It would be easy to miss two major events in the Middle East this week due to the flap over Donald Trump's continuing insult parade, this time with regard to calls to grieving family members of fallen US military personnel.
One of the two major events was the fall of Raqqa, Syria, which had been the "capital" of the ISIS "caliphate". This capture may put an end to the "caliphate" for now, but it most certainly does not put an end to ISIS. This article linked-to here gives some detail, but the crux of it is: ISIS is going to shift into international terrorism mode for a while, lay low in Syria and Iraq for the time being, and, when chaos once again engulfs Syria and Iraq - which is almost certain, given the competing powers at play - possibly come rolling on back.
I sincerely hope this does not happen, as ISIS is as evil as it gets, but you can't rationally blame ISIS for taking a page from the Taliban's playbook, i.e., retreat for a bit and wait for an opening to come back in big way. Lookee here, the Taliban ain't doing so bad these days:
(Source: Al Jazeera)
(Incidentally, here's a great New Yorker piece on Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, a smart man who I am a big fan of, but who also may be too stubborn and too unwilling to engage in power politics to actually run the country effectively.)
Anyways, back to Iraq/Syria... so, Raqqa has fallen. ISIS, for now, has been driven away. Which brings us to our new, immediate problem - or rather, or newest iteration of a very old problem:
The fall of Raqqa threatens to inflame relations between Kurds and Arabs, who have been fighting the Islamic State in an uneasy alliance with the United States-led coalition — but against an enemy that is rapidly melting away. Most immediately, they may be at odds over the future governing of Raqqa. (New York Times)
You bet your touchas they'll be at odds, especially given the other major news from this neck of the woods, which was much more shocking than the expected fall of Raqqa: the much more surprising fall of Kirkuk.
Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq, had been under the control of the Kurds since mid-2014. This map, from June 2014, courtesy of the Guardian, shows you both Raqqa and Kirkuk as well as the extent of the Kurdistan regional government at the time:
As you can see, that's a big chunk of green up there, and none of Kurdistan's neighbors is too happy about that. Certainly Iraq has no reason to be happy with a sizable de facto nation occupying much of Northern Iraq itself. But there are lots and lots of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran as well, and an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would certainly prompt hope for Kurdish territorial gains at the expense of Turkey, Syria and Iran.
The Kurds are not politically monolithic. In understanding the Kurds, you should know these four groups in particular:
- The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - led by the Barzani family, in particular President Massoud Barzani, who is often accused (correctly) of corruption and authoritarianism. It is fair to point out that corruption and authoritarianism are pretty common features of the chaotic Middle East these days, so let's not single ol' Massoud out.
- The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - presided over by the Talabani family. Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani died just recently, on October 3, 2017. Just like the KDP, these folks are not saints, nor are they really worse than any of their enemies.
- The Peshmerga, the Kurds' fighting force, which is divided between KDP and PUK loyalists basically. A highly effective infantry force for years.
- The Women's Protection Units (YPJ) - female defenders of Rojava (in Northwest Syria) and enemies of ISIS, about whom the War Nerd has written with his typical blend of cold-hearted realism and warm-blooded passion.
What has happened here in a nutshell is that the PUK sold out the KDP (with the YPJ an afterthought, but also getting screwed). The Peshmerga stood down and did not defend Kirkuk as the Iraqi army - nothing to write home about, honestly - retook the city without firing more than a shotor two.
It's a stunning upset because the Peshmerga has been so effective for so long, and Kurdistan such a reality on the ground, that Massoud Barzani felt free to call a referendum on Kurdish independence just recently. The referendum was a big "success" but it was a bridge too far for the Iraqi government, and more importantly, for Qassem Soleimani in Iran.
Soleimani - a man with whom you should not fuck (pardon my language), as yet another fantastic New Yorker profile makes clear - cut some kind of deal with the PUK (what, exactly, the deal was is the main mystery here) and the PUK stood down. The Peshmerga, which had fought so well for so many years running, just totally folded. To me, this comes as almost as big a surprise as Trump's victory over Clinton last year.
|(Source: energy-pedia news)|
Now the Kurds no longer control Kirkuk, and even worse for them, they no longer control Kirkuk's oil fields. That's a huge financial blow for Kurdistan. It appears to be good news for British Petroleum, however.
As for Donald Trump, it is not great news. Emphases added below mine. From NBC:
A few days after the Trump administration announced a new, get-tough approach to Iran, one of that country's top military commanders [Qassem Soleimani] and the armed Shiite militias he supports played a key role in the seizure of an important Iraqi city from the U.S.-backed Kurds, according to Iraqi, Kurdish and American officials. (NBC News)
From the New York Times:
American officials, including President Trump, insisted that the United States was not taking sides in the dispute, but some analysts say that the United States approved the Iraqi plan to enter Kurdish-held areas and that Iran helped broker the agreement with a Kurdish faction to withdraw its fighters from Kirkuk, allowing the Iraqi forces to take over largely unopposed. (NY Times)
And here's the money quote on the so-called "Trump doctrine":
"This is the first real tangible challenge to the Trump Iran doctrine, and we have our answer: it seems like there is nothing behind it," Michael Barbero, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served in Iraq and has close ties to the Kurds, told NBC News. (NBC News)
Well, our President is too busy picking fights with widows to stand by our long-time allies in the Middle East anyways.
For me, it's a truly sad moment for the Kurds, to whom I am deeply sympathetic, corruption or no corruption. They have had to put up with a lot over the years, notably genocide. There was some hope that a new Kurdish nation would rise, as Israel once did. For now, such hopes look to be dead.