Two different sets of U.S. allies are now in open conflict in Iraq.
The autonomous Kurdish Region, located in northern Iraq, seeks to break away and form an independent state, while the federal government based in Baghdad views the attempt as illegitimate.
After weeks of mounting tension, Iraqi state-aligned militia forces rolled into the strategically important city of Kirkuk, a disputed area on the border just outside the Kurdistan Region. Kurdish forces defending the city withdrew, the Kurdish flag was pulled down and the Iraqi federal flag hoisted.
Both the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces were equipped with U.S. made weaponry.
The bold move came after Kurdistan refused to annul an independence referendum held three weeks ago where the Kurds overwhelmingly voted “yes” to independence.
But the Iraqi federal government is not acting alone.
Iraq, Turkey and Iran have made it very clear that they will not allow an independent Kurdish state to be established. Both Iran and Turkey have sizeable minority Kurdish populations which could try to break away should the Kurdish region of Iraq gain independence.
The Iraqi People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), who comprised a large proportion of the force which took Kirkuk, are back by Iran. Turkey has also agreed to hand over control of a checkpoint on the Iraqi-Turkish border to Iraqi federal authorities.
So where does the United States stand?
You would be forgiven for thinking the U.S. would be backing the Kurds. We know the Kurds love U.S. President Trump. Samantha Bee even did a special on why the Kurds love him so much. It may have something to do with the fact that he’s the first American president to arm them.
Trump is currently embroiled in a war of words with Turkey. He suspended non-immigration visas from Turkey last week, leading Erdogan to retort “we are not beholden to you” and respond in kind. Such comments may find a fertile audience, Turkey expert Cengiz Candar reported for Al-Monitor this week.
“According to Pew Research Center, only 13% of Turks have a positive perception of American ideals, and 72% of Turks feel threatened by American power and influence,” Candar wrote.
President Trump has also slammed the threat posed by Iran many times, both in his election campaign and since taking office.
“The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country, with a rich history and culture, into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos,” Trump thundered to the UN back in September. “The longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are, in fact, its own people. Rather than use its resources to improve Iranian lives, its oil profits go to fund Hezbollah and other terrorists that kill innocent Muslims and attack their peaceful Arab and Israeli neighbors.”
Trump went further on Friday, decertifying the Iranian nuclear agreement and instructing the Treasury Department to slap a new terror designation the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
“I am authorizing the Treasury Department to further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism, and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents and affiliates,” Trump said. “I urge our allies to join us in taking strong actions to curb Iran’s continued dangerous and destabilizing behavior.”
The sanctions will prevent the IRGC from accessing the U.S. financial system.
Yet, how did the President react to news that Major-General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the IRGC, has been sent into Iraq to broker agreements and secure arrangements favorable to the Iranian state?
“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that their clashing,” Trump said at a press conference. “We’ve had for many years very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know. And we’ve also been on the side of Iraq. Even though we should have never been in there in the first place – we should never have been there. But we’re not taking sides in that battle.”
Instead, U.S. forces are reportedly attempting to mediate.
“Coalition leaders at all levels are engaging with their counterparts in the Iraqi security forces to encourage dialogue and de-escalation,” Colonel Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told the press.
But in a conflict between a stronger party and a weaker party, refraining from taking sides is to choose the path of the stronger. In this case, that party is Iran.
The leader of the Kurdistan National Assembly in Syria told the Clarion Project that the West “need[s] to promote the values that they preach and practice. When they do that, the only solution is the Kurds, who can stop the Shia Crescent and prevent the Neo-Ottoman Empire from forming.”
The Kurds have been consistently pro-America and anti-America’s enemies. Failure to back the Kurds directly contradicts Trump’s own stated goals of reigning back Iran.