been stationed in the area.
Formally, the PMU formation is a separate force from the regular army and officially reports to Iraqi PM Abadi. It is deployed alongside the army south and west of Kirkuk city.
The Kurds control Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, and three major oil fields in the province, which produce some 250,000 barrels per day, accounting for 40 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exports. The disputed city lies just outside the territory of Kurdistan but Peshmerga forces were stationed there in 2014 after Iraqi security forces retreated in the face of an Islamic State onslaught. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk's oilfields from falling into Islamic State hands.
At the time of writing (Oct.15), Iraqi President Fuad Masum was meeting with Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani in Dukan in Sulaimaniyah province to defuse the escalating crisis. According to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi government has rejected any negotiations until the results of the independence vote are annulled.
Armed Kurdish civilian volunteers are gathering in Kirkuk. Najm Eddine Karim, the governor of the province, said the residents of the city will help Peshmerga militias prevent Iraqi forces from entering Kirkuk city. Najm Eddine Karim, a Kurd by nationality, was sacked by Baghdad but denies its authority and refuses to quit the post.
On October 15, Iran followed through its threat to close the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran backs the Iraqi government and vows to prevent the spread of separatism to its own Kurdish population, which is around eight million. Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, a senior commanding officer of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRGC), arrived in Iraq's Kurdistan region for talks about the escalating crisis between the Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi government.
Should fighting break out, it is hard to overstate the dire consequences that would ensue. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “The Kurdish issue has implications beyond the borders of present-day Iraq” and may have “political, geopolitical, demographic and economic consequences."
An armed conflict would involve Turkey and Iran, both of which vigorously oppose Kurdish statehood aspirations. Iran wields considerable influence over Iraq, where the majority of the population is also Shiite Muslim.
The US has military advisers deployed with both sides in the standoff. Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, formally under Iraqi command, are under heavy influence of Iran. In his October 12 speech on Iran policy, US President Trump said that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as its agents and proxies, were guilty of terrorism. It includes the Iraqi Shia PMU militia. From now on, the US administration cannot stay idle if the Iranian IRGC militia lends a helping hand to Iraqi government forces against the Kurds. The US diplomatic attempts to mediate have so far produced no results. With the US administration becoming increasingly belligerent towards Iran, American military involvement on the side of its Kurdish ally cannot be excluded.
Gulf States have positioned themselves in a way that allows them to capitalize on Iraqi Kurdistan's hydrocarbons, which, with sovereignty, Kurdistan could export without opposition from Baghdad. There is no doubt they will oppose Iran in any conflict. If they do, their interests would run contrary to the goals pursued by Turkey. With large Kurdish minorities striving for autonomy, Ankara and Tehran may join together in an effort to prevent the emergence of independent Kurdish state. Then Turkey will confront Gulf States to divide the Sunni Muslims’ world.
Israel is the only state to openly welcome the idea of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. It may get involved rendering military aid in an attempt to counter Iran’s influence. Step by step, the scope of conflict would enlarge dragging in more actors involved directly or indirectly.
Rising tensions in northern Iraq could have a much more immediate impact on oil flows that could lead prices higher, and squeeze producers and refiners. A conflict could cause the loss of 565,000 barrels of crude Iraqi Kurdistan exports daily. In response to the Kurdish independence referendum, Turkey has threatened to shut the pipeline from Kurdistan to its Mediterranean oil terminal at Ceyhan. Foreign investors would lose profits. US Chevron has interest in oil projects in Kurdistan, as well as Russia's Gazprom Neft and Rosneft do.
This year, Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft became the first international oil company to pay up front for Iraqi Kurdistan’s crude. Under the February 2017 deal, the company agreed to pay $3 billion USD in loans in exchange for 15-25 million barrels of oil until 2019. At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that took place in June, Rosneft signed a long-term contact for the development of infrastructure systems in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Kirkuk. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated in June that Russia is ready to solve the developments in Iraqi Kurdistan “in the way which is acceptable to all key players.” Friendly with all the parties involved, Moscow enjoys a favored position to leverage its expanding ties in the Middle East and to serve as a mediator between Erbil, Baghdad and other pertinent actors.
Prompt action should be taken to avoid the imminent armed conflict. The Kurdish independence referendum was non-binding. The purpose goal was not to declare independence immediately, but rather to strengthen Iraqi Kurdistan’s position before launching talks to negotiate a new relationship with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. In theory, diplomacy has a chance but there is no time to lose. After all, it was a lack of rigorous diplomatic mediation as tensions grew between Baghdad and Erbil that allowed the crisis to escalate.