It hasn’t taken long for the celebrations in Iraqi Kurdistan to creep closer to trepidation. On Sept. 25, Iraq’s Kurds went to the polls and resoundingly voted in favour of independence. The referendum was roundly condemned by the international community for its destabilizing effects on Iraq. Nonetheless, Kurds danced in the streets when results showed over 90 per cent support for breaking away from Baghdad.
Within days, the Iraqi government shut down Kurdistan’s airspace and took control of its airports. Iran closed its borders and Turkey threatened to do the same, though it has refrained from following through until it can figure out an alternative route for the tens of billions of dollars worth of trade between Iraq and Turkey. Turkish forces, however, joined their Iraqi counterparts in Kurdistan’s west, near its border with Syria, for military exercises, a clear message to the Kurdistan Regional Government that force is an option.
On Oct. 11, panic spread over social media as reports began circulating of the Iraqi army, alongside the feared Shia militias, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, amassing troops near Kirkuk, the contested oil-rich region which the Kurds have, for all practical purposes, annexed. The Iraqi government quickly tweeted assurances no invasion was planned.
A day later, fears were renewed after the same forces began making moves on Kurdish held areas around Kirkuk.
“We are warning the international community and the coalition of the danger of this unstable situation,” an Oct. 13 press release from Peshmerga General Command stated. “All the Peshmerga forces should be ready to defend the soil and people of Kurdistan and reverse any threats and attacks.”
Only weeks earlier, Canadian special forces, embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga, had shifted their operations to Kirkuk, in anticipation of the offensive in Hawija, a 4,000 sq.-km. patch of territory peppered with farming villages and sliced through with river valleys and high mesas, just west of Kirkuk. This was the so-called Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq, and the plan was supposed to be for the Iraqi army to mount offensives from the west and south while the Kurds opened up a second front from the north.
“But the Iraqis broke the agreement,” Brig.-Gen. Hajar Ismail, a spokesperson for the Peshmerga, says by telephone. “The offensive was supposed to begin after the referendum but they decided to take the region themselves while we were preparing for the vote.”
The Iraqi 9th division, along with the Hashd al-Shaabi, and a contingent of Canadian Special Forces advisers, surprised the Kurds and moved on Hawija on Sept. 21, catching the Peshmerga flat-footed. They managed well enough on their own. The offensive, which many observers anticipated would be a tough slog, only lasted two weeks. Most Islamic State fighters and their families surrendered to Kurdish forces, terrified of the Hashd al-Shaabi’s reputation for exacting brutal revenge on any Sunnis they deem friendly to ISIS, including civilians.
The victory should have been a celebratory moment. Instead, in the wake of the Kurdish independence referendum, it paved the way for the looming standoff between the Kurds and the Iraqis.
“We expected the Iraqis to reduce their troops in Hawija after they completed the offensive,” Ismail says. “Instead they have increased their troops.”
The Kurds have responded by cutting off the roads connecting their territory to Mosul and beefing up their positions along their de facto border with the rest of Iraq. The Iraqis are now partnering with the Turks to find a way to cut off the Kurds from the outside world. A meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Iraqi counterpart, Haider al-Abadi, scheduled for Sunday, will look at alternative routes for commercial traffic between the two countries. It will be difficult: the Kurds control the entire border separating Turkey from Iraq and, in the absence of a negotiated settlement, punching through Kurdish territory will almost certainly lead to direct conflict.
Canadian forces now find themselves on both sides of the brewing conflict. Last April, some of Canada’s 200 special forces advisers expanded their mission to assisting Iraqi forces battling ISIS while others stayed with the Kurds. According to Department of National Defence officials, “the Special Operations Task Force has completed its advise and assist mission with the forces with whom it was partnered in the Hawija pocket and [are] no longer in that area,” referring to those special forces embedded with the Iraqi army.
Officials did not comment on whether Canadians soldiers are still deployed with the Peshmerga in Kirkuk, but if they still are, they now find themselves on the front lines of a brewing civil war. Ismail says the Canadians in Kirkuk have not, as of now, pulled back to their bases but insists the Kurdistan Government does not expect them to fight for the Kurds against the Iraqi central government.
“We are not asking Canada to support us in case of a military confrontation with the Iraqis,” he says. “But we want the international community to help us force negotiations with Baghdad. That is the only solution to this crisis.”
That seems unlikely at this point. The Kurdistan government may have won a victory with their own people with an ill-timed referendum on independence, but it has put the international community, including Canada, in an awkward, and potentially deadly, position. It now finds itself in a crisis of its own making, and one it will not solve alone.
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