I talked yesterday with some young, DC-based Kurds after yesterday’s Middle East Institute conference on Iraq here at SAIS. They are fried. The retaking of Kirkuk and other “disputed territories” by Baghdad has made them feel humiliated and furious. The split between President Barzani’s PDK and the PUK, whose peshmerga did not resist the Iraqi security forces, surprised and horrified them. The battle for Kirkuk may be lost, but they are expecting the war to continue.
I hope not. President Barzani miscalculated in holding the referendum. He thought it would consolidate his political hold on Kurdistan and lead to a negotiation with Baghdad, not a military push. He also miscalculated the international reaction, which has been almost universally negative. Only Israel has supported the referendum and an independent Kurdistan, which condemns the effort in most Middle Eastern eyes. Tehran and Ankara have vigorously opposed the referendum. Washington and Moscow have done likewise.
Going to war with Baghdad would be another colossal miscalculation on Barzani’s part. He wisely is indicating that he won’t do that. The reconstituted Iraqi security forces appear more than adequate to overpower the peshmerga, at least until they retreat into the mountains. But it would also be unwise for Baghdad to push its forces past the constitutional borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is foolishly what former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is urging. That would trigger an insurgency, throwing Iraq into even more chaos than it is suffering already in the aftermath of the successful campaign against ISIS. Iraq needs reconstruction and reconciliation, not a new rebellion.
Kurds are not going to give up the autonomy they won in Iraq’s 2005 constitution. Even in the disputed territories retaken by the Iraqi security forces governance may be extraordinarily difficult unless the KRG’s civilian authorities are allowed to return. Wisdom now lies with calming the situation, maintaining law and order as best can be done with local forces, and enabling both Baghdad and Erbil to go back to the negotiating table without losing face. Humiliation, especially on the basis of identity, is a powerful motive for violence and irredentism. A Kurdish rebellion in Iraq would be supported by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. That’s the last thing Iraq needs now.
At yesterday’s conference, both Iraqi Ambassador Yasseen and Iranian Princeton professor Mousavian supported resolution of the disputed territories based on the Iraqi constitution. That is obviously easier said than done, since it has not in fact gotten done in 12 years. But it is still the best solution on offer: local referenda allowing the populations in different communities to decide whether they want to join the KRG or not. What has made that difficult is deciding who should be able to vote, because Arabization during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and population movements since the American invasion could determine the outcome.
That is a soluble problem. Elections in territories that have been demographically engineered have become common in recent decades in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some combination of voter registration (outside the US usually done via the census) and absentee voting can be worked out. The main thing is to negotiate a compromise and proceed with it. That is true as well for other issues dividing Erbil and Baghdad, especially oil revenues and who can export oil with or without someone else’s permission. These are soluble problems that should no longer be allowed to fester. And Haider al Abadi is the most sympathetic prime minister the Kurds can hope to deal with in Baghdad. Making some deals with him before next year’s elections would be smart politics.
Iraq needs to settle its internal issues so that it can begin to play its proper role in helping the region to overcome more than a decade of war. American diplomacy should stand ready to help. It is time to cut deals.
Think of Kirkuk as the keystone that holds Iraq together. When the Kurds had it, they could claim possession of the oil resources as well as their cultural capital. Independence was a credible goal. Without it, independence is a pipe dream and maybe even a nightmare.
What caused the loss of Kirkuk, and now other disputed territories? There has so far been relatively little fighting. The peshmerga associated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who held Kirkuk, apparently surrendered most of their positions. The PUK is aligned in part with Iran, which commanded at least some of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that led the re-occupation of Kirkuk.
Iran is in fact a big winner from this latest military development, since it opposes Kurdistan independence vehemently. But so too do Turkey and the US. Sovereign states are loathe to see other sovereign states partitioned, not least because of fears for their own territorial integrity (Turkey and Iran) as well as their relations with the country in question (the US, Russia and others). Preserving the state structure in the Middle East is in fact one of the few things on which all the states there, and their foreign allies, agree.
The Kurdish independence referendum last month was a colossal miscalculation. KRG President Barzani tried to take advantage of his own momentary dominance in Kurdistan’s politics as well as the victory over ISIS to take what he saw as a giant step towards a goal he knows all Kurds share. But the PUK, Gorran and other political forces in Kurdistan were not happy to see Barzani get the credit and dissented from the process for preparing the referendum, which was shambolic to say the least. The foreign powers that count also objected. In this contest between national aspirations and geopolitics, the latter has won this round.
What now? Baghdad’s forces are apparently trying to restore their control to the situation in 2003, which means taking back most if not all of the so-called “disputed territories.” That might be a bridge too far, but in any event the main thing is to avoid bloodletting as much as possible, since that is what would make a bad situation more intractable. Baghdad already has in Kirkuk what it needs to block independence. What is needed now is to calm the situation and get Baghdad and Erbil back to the negotiating table, where they can discuss Kurdistan’s relationship with the rest of Iraq.
The retaking of Kirkuk and other disputed territories will strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and weaken KRG President Barzani, though the latter may gain inside Iraqi Kurdistan if the PUK is blamed for the military debacle. Abadi has suffered from his predecessor Nour al Maliki’s political maneuvers and was thought to be at risk in elections that are supposed to be held next year. He will now be able to face down criticism from those who thought he was soft on the Kurds.
The KRG is appealing to the Americans to engage. Washington had apparently tried hard to prevent the referendum by doing so. The Kurds made a big mistake in not making sure that effort succeeded. The US may now engage, but with entirely different facts on the ground. While sympathetic to the Kurds and anxious to keep them fighting against the remnants of ISIS, no one in Washington can force Abadi to give up Kirkuk. To the contrary: the Americans will want to maintain as strong a relationship with Abadi as possible, to counter Iranian expanded influence in Baghdad.
Kirkuk makes a big difference.
PS: Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador in the US, seems to me to do a good job in this interview with Wolf Blitzer:
Some of us have worried about the Kirkuk “powder keg” for a long time. The fuse has now been lit. Preventing the larger explosion should now be top priority.
Kirkuk is a complicated place. Both Arabs and Kurds claim the city, not to mention the Turkomen and the much smaller number of Syriac Christians. It has rich, long-producing oil wells mainly north of the city. The Kurds took advantage of the Iraqi army’s collapse in 2014 to take the town, which had previously been more or less under Baghdad’s control. It’s governor since 2011 has been a PUK (i.e. Talabani-family aligned) Kurdish American, Najmaldin Karim. The Kurdish peshmerga have kept the Islamic State out under difficult circumstances.
Now Iraqi Security Forces and Baghdad-controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (or PMF, which are mainly Shia Arab) are trying to re-occupy key parts of Kirkuk: the airport, an army base, and oil infrastructure. Baghdad’s view is that there is no reason to doubt its legal authority to do so, as it has not accepted Kirkuk as a part of the Kurdistan Region. That region’s government (the KRG) sees things differently, as it claims Baghdad has refused to fulfill the constitutional requirement of a referendum in Kirkuk to determine whether it wants to join the autonomous region. Baghdad has in principle the stronger fighting forces, partly well-equipped by the Americans. But the peshmerga are experienced and capable, also having benefited from American support.
Baghdad is under enormous pressure to reassert its authority in Kirkuk because of last month’s KRG independence referendum, which passed overwhelmingly with many non-Kurds in the KRG not voting. Prime Minister al-Abadi, who in principle is more sympathetic with Kurdish aspirations than most Arabs, needs to prove that he is prepared to stand up for their interests. The PMF, which are at least partly controlled by his rival and predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, are spoiling for a fight with the peshmerga. The Iranians, who vehemently oppose independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, are no doubt backing an aggressive stance, though they have been visibly trying to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil.
KRG President Barzani insisted on the referendum, despite vigorous US, Iranian, and Turkish opposition. He claimed it was merely advisory and intended as an overture to two years of negotiations on the KRG’s borders and status with Baghdad. While he has talked of “confederation” with Arab Iraq, Kurds, especially the younger ones, expect better than that, despite the opposition of all their neighbors. Barzani comes from a family committed for generations to an independent Kurdistan.
The contest is between national aspirations and geopolitical reality. It will now be decided in part by force of arms. But violence begets other realities that neither the Erbil nor Baghdad can afford to risk. The time to stop the clashes between the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga is now. Let’s hope the Americans can spare enough time from their own internecine squabbles over whether to allow football players to kneel during the national anthem to get two important allies to stop fighting.
Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA safeguards inspector, writes:
The nuclear threat is at a historical high. The North Korean crisis and US President Trump’s intention to decertify the Iran Nuclear deal are the tip of the iceberg.
Neither the Treaty on Non Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards inspectorate nor numerous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions could stop the world’s nuclear race in recent decades. The number of countries possessing nuclear weapons (NW) increased from five, which are the recognized nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UNSC, to allegedly nine.
While the rationale for developing and deploying of NW has always been national security through deterrence, hence war prevention, the prospects for maintaining global peace are thinner than ever before.
Just to mention some of the risk factors related to the major nuclear threat:
- There are currently about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of 9 countries (about 14,000 of them possessed by Russia and the US), capable of devastating our globe many times. Additionally, the nuclear material stored under various security conditions in civil and military facilities around the world is estimated to be sufficient to produce 240,000 nuclear devices. As of end 2016, about 204,000 of these are under IAEA safeguards.
- The NPT is not applied universally. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not parties to the treaty, thus not legally obliged to its restrictions.
- The majority of states in the international community are disappointed in NW states for not fulfilling their NPT commitments on nuclear disarmament (NPT Art. VI)
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the continuing North Korean crisis, and the up to 15 years limited Iran deal have revealed glaring non-proliferation shortcomings.
- The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference in New York indicated clearly the international community’s distrust in a fair (without double standards) enforcement of international nuclear law.
- In July 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted by a vast majority a NW Ban Treaty. It is a legally binding instrument towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons that will enter into force after 50 signatures and ratifications.
- The 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to ICAN, a worldwide coalition of NGOs campaigning against NW. Notably, the same award was given in 2005 to the IAEA’s staff and Director General, basically for the Agency’s unbiased and courageous statements failed to deter the invasion of Iraq.
In such an adverse nuclear climate there are two leaders with a finger on the button, Kim Yong-un and Donald Trump, who according to prevailing assessments have dubious nuclear decision capability. This is the fact that creates the highest current risk of major nuclear threat.
Regarding the tough responsibilities of a US president to decide on pushing the nuclear button in a matter of minutes, with no checks and balances by Congress or anyone else, Bob Woodward recalls (The Washington Post, 12 Nov 2016): «In 2008, after then-President-elect Obama was given one sensitive intelligence briefing at a secure facility in Chicago he joked, “It’s good that there are bars on the windows here because if there weren’t, I might be jumping out.”
A historic period not only for US contemporary politics but for the direction of global developments might prove to be the period 15 October to 15 December 2017. President Trump will apparently submit in the next few days to Congress for approval his decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Congress will either approve it or send it back with no action, for the president to implement, or not.
A unilateral decision to scrap the deal would mean that the US would not keep its commitments under an agreement reached not only with Iran but with China, Russia, UK, France and Germany and finally adopted by the EU and endorsed by the UNSC Resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. Moreover, decertifying the Iran deal will mean that the US disrespects and disagrees with the assessments of the responsible UN organization, the IAEA, that Iran is in compliance with the agreement since implementation day 16 January 2016.
Such a decision will open Pandora’s box. Some negative consequences are obvious. It will cloud Iran’s nuclear and political future, worsen the North Korea crisis, degrade political and economic relations of the US with the other five agreement parties and the EU, and increase the international community’s distrust of the UN system, international law, and justice. It will also severely damage the authority of the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.
Mitigation and finally elimination of the highest risk factor related to the current major nuclear threat is the topmost task in any comprehensive nuclear security plan. It is therefore now a chief challenge to get the US to preserve global peace, in accordance with its leadership responsibilities.
It can be problematic to take the “Middle East” as a single entity–to speak of it generally risks ignoring nuances and dangerously simplifies conversations and engagements with the region. At the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead” event, however, John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution argued that one of the United States government’s flaws was its divided outlook toward the region, seeing the countries in it as “separated blocks” rather than parts of a larger, interrelated region. Finding a balance between examining the region’s countries separately and seeing them as part of a whole is what Allen, Mara Karlin, Daniel Byman, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, all experts at the Brookings Institution, made an effort to do on Thursday, October 5. The panel was moderated by Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.
Karlin gave an overview of the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a victory over ISIS would result in political reconciliation and stabilization. Iraq would go through reconstruction, a main component of which would be the return of the country’s refugees. Not included in this vision of Iraq’s future are the Kurds, who, envision a separate future for themselves, as expressed in the Kurdish referendum of September. The formation of an independent Kurdistan, however, would bring its own set of challenges, as it would be landlocked and surrounded by hostile neighboring countries.
While Karlin’s assessment of Iraq contained some hope, her assessment of Syria was grim, as she labeled it a “humanitarian catastrophe” even if the conflict seems to be nearing an end in which the Assad regime regains control over the majority of the country. Although he seems to have an advantage, Allen contended that Assad will not win, attributing Assad’s advantage to several factors. One was the disconnect between US strategy to defeat ISIS and its anti-Assad stance, which would have attracted more Syrian support but remains no more than a “policy aspiration.” Another shortcoming on the part of the US was its delayed support to the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Defense Force, as well as its failure to act upon its “red line” threats in 2013.
Shifting the focus away from the US, Allen said that the Gulf states have also been creating obstacles in Syria, as they are supporting opposing militias. Karlin agreed that certain events had made it more difficult for the opposition to succeed, citing the US response to the war in Libya and its failure to design a response that would be appropriate for the Syrian context. Karlin disagreed with Allen, however, in that she maintained that a victory for Assad seems realistic and upcoming.
Saini Fasanotti spoke about the numerous dimensions that characterize Libya’s present situation. The international community’s recent actions, including the appointment of Lebanese Ghassan Salame as the new UN special envoy to Libya, represent positive steps towards stabilization. However, she criticized the divisions that exist among both external and internal actors, considering they are Libya’s biggest obstacles. More generally, she suggested that efforts to achieve further stabilization in Libya could not be expected to follow other models in the region, as Libya “has never been a state since the Ottoman Empire,” referring to the colonization of Libya by Italy and even to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He worked to increase the country’s divisions rather than to unify it, making Libya’s current goal the establishment of a unified, independent country, and not the restoration of one that existed previously.
Byman discussed the state of counterterrorism efforts in the region, beginning with some promising signs: Al Qaeda has been largely inactive and seems to have submitted to pressures exerted on it by international actors, and ISIS is losing battles in Iraq and Syria. However, Byman pointed out that while the US has the capabilities of defeating these groups, it has not historically been successful at supporting a transition for governments after such successes. The rapid rise of ISIS suggests that the idea necessary to form such a group are present, making the job of supporting states to gain stability more important. Shifting the focus to the West, Byman noted how terrorist groups in the Middle East have influenced policies and attitudes in Western countries, exemplified most clearly by the hostilities that Muslim communities are facing. The demonization of Muslims has also led the US travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and its efforts to slow its refugee resettlement program.
Addressing the situation both in the Middle East and the West more broadly, Allen recalled the Arab Spring – which he suggested be renamed the “Arab Tsunami” – and reminded the audience of its negative consequences: the vulnerable positions that states have fallen into, the increasing social and economic difficulties, radicalization, and the refugee crisis. Refugees have particularly affected Europe, testing its social fabric and resilience and causing social and political divisions. Such repercussions have resulted mainly from the numerous attacks that Europe has witnessed since the beginning of the crisis, causing an increasing preoccupation with security precautions and a fear of refugees and immigrants.
Discussing policy options for the US, there was consensus on the need to prioritize economic assistance to the region as a whole. Karlin added that the US needs to be aware of the distractions that Iran and the nuclear deal have posed. Instead of the nuclear deal, Karlin argued, Iran’s role in destabilizing countries in the Middle East should be the US focus. In Libya, Saini Fasanotti urged the West to adopt a “bottom-up” approach, reiterating her views on Libya’s nationhood (“in a nation that does not exist, you cannot look at the top”). She emphasized the importance of giving citizens a role and a choice, responsibilities that they were not granted under the Ottomans, Italy, or Gaddafi.
Byman pointed to the dangers of the approach that the West has taken in dealing with refugees, especially the poor treatment of refugees in Europe despite the welcoming front exhibited by accepting large numbers, which h argue, has caused radicalization to occur in most cases inside Europe and not outside of it. He also referred to the West’s failure to treat all types of violence equally. Not taking right-wing violence seriously further isolates and demonizes refugee and immigrant groups. Saini Fasanotti suggested that Europe in particular needs a “real strategy” to effectively welcome and integrate refugees, referring to her personal experience in Italy and the increasing hostility towards refugees that she has witnessed.
- The Kurdish Crisis: Baghdad, Erbil, and Institutional Reform in Iraq | Tuesday, October 10 | 11:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The ongoing tension between the Kurdistan regional government and the federal government in Baghdad are generating new concerns about the long-term stability of Iraq. Critical issues relating to energy, security, and institutions must be addressed in order to prevent further conflicts and promote economic development. Please join us for a discussion on these topics. The panelists will address the energy aspects of the crisis, the security dimensions, the prospects for institutional reform, and the role the United States should play to help resolve the conflict. Panelists include Dr. Harith Hasan Al Qarawee of the Atlantic Council, Amb. Stuart Jones of the US Department of State, Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University, and will be moderated by Amb. Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council.
- The Path Forward for Dealing with North Korea | Tuesday, October 10 | 10:00 – 1:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | On October 10, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings will host leading U.S. experts and former officials to identify actionable policy steps the White House and Congress should take to address the growing threat from North Korea. Panel presentations will focus on Kim Jong Un’s outlook and objectives, the history of negotiations with North Korea, and comparative case studies, including the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and recent negotiations with Iran. Former Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines will deliver a keynote address, sharing insights from her experiences and offering thoughts on the path forward for dealing with North Korea. The first panel, “Who is Kim Jong Un?” will feature moderator Ryan Hass of the John L. Thornton China Center, as well as panelists Jung H. Pak of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Evan Osnos of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Jean H. Lee of the Wilson International Center for Scholars. The second panel, titled, “Lessons From Historical Case Studies,” will be moderated by Jung H. Pak and will feature Jake Sullivan of Yale Law School, David S. Cohen of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Jonathan D. Pollack of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Author and Journalist Michael Dobbs.
- Drones Under Trump | Wednesday, October 11 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | The use of armed drones and the expansive authority to use lethal force claimed by the U.S. government remain some of the most controversial aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Though the Obama administration introduced limited policy constraints on the use of force aimed at increased protection of civilians, and reforms designed to increase transparency near the end of its tenure, the Trump administration appears to be rolling back these policies. Thus far, the Trump administration has expanded operations outside “hot battlefields” and delegated more strike authority to the military. Reports suggest that the new administration is proposing to go even further by loosening the limited policy constraints on the use of force and may seek to broaden the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes. These actions and proposals raise renewed concerns about the prospect of endless war and increased secrecy, and underscore the need for meaningful accountability and oversight of U.S. lethal operations abroad. Please join the Stimson Center and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic for a panel event on issues surrounding U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration. The panel will discuss and evaluate past U.S. practice, analyze recent developments, and assess the Trump administration’s approach to the use of force, transparency, and accountability. Panelists include Waleed Alhariri of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Alex Moorehead of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Luke Hartig of the National Journal’s Network Science Initiative, and Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center.
- From Mosul to Brain Science to Tech: Creating Peace in a Violent World | Wednesday, October 11 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | As violent conflict erupts across the globe and the institutions that have kept peace for 70 years strain under the pressure, the demand for sustainable peace and security only grows. The Iraqi city of Mosul searches for a way to recover from the brutal rule of ISIS. Half a world away, Colombia is exploring ways to finance the terms of its historic peace accord. Technology, people power, and brain science are part of an array of possible solutions. Join the first day of the 2017 conference of the Alliance for Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Oct. 11, as experts explore new ideas for preventing and resolving violent conflict. The event will consist of a keynote address and seven panels, which include “Next Steps for Peace in Mosul,” “Innovative Approaches for Financing Peace,” “Transforming Violent Conflict: Where People Power Meets Peacebuilding,” and Stabilizing Conflict-Affected Areas: Policy Challenges, New Opportunities, and Lessons from the Past.”
- Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed? | Wednesday, October 11 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | For decades the United States and Pakistan have worked as strategic partners despite differences in priorities, but today this relationship is at a crossroads. The Trump administration seems poised for a confrontation with Pakistan over its alleged protection of Taliban and Haqqani Network insurgents. China’s support of Pakistan, increased Russian and Iranian engagement in the region, and India’s apparent deeper involvement in Afghanistan further complicate Washington’s bilateral relationship with Islamabad. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host an expert panel to examine these developments and the stakes for the United States and Pakistan in preserving their relationship. MEI’s director for Afghanistan and Pakistan studies, Marvin Weinbaum, will moderate the event featuring Daniel Markey, Shuja Nawaz, Joshua White, and Moeed Yusuf.
- How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West | Wednesday, October 11 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Recent global events show that the post-Cold War flow of money and values was not a one-way affair. The West is witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own democratic system. This destructive import of corrupt practices comes not only from post-Soviet kleptocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from China and other countries around the world whose ruling elites now possess far-reaching financial and political interests in the West. Join Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative for a discussion of Ilya Zaslavskiy’s report, “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West.” After opening remarks by Mr. Zaslavskiy and responses by Jeffrey Gedmin and David Kramer, two expert panels will explore the development of corrupt norms and the true nature of contemporary kleptocratic regimes, as well as the methods they deploy to undermine Western democracy – and what can be done to fight back. Panelists will include Louise Shelley of George Mason University, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ambassador Richard D. Kauzlarich of the Center for Energy Science and Policy and George Mason University, and Paul Massaro of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Charles Davidson of the Kleptocracy Initiative will moderate.