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Mosul recapture set to sharpen divide between Baghdad and Erbil

People take part in the Newroz celebrations in Kirkuk, Iraq on March 20, 2017. ( Ali Mukarrem Garip - Anadolu Agency )

As Iraqi forces press home their advantage in the final stage of the recapture of Mosul, attention is increasingly focussed on the aftermath of the ejection of Daesh from the northern Nineveh province.

While there is ample reason to worry about the continuation of sectarian tensions in Nineveh, and the rest of the country more broadly, one under-reported threat to Iraqi national security – indeed to the very notion of Iraqi statehood – is Kurdish over-reach.To date Kurdish forces under the control of the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) haven’t entered Mosul itself but they have positioned forces very close to the city, well beyond sizeable Kurdish population centres in the Nineveh province.

The Peshmerga strategy of forging strategic depth for the KRG by creating a security buffer zone between Erbil and Mosul, whilst understandable in terms of Kurdish security concerns, nevertheless runs the risk of perpetuating conflict in this most sensitive region of Iraq.Furthermore, intra-Kurdish conflict, in the form of fighting between KRG-led forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Sinjar, complicates the strategic landscape even further, thus  making it harder for Baghdad to fully reassert Iraqi sovereignty.

Kurdish ambition

While most of Iraq has been traumatised by the struggle against Daesh since the latter’s sweeping gains in northern and western regions in mid-2014, the KRG, and more specifically the Erbil-based Kurdistan Democratic Party leadership, have viewed the conflict as a strategic opportunity to fast track their quest for statehood.

The Kurdish strategy is underpinned by land grabs and resultant creation of facts on the ground to alter the local balance of power in contested areas. The latter so-called “disputed territories” as defined by article 140 of Iraq’s post-Baathist constitution, whose status was supposed to be resolved through dialogue and local referenda, have effectively been annexed by the KRG.

The crown jewel of the “disputed territories” was Kirkuk (long an object of Kurdish nationalism) which came under full Kurdish control in June 2014 as Daesh overran Mosul. Whilst tensions persist on the province’s periphery, principally on the province’s southern edge where further Kurdish advances are blocked by a strong Shia-led paramilitary presence, the city of Kirkuk is firmly in KRG hands and is unlikely to be relinquished in the foreseeable future.

In Nineveh province, the KRG has an established presence in some areas dating back to the formation of the administration in 1991, notably in the Aqra and Al-Shikhan districts as well as the Nineveh plains. It is noteworthy that Aqra is now formally part of Dohuk province but nevertheless Baghdad disputes this status.

The justification for KRG control over these areas has been largely premised on the presence of Kurdish and other minority communities, notably Assyrian Christians and Shabaks. The Nineveh plains for example is a bastion of Assyrian Christendom. Moreover, in view of Kurdish security prowess, Erbil was able to argue that it is better placed than Baghdad to protect the region’s subtle demographic mosaic which is home to many ancient and idiosyncratic communities.

Wither Iraq?

The operation to retake Mosul, which started in October 2016, gave fresh impetus to the Peshmerga’s drive to expand its sphere of influence in Nineveh, by encroaching on the eastern and northern gates of Mosul. This military presence is unlikely to be challenged in the foreseeable future (possibly for years to come) thus enabling the Kurds to bolster their influence within the city of Mosul itself. Kurdish intelligence, notably the Asayish, has had strong coverage in Mosul since the mid-1990s and out of all the regional and international intelligence services, it has probably been the most successful at penetrating Daesh.

Notwithstanding its own internal contradictions, notably deep-rooted political and economic challenges, the KRG will utilise its gains in Nineveh province, in addition to gains in other contested areas, as leverage in its wide-ranging disputes with Baghdad.

Whilst Kurdish aspirations for statehood have long been recognised as the main fault-line in Iraqi politics, and comprise its gravest centrifugal threat, the rise of sectarianism, notably Shia-Sunni community-based conflict, appeared to have eclipsed this threat, as evidenced by the rise of Daesh. Yet in terms of existential threats to the Iraqi state, sectarianism is not only exaggerated but more to the point it is likely to prove ephemeral.

The transformation of the once firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, from a putative sectarian player, into an ally of the Iraqi Arab Sunni community is a case in point. In order to adequately address the Kurdish challenge, and crucially to avoid military clashes with Peshmerga forces in sensitive areas, the Iraqi political establishment needs to create durable local political and security structures in newly liberated areas.

These structures need to be responsive to multiple stakeholders, including the Kurds and the minorities allied to them. Nowhere is this more urgent than in Mosul in view of this proud city’s strong Arab nationalist identity and equally important the delicate demographic mosaic that lies just beyond the city.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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