Middle East Ticker

Iraq Seizes Control of Kirkuk, Trump Sends Iran Deal to Congress, Islamic State Forced from Raqqa

By J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, October 18, 2017, 11:00 AM

Iraqi Forces Push Kurdish Peshmerga Out of Contested Areas

After three weeks of political stalemate following the Kurdish independence referendum last month, the Iraqi government moved aggressively this week to secure control of oil facilities and military bases near the contested city of Kirkuk. The military action followed efforts by Baghdad, supported by Iran and Turkey, to ratchet up pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government. Since Kurdish regions voted overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing secession on September 25, Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders have been closed, airlines have stopped flying into the region’s airports, neighboring militaries have conducted show-of-force exercises, and Baghdad has ordered the arrest of members of the commission that organized the referendum, which Iraqi officials say was unconstitutional. The Kurdish leadership has remained defiant and announced plans for presidential and parliamentary elections on November 1, a decision “calculated to reinforce the legitimacy of the Kurdish leadership before a drive for outright independence and any negotiations that might involve,” Reuters reports.

The Iraqi government has threatened to secure contested areas since even before the referendum, and Kurdish forces reinforced Kirkuk last week as militias backed by Baghdad began moving north. Then, on Sunday, the Iraqi military and the popular mobilization units—pro-government militia units, many of which are predominantly Shia and have received support from Iran—surged toward critical infrastructure in the area. Several facilities were handed over without clashes, but skirmishes broke out late Sunday night before Iraqi commandos rolled into the city on Monday. Peshmerga withdrew from other contested areas near the Syrian border, including the town of Sinjar, yesterday. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday that the Kurdish independence referendum “is finished and has become a thing of the past.”

Kurdish officials are now regrouping after the abrupt loss of Kirkuk and its environs. The withdrawal of Kurdish forces over the past week has largely been a result of internal divisions in Iraqi Kurdish politics. Some outlets have reported that the withdrawals were coordinated between Baghdad and one of the two main Kurdish political factions in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has strong ties to Iran. The PUK leadership may support independence in the long run, but it has chafed at the referendum process, which was led by their rivals, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and was pushed through with no external support and considerable legal challenges. In his rush to build a legacy as the father of an independent Kurdish state, Barzani failed to build a domestic or an international coalition to back him the day after the vote; isolated politically, the forces he’s alienated in the process are now collapsing his influence and any national aspirations. As Daniel Serwer wrote this week on his blog, Peacefare, the referendum “was a colossal miscalculation.” Barzani has reportedly said that the vote “won’t be in vain” and has offered to open a dialogue with Baghdad, but Abadi is pushing for annulling the referendum as a precondition.

In his rush to build a legacy as the father of an independent Kurdish state, Barzani failed to build a domestic or an international coalition to back him the day after the vote...

The U.S. military, which has provided training to both the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga, is remaining in contact with both sides. U.S. officials have called on Iraqi and Kurdish forces to refrain from escalating and said they are considering freezing training and assistance to the Iraqi military if the standoff continues. President Trump said that he doesn’t support the clashes, but that the United States will not intervene on one side or the other. The situation remains tense. Peshmerga forces told the New York Times that they fear an outright assault by Iraqi forces, and thousands of Kurdish residents of Kirkuk have fled in recent days.

 

Trump Decertifies Iran Deal but Won’t Say How He Wants Agreement to Change

Trump finally announced last Friday that he was decertifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), not because Iran has violated the agreement, but because he no longer considers it to be in the national security interests of the United States. The announcement, though, has not made the Trump administration’s plan any more coherent. Trump characterized his approach to reporters as a “two-step plan”—decertification followed by an effort to coerce Iran and the other parties to the agreement to accept new terms—but it is unclear what terms would be acceptable to the president. Congress “may come back with something that's very satisfactory to me, and if they don't, within a very short period of time, I'll terminate the deal,” he said Friday.

Since the announcement, administration officials have stressed that they anticipate the United States will remain in the agreement, but have been no more forthcoming about what would be necessary to preserve the deal. “I think right now you are going to see us stay in the deal,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN that he agreed with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ assessment that the agreement is in the national security interest of the United States and said that he and the president oppose Congress reinstating sanctions. Instead, he said, the administration would prefer to address flaws in the JCPOA, possibly in a “secondary agreement.”

Easily the most problematic aspect of the proposal is that the U.S. Congress doesn’t have the authority to change the agreement...

That’s not what members of the Senate are proposing to do. A forthcoming legislative proposal from Sen. Tom Cotton, who has been advising the president on Iran, and Sen. Bob Corker would, if passed, attempt to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement by disregarding sunset clauses on limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity and imposing new verification standards, according to Politico. Easily the most problematic aspect of the proposal is that the U.S. Congress doesn’t have the authority to change the agreement; that would require the consent of the other nations involved. It’s also a dramatic about-face for Corker, who days before was tweeting that the White House had become an adult day care center and telling the New York Times that Trump’s “volatility is … alarming” and risks war. Just a couple months ago, Corker warned against the United States taking drastic action that would alienate its allies in the JCPOA and, if the deal collapsed, tar the Trump administration as the responsible party. “You can only tear the agreement up one time… We gave up all our leverage already, so wait until you have your allies aligned with you. Radically enforce it… You want the break-up of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the United States,” he told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius in July. The legislation is unlikely to pass—Politico reports that it would require a 60-vote majority, but it is unlikely to garner any support among Democrats, and faces some challenges from Republicans as well. Sen. Marco Rubio has argued it doesn’t go far enough.

Corker has has reportedly reached out to other parties to the agreement and told European diplomats, “if I were them, I’d look at this as ‘the glass is half full,’ he didn’t withdraw from the JCPOA, and that’s step one.” European leaders rebuked Trump’s announcement last Friday with a joint statement defending the agreement and a press conference hosted by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. French President Emmanuel Macron also called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to reiterate France’s commitment to the JCPOA. Mogherini said Monday that she would fly to the United States for further discussions, but at a ministerial meeting of European diplomats, the exasperation and disdain for Trump’s decision, and his foreign policy more generally, was undisguised.

 

As Raqqa Falls, Counterterrorism Coalition Drifts

After fighting through the summer, the U.S.-backed coalition of Syrian rebels fighting in Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have pushed the Islamic State out of the city. SDF forces cleared the last pockets of Islamic State presence, a stadium and a hospital complex, on Tuesday morning. Videos are circulating of rebels and civilians celebrating in the streets and in the recently captured Al-Naim traffic circle, where the Islamic State carried out executions. “Everything is finished in Raqqa, our forces have taken full control of Raqqa," an SDF spokesman said yesterday. "The military operations in Raqqa have finished, but there are clearing operations now under way to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines."

The fight for the city has left much of it in ruins and displaced approximately 270,000 residents. Another 3,000 civilians fled Raqqa this last weekend in anticipation of the last push to capture the city. Many of them will continue to stay in camps as efforts are made to clear the city of mines and booby traps; some have said they won’t return to a city where they lost so much.

As the Islamic State is ousted from its last occupied cities, the United States is trying to keep the focus of the counterterrorism coalition on finishing off the group. But U.S. partners, particularly Turkey, are positioning themselves for what comes next. U.S.-Turkey relations have been strained lately -- the United States has declined to extradite Fethullah Gulen and will prosecute a former Turkish economic minister for evading sanctions against Iran, which prompted reciprocal visa restrictions. Ankara’s focus is squarely on preventing Kurdish national aspirations. Turkey has coordinated with Baghdad in recent weeks to exert pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government, and in Syria, Turkey has been distracted by its intervention in Idlib province, part of its agreement with Iran and Russia to enforce de-escalation zones. As Aron Lund explains, Turkey’s primary concern in participating in the recurring Astana talks with Iran and Russia, and now intervening in Idlib, is also about containing the Kurds. “Erdogan-friendly Turkish media ties the expected Idlib intervention to the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region just north of Idlib, suggesting that Ankara’s long-term plan is to trade services with Moscow and Damascus: We pacify Idlib, you let us deal with the Kurds,” Lund writes. “What Russia and Iran are hoping to achieve is less obvious, but by drawing Turkey into talks over issues other than regime change at Astana, they have reduced pressure on the Syrian government and allowed al-Assad to refocus his military attention on eastern Syria, where his troops recently broke a long siege by the so-called Islamic State on Deir Ezzor.” Turkey will also have to contend with the dense network of rebels operating in Idlib, including Tahrir al-Sham (a group that includes the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra).

Now, as the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State succeeds in rolling the group back, the only thing standing between the United States and getting pulled deeper into the war are the tenuous and imperfect deconfliction agreements with Russia.

The United States and its SDF allies are now turning their attention towards Deir El-Zour, the frontline between the Islamic State and Assad regime forces. Pentagon officials said Tuesday that the U.S. troops that have been assisting the SDF will remain in Syria and are in talks with the SDF leadership about next steps. As they press south, they will come into closer and closer proximity with regime forces, risking further clashes. For most of the past two years, the United States has had the Islamic State as a buffer between its fight against the terrorist group and the wider civil war being waged to the west. Now, as the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State succeeds in rolling the group back, the only thing standing between the United States and getting pulled deeper into the war are the tenuous and imperfect deconfliction agreements with Russia. Controlling the Iraq-Syria border could be an important check on Iran-backed militias in both countries, but the Assad regime seems intent on extending its reach back into Kurdish-held oil-producing regions. “It’s very difficult for Assad’s government to live comfortably alongside regions that aspire to an autonomous status and can thumb their noses at Damascus,” former ambassador Robert Ford told Al-Monitor. Especially as tensions escalate between Washington and Tehran, the likelihood of clashes is growing; the regime has a tendency to push the envelope of Russia’s commitments when it is winning on the ground, and a recent roadside bombing in Iraq has raised concerns that Iran could be reactivating its distribution of deadly explosively-formed penetrator (EFP) bombs for asymmetric warfare. If the frontlines don’t stabilize soon, the United States could be caught backing the SDF in a war it has tried to avoid fighting in directly.