Interview with Joost Hiltermann: Proxy War in Post-ISIS Iraq

In northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran are playing their proxies against each other. This rivalry will shape the region’s post-ISIS landscape, and could spark future conflict. To learn more, we spoke with Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and an expert on Iraqi Kurdistan. 

photo credit: Matthew Schweitzer
Men sit outside a market on the road toward Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan.

M. Schweitzer: Last month, the Iraqi Parliament voted to remove Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari from his post – a move seemingly motivated by political rivalries in Baghdad. When Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani visited the capital one week later, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who was instrumental in shaping the vote against Zebari and exploiting the rift between Kurdish factions in Parliament – called for the Kurdish leader’s arrest. How does Barzani’s visit to Baghdad fit into the previous week’s events – is it in Barzani’s and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s interest to bolster Abadi?

J. Hiltermann: The government in Baghdad and the KRG based in Erbil — and especially the KDP, which dominates politics in the north — have had quite a long and tumultuous relationship. Relations between Baghdad and Erbil have been tested by the Kurdish desire to have greater autonomy from the center, to control their own region, and to expand the borders of that region to include a number of areas that they consider to be majority-Kurd. Baghdad has, under numerous Prime Ministers, shown some sympathy toward the Kurds and their quest for independence. There are many people in the Iraqi government who in principle agree with the notion of Kurdish independence. However, at the same time, these politicians have been irritated by how this relationship has developed, the demands that the Kurds have placed on Baghdad, and the efforts to expand Kurdish territory — especially in Kirkuk with its oilfields.

One must be careful not to look at every event, meeting, or exchange between Baghdad and Erbil as an indicator of changing diplomacy between the two groups. Today, the Kurds are no longer dependent on Baghdad for their income, which largely came from the sale of oil produced in Iraq’s southern fields. The KRG is now fully dependent on the oil fields inside the Kurdish region, as well as the Kirkuk oilfields — these are officially under KRG control, but Erbil has made a deal with the Baghdad government regarding oil from these fields.

This deal and others have been complicated by divisions within the Kurdish and Iraqi establishments. For example, competition between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has affected the efficiency of government functions in Baghdad. It is not always clear on which side the various Kurdish parties might fall in this dispute. One day, the KDP may want to place its confidence in Abadi, and the next, it may support Maliki. At this point, however, leaders within the KDP see Maliki as an exponent of Iranian power (which he has not always been). This tendency is problematic for the KDP, as they have forged close ties with Turkey — as opposed to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, which has moved closer to Iran.

Abadi is a relatively weak Prime Minister without a great deal of internal support for his government or policies. Yet he does enjoy important backing of the Marja’eyah (the Shia religious leadership in Karbala and Najaf) as well as from the Americans and Western Europe. The Kurdish ruling party is thus putting its weight behind him, with the understanding that they will need Abadi’s support in the fight that is looming over Ninewa Province. The Kurds will need the help of the Iraqi Army to dislodge the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from Mosul, as they have no business in strictly Arab areas of Iraq. The Iraqi Army is weak, but it is supported by American forces.

Maliki, however, has thrown his support behind the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) — the most powerful of which are backed by Iran. It is almost inevitable that the PMU will play a role in the Mosul battle: they want to do so, and they will prove indispensable because the Iraqi Army is so weak. There are some Shia areas in Ninewa Province that the PMU desire to recapture from ISIS, particularly the town of Tal Afar. The PMU’s opponents claim — and there is some truth to the allegations — that the militias want to open a corridor from central Iraq to the Syrian border to extend Iranian influence. Such a move would put the PMU in direct confrontation with Turkey, which sees Ninewa as traditionally within its sphere of influence. Turkey is today working through the KDP to offset the pro-Iran PMU ambition. Thus it is possible to begin to see the confrontation that is slowly building between these various factions, vis-a-vis Tal Afar. What goes on in Baghdad reflects these tensions.

The influential Badr bloc in Iraq’s Parliament echoed calls for Barzani’s arrest. The Badr Organization fields a powerful militia within the Popular Mobilization Units, which it can leverage to shape battlefield realities across the country in flashpoints like Tuz Khurmatu or Tal Afar. Will rivalries between various Kurdish and non-state PMU factions affect relations between Erbil and Baghdad?

From the Badr perspective, Barzani is a Turkish proxy — and Barzani considers the Badr Organization as an exemplar of Iranian influence. In Tuz Khurmatu, however, Barzani has no influence — the town is under nominal PUK control. The situation there is quite interesting: The PUK and Badr are, in principle, aligned, but they disagree about Tuz Khurmato. There, they get into disputes about the people they profess to protect: In the PUK’s case, the Sunni Kurds, and in Badr’s case, the Shia Turkmen.

Outside of the tension in Tuz Khurmatu, which is essentially an internal conflict between the PUK and Badr, much of northern Iraq’s politics are shaped by the Turkey-Iran competition. These tensions went largely unnoticed, as the international community was not focused on Ninewa Province as a whole. Ninewa today is the original Mosul vilayet of the Ottoman Empire. Even though Turkey has stated that it does not have a claim over the Mosul vilayet, Ankara still sees the region as within its sphere of influence and certainly does not want Iran to expand its interests there. If the PMU act as a spearhead of Iranian influence in Ninewa Province, Turkey will consider that a serious threat to its security — and play its own proxy forces, namely Barzani’s KDP, against the Shia militias.

The town of Tal Afar is in a very dangerous situation. Until the arrival of ISIS, it had been divided evenly between Shia and Sunni Turkmen (the district as a whole had a more mixed population). After ISIS’s incursions across Ninewa, the Shia population fled — many to Karbala and Najaf. The PMU clearly wish to restore the presence of Shia Turkmen in Tal Afar, and it is quite possible that they will try to take revenge on any Sunni Turkmen who have the temerity to stay behind after ISIS is defeated. Although many of those who remain will be known not to have worked with ISIS, this is no guarantee that there will not be reprisals taken against them. The town may experience a “reverse sectarian cleansing,” which would be a tragic outcome. Yet these potentialities are heavily influenced by the broader Turkey-Iran competition: Turkey may take measures to protect Sunni Turkmen populations if the PMU conduct cleansing operations. It is unclear what those measures will be, but they could create even greater tensions.

Last week, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Sulaimaniya – a stronghold of opposition to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – to demand payment of overdue teacher and civil servant salaries. According to the Iraqi press, the crowds chanted pro-Abadi slogans to show support for the Baghdad government. Have Iraqi Kurdistan’s domestic economic woes impacted the way Kurdish political parties and citizens view their place within the Iraqi state?

The groups in Sulaimaniya — PUK and Gorran — have long been much more pro-Baghdad than the KDP. It was due to this divergence in outlook that the original strategic agreement between the KDP and PUK was based on the notion that the PUK’s Talabani would become president of Iraq, while the KDP’s Barzani would assume the same position in the Kurdish region. It was more natural for Talabani to gravitate toward Baghdad, while Barzani — the son of Mustafa Barzani, father of the Kurdish national movement — remained in Erbil. Sulaimaniya has always been a very different city than Erbil, with a unique culture and language. Historically, its population has felt closer to Iran — and, by extension today, to Baghdad, because the capital is under the control of pro-Iranian Shia groups. Of course, people in Sulaimaniya do want eventual Kurdish independence, but not with the same fervor as those in KDP-controlled areas.

Traditionally, Iraqi Kurds have maintained an image of unity in Iraq’s Parliament, despite whatever internal divisions may exist between political parties in the KRG. However, during the Zebari vote, PUK and Gorran delegates voted against their fellow Kurd, a KDP member. How has the worsening dispute between Kurdish parties impacted national politics in Baghdad?

The idea of Kurdish unity is truly a thing of the past. While there has not been a return to the kind of civil war between Iraqi Kurdish political parties as erupted in the 1990s, the KDP and PUK/Gorran are no longer on good terms. The Kurdish parliament in Erbil has been effectively shuttered since October 2015, after the KDP prevented the Gorran Speaker of Parliament from coming into Erbil. When the KRG delegation went to Baghdad last month, it comprised strictly KDP members. The Kurdish unity that dissolved in the KRG has also dissolved in Baghdad. This development is a reflection of the polarization inside Iraq and across the region as a result of worsening tensions between Iran and Turkey over the past three or four years — which is coming to a climax ahead of the Ninewa operation.

Although analysts often examine Kurdish-Iraq relations in terms of Baghdad’s role in affecting Erbil’s political and economic stability, Kurdish leaders seem equally poised to act as kingmakers in Federal Iraq. Especially given the current security situation in northern Iraq, what levers do Barzani and other Kurdish officials have to influence policy and leadership in Baghdad?

The era in which the Kurds have acted as Iraq’s kingmakers is over. The Kurds have a certain degree of influence, but not over Baghdad’s politics. Rather, they will use their influence to shape developments in Ninewa. The Kurdish oil wealth is very minimal compared to what the Iraqis have in the south. The Kurds have developed their own revenue stream — that is very important — but it does not affect their leverage in Baghdad.

Where this wealth does have an impact is in and around Mosul, particularly across the Ninewa Plain. The KRG will likely seize the Ninewa Plain, which is not part of the Kurdistan region. The KDP leadership will state that the population in the Ninewa Plain does not want to live under Baghdad’s or Mosul’s purview. It will be very difficult to determine what the people of the Ninewa Plain want, in the absence of elections of public opinion polling. Therefore, the outcome will be decided by might.

There is no unified Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in the KRG; rather, the military organization is divided into KDP and PUK units. Officials within the PUK have complained that the KDP has been withholding weapons and funding from PUK divisions. How will these divisions within the Kurdish armed forces manifest during the fight against ISIS in Mosul and Ninewa, as well as in the post-ISIS environment?

There will likely not be a serious armed conflict between the KDP and PUK. Yet, the arms supplies from the US and Europe do go to the KDP in most cases. This reality is problematic, but understandable given the Kurdish region’s front line. In most cases, the ISIS presence is now mostly limited to areas where they face KDP forces rather than those from the PUK. The battle against ISIS in Ninewa is today largely fought by the KDP. There are some pockets in Ninewa Province where the PUK has a presence, especially in Sinjar. However, their role is quite small. Given this imbalance, there seems little potentiality for open conflict between the two Kurdish parties, unless the PUK clearly aligns itself with the Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization, and Iranian militias. If the situation in Ninewa becomes a black-and-white division between pro-Iranian and pro-Turkey alliances, such a move by the PUK could indeed spark conflict.

The other area where there is possibility for violence, and which is unrelated to Ninewa, is Kirkuk. Looking at the Kurdish front line and the Green Line that divides the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq, one sees that the KDP occupies positions along the line from the Syrian border to Kirkuk, and the PUK from the Iranian border to Kirkuk. The two meet around Kirkuk city. In 2011, the KDP occupied the main oilfields in Kirkuk Province, even though the area had historically and politically been under the PUK’s sphere of influence. The tension there has not yet led to open violence, and hopefully it will not.

Over the past year, local populations and tribal groups have mobilized security and police militias to protect their respective areas and homes. Sunni communities, in particular, have tried to develop such forces, but their efforts have largely been blocked by more powerful Shia or Kurdish groups. Is this policy of suppressing the emergence of local security forces sustainable in terms of achieving stability post-ISIS?

This policy will not bring any stability and it is not sustainable. The Kurdish and Shia forces are pursuing such policy, however, because they do not want any viable Sunni Arab police or security force that could threaten their own control in the region. While it is possible to make a strong argument that Sunni Arab areas can only be ruled by Sunni Arab forces — and many within the Kurdish or Shia factions might agree with such a statement — none of the KRG or militia commanders believe that these Sunni forces will not turn on them, eventually. The situation vis-a-vis the Sunni Arab security forces is an impossible one. There is no longer a neutral arbiter who can impose his will through military might. Neither the Iraqi government nor the US can play that kind of role anymore. There is some pro-US sentiment in areas where there is fighting between various militias, but there is simply no way that Washington can return to northern Iraq with troops, allowing it to be an arbiter.

Deal-making between Baghdad and Erbil has often come over the heads of residents in disputed areas. For example, oil agreements between the KRG and the Iraqi government regarding Kirkuk were negotiated without significant input from Kirkuk residents or officials. Have national politicians marginalized local populations, and prevented sustainable regional agreements between residents, communities, and towns from developing?

If reconstruction and stabilization programs are left to Baghdad’s and Erbil’s leadership, disputed areas affected by recent fighting will never develop. Part of the reason for ISIS’s rise were feelings of neglect among Sunni populations after 2003. In Kirkuk, the situation is a bit different. There, the local population may want to take a course away from both the KRG and federal Iraq. The Governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, has expressed a desire to follow such a strategy. He believes that, given Kirkuk’s oil wealth, it will be possible to find a way to declare Kirkuk Province as a federal region — and claim control over its resources. There is certainly a sentiment — not an attempt or a movement yet — to move away from the Erbil-Baghdad binary.

This interview was originally posted at the Post-War Watch.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email