Untangling the Arab-Kurdish Web in Post-ISIL Northern Iraq

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by Matthew Cancian
The central government has never done anything for us; we want to be part of Kurdistan.
The statement was jarring not for its content, but for its speaker: a Sunni Arab sheikh in the Mosul Dam region of Iraq. Visiting his home just one kilometer behind the front line between ISIL and the Kurdish Peshmerga, the sheikh from the Jabouri tribe told me about both the ISIL bounty on his head and his close cooperation with the Peshmerga. With a flourish, the sheikh produced an identity card from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and claimed that most members of his tribe had followed suit. Just as the sheikhs of Anbar joined their sworn enemies, the Americans, in response to the depredations of Al Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago, unexpected coalitions have also formed in 2016 in this new phase of the war against jihadists in Iraq.

The subject of “post-ISIL” has been a popular topic of discussion in the lead-up to the now ongoing offensive to retake Mosul. In the short term, issues of humanitarian relief are critical, but in the long term the deals that are made between local actors and the two larger players, the central government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government will be most important for stability. Understanding the fractured leadership and byzantine relations within and across ethnic lines will be critical to formulating sound policy about the status of the “disputed territories” between the two during and after the overthrow of ISIL in Iraq. This will enable the United States to act as an honest broker after ISIL is defeated and guide the KRG and the central government to a sustainable resolution.

One central misconception that should be addressed upfront is that the KRG’s presence is uniformly unacceptable to local actors of other ethnicities; this feeling is taken to be mutual, with the idea that the Kurds “are not willing to retake and hold large swaths of Sunni territory and will not be accepted by the local population.” This assumption is based on a long history of conflict between the KRG and their neighbors to the south.

The Sunni Arab regime of Saddam Hussein almost constantly fought the Kurds, particularly during the genocidal Anfal campaign. After the American invasion in 2003, Kurdish expansion past the ‘Green Line’ and their cooperation with American security forces pitted them against Arabs, particularly the Sunni Arabs. These clashes occurred in the ‘disputed territories’, which refers to a band of territories outside of the three core provinces of the KRG which currently have or historically had large Kurdish populations before their removal by Saddam. Kurdish maximalist claims (and unilateral actions to enforce them) embittered their southern neighbors, who responded by blocking a constitutionally mandated referendum to resolve the largest disagreement, the status of the city of Kirkuk. When the Iraqi Security Forces fled Kirkuk in the face of ISIL’s offensive in 2014, the KRG stepped into the void, saving the city (and its large oil fields) from ISIL control but ultimately shifting the status quo without resolving the underlying dispute. The KRG’s subsequent declaration that it now considered the constitutional referendum implemented (in its favor) did nothing to soothe the animosity of others. Bitter feelings are found not just among the Arabs – some Iraqi Christians and Yezidis blame the Kurds for not protecting them against ISIL. Furthermore, the KRG itself is divided between two principal parties (the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), which themselves have internal divisions. If the Kurds themselves are so divided, the argument goes, then they cannot effectively act externally.

All these facts are true, but incomplete. As illustrated by the introductory vignette, this view does not reflect the nuanced situation on the ground. Every salient ethnic and sectarian group in Iraq has a negative history with others; the history of bad blood between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs, for example, is just as long as that between Kurds and Arabs. In moving forward, local actors will pragmatically ally themselves with a larger patron; their first choice of partner might not necessarily be the central government of Iraq. The United States should have a flexible attitude towards local security deals after the liberation of Mosul in order to avoid forcing local groups into a centralized government towards which they will be resentful.

It is true that the Iraqi Security Forces seem to have recovered from their period of decay and are once again an effective fighting force, but Peshmerga forces will still prove critical in the battle for Mosul because the Kurds are just as interested in removing the threat of Sunni Arab extremism as Baghdad. The initial Kurdish reaction to ISIL of trying to avoid conflict didn’t work, and now Kurds profess a belief that it will take some involvement on their part to ensure future stability. The KRG has not liberated more territory because it lacks military supplies, not because it lacks a desire to defeat ISIL. Kurdish generals who I’ve spoken to have independently discussed the importance of education for Sunni Arabs in order to ensure that future generations are not susceptible to extremist ideologies. In discussing why they fight, Peshmerga link together ISIL’ genocide of Yezidis with Saddam’s Anfal campaign, and ISIL’s use of chemical weapons is compared to the symbolically important gassing of Halabja. The way that Kurds make analogies between their most emotional historical events and the campaign against ISIL shows their dedication to fighting beyond a simple desire to expand their pseudo-state and grab oil, as some observers have caricatured. What we in the West think about the Kurds, however, is ultimately less important that what the minorities of Iraq, particularly the Sunni Arabs, think.

The Sunni Arabs of Iraq would rather not be playing second fiddle to either the Shiite Arabs or the Kurds. Unfortunately for them, they will have to be junior partners to one or the other in post-ISIL Iraq. They are a minority group who live on lands where very little of Iraq’s oil is found. For the Sunni Arabs to succeed in Iraq, they must look to either Erbil or Baghdad in order to be economically viable. Different groups of Sunni Arabs, divided as they are by tribe, geography, and rural or urban identities, will have different preferences. In order to maximize the stability of the and post-ISIL arrangement, the U.S. government should be prepared to accept that some Sunni Arabs will prefer Erbil to Baghdad; forcing them to join Baghdad might lead to the same instability that paved the way for ISIL’s ascendancy.

In most of the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, the central government is the clear choice. In Tikrit, Baghdad has been able to slowly guide the city back to some degree of normality despite widespread destruction during its liberation. In Mosul, Baghdad will similarly have to take a leading role. The city is simply too large for any administrative arrangement that leaves it outside of Iraq’s direct control to be legitimate. If the city of Mosul is not governed by Baghdad, the post-ISIL order will be unstable. In other areas, however, Baghdad’s control will be counterproductive to fostering a stable order. Distrust between local minorities and Baghdad’s perceived sectarian rule would foster unrest that would lead either to another resurgence of extremism or curtailed minority rights. The new status quo might require the establishment of new provinces as safe zones for particular minorities that are only indirectly controlled by Baghdad. Some Iraqi Christians, for example, have called for the establishment of a new Ninevah Plains province. Many areas, liberated by the Peshmerga, will be returned to Shiite control, as in the case of Bashir. In other cases, however, the inhabitants of an area will be more comfortable over the long run attached to the KRG.

Some might be skeptical of the prospects for Kurdish cooperation with other ethnic groups, particularly the Sunni Arabs, given some reports that have alleged that the Kurds are conducting campaigns of reprisals against Arabs in areas liberated from ISIL. One account from Foreign Policy that relies almost entirely on anonymous sources alleged ethnic cleansing by the Kurds, while another report from Amnesty International claimed that satellite images of destruction in liberated areas proved that there is a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing by the KRG. These allegations are extremely concerning. The last thing the United States wants to do is to abet a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the region that will perpetuate ethnic or sectarian tensions. These worries, however, have not been borne out by the reality I saw in any of my visits there in the last year. In the Kirkuk area, which was the basis for the Foreign Policy article mentioned above, Sunni Arab families were having picnics on Friday, men were getting haircuts at the barbershop, and life generally seemed normal. It would not be surprising to find that some Peshmerga units had forced out Arabs from disputed lands, but this is certainly not a uniform, or even common policy.

In the Mosul Dam area, I witnessed a few Sunni Arab villages that had been partially destroyed. Immediately I thought of reports of ethnic cleansing and wanted to investigate. Asking the Peshmerga about them, however, I received detailed answers about how they had been the sites of battles, being damaged by IEDs, suicide vehicles, and coalition airstrikes, and occasionally being bulldozed to prevent their use as fighting positions by ISIL infiltrators. Unfortunately, buildings get destroyed in war, even if there’s no campaign of ethnic cleansing. During my deployment as a Marine in Sangin, Afghanistan, our operations destroyed and damaged many buildings despite our desire to build good relations with the population (similar to the unit before us). Given the inevitability of collateral damage in American operations, it should not surprise us that a force lacking in advanced technology, like the Peshmerga, would inflict collateral damage in its fight against ISIL, but this has not prevented an alignment of Sunni Arab interests with the KRG.

In Rabia, the Shammar tribe collaborated with the Peshmerga to push out ISIL in 2014. Since that time, they have been largely self-governing, while still nominally in the KRG’s orbit. Other independent Sunni Arab militias operate in the KRG, such as Atheel Nujaifi’s force in Bashiqa. The KRG hosts over two million internally displaced persons, many, if not most, of whom are Sunni Arabs. The provincial government of Ninevah operates out of the KRG, where they have previously warned against the participation of the extremist Shiite elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces in the battle for Mosul. The KRG is similarly worried about the Popular Mobilization Forces; Sunni Arab territory that is locally governed, rather than under the central government’s direct control, can also provide a buffer between Erbil and Baghdad. There is not a love of the KRG among Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, but cooperation is more prevalent than many realize given their fears about the central government, and there will be continued cooperation after ISIL is displaced.

It is not only groups of Sunni Arabs who may wish to stay with the KRG post-ISIL. Most Christians who fled from ISIL chose to go north to the KRG rather than south to Baghdad because of the strength of the Christian community in the KRG – there’s actually a Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. While there are several Christian militias in the north, they all cooperate closely with the KRG, which supplies them with equipment and training. I witnessed 500 members of the Ninevah Plains Guard Force being trained alongside the KRG’s elite Zeravani force outside of Erbil in July; these Christian soldiers were not being treated as second class citizens with hand-me-down rifles, but were indistinguishable from the KRG’s own forces save for their unique unit patch. It should be expected that, after the liberation of Mosul, these groups will not wish to strip off their KRG uniforms, renounce their former benefactors, and welcome a Baghdad-appointed administration.

There is no natural or agreed upon status quo ante bellum that the KRG, the Iraqi government, local Sunni Arabs, and the myriad minorities of northern Iraq all wish to return to post-ISIL. The KRG’s economic disruption has not sent it back into Baghdad’s orbit and allowed for an easy post-ISIL solution, as some predicted. If the U.S. couldn’t build a stable, friendly, and centralized Iraq with all the lives and treasure spent during the occupation, we shouldn’t believe that it can do so now with a much smaller investment. Instead, we must look to devolved authority structures that will be stable and end the resentments that lead to extremism. Christine McCaffray van den Toorn has recommended leaning forward into mediating a stable resolution to the tangled web of Sinjar; this wise suggestion might bear fruit not just there, but in other contexts in Northern Iraq. A new status quo must be negotiated that takes into account the complicated relationships in the area; uniform direct control by Baghdad will risk replicating the conditions of sectarian struggle between core and periphery that enabled the ascendance of ISIL in the first place. The problem will not be what the right techniques of governance are, as some have argued, but rather who is governing. A ‘one size fits all’ solution of strong, centralized administration by Baghdad risks winning the battle with ISIL but losing the war to stabilize the region.
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