Tag Archives: Kurdistan

Amid Iraqi Protests, Kurdish Region Balances Iran’s IRGC

{article previously published in The Defense Post written by Seth J. Frantzman and Dr. Eric R. Mandel}

At the Black Tiger Base in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq the concerns of Kurdish Peshmerga who have spent five years fighting Islamic State have now turned to the rise of Iran-backed militias.

“ISIS is infiltrating these Sunni Arab areas where locals have a bad relationship with the Hashd al-Shaabi,” a local commander told us last month, referring to the largely Shiite militias who operate checkpoints and control parts of rural Iraq.

In the Kurdish autonomous region, a stable and prosperous part of Iraq that has been a key partner of the United States for decades, the increasing strength of Iran threatens to undermine years of work to support Iraq.

This is now clear amid the crescendo of protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq where protesters have targeted party offices of politicians linked to Iran and a heavy-handed crackdown has left more than 100 dead. Baghdad has followed the Tehran model of cutting of internet and targeting local media, while the autonomous Kurdistan region still has internet access.

This has larger ramifications. Iran increasingly wants to use Iraq as a springboard for regional ambitions. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in early October that destroying Israel was an achievable goal, and Iraq has become a key conduit for Iran’s influence to carry out its plans. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq has threatened the U.S., saying Iran would not hesitate to target American forces in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Iraqi President Barham Salih on September 23 where he emphasized the sovereignty of Iraq and efforts to increase regional stability. However, that stability is undermined by outside forces.

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook also spoke at the Asia Society on the same day and warned of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps role in the Middle East. The IRGC’s role in Iraq is creating a carbon copy of itself through a group of paramilitary forces called the Popular Mobilization Units or Hashd al-Shaabi.

The PMU, raised to fight ISIS, has become an official paramilitary force with checkpoints and influence stretching across the country. Its deputy commander, sanctioned by the U.S. as a terrorist, wants the PMU to have his own air force.

In the Nineveh plains its units harass Christians, preventing them from thriving after ISIS. In Sinjar, Yazidis persecuted by ISIS cannot return because of the patchwork of militias. The PMU is likely behind a series of mortar and rocket attacks near U.S. forces that began in May as U.S.-Iran tensions increased. Members of these Iran-backed groups also attacked a Saudi oil field in May.

Two years after the liberation of Mosul and swaths of Iraq from ISIS, the Shiite militias are at a crossroads. They increasingly look like a carbon-copy of the IRGC, more powerful than Lebanon’s Hezbollah. As part of Iran’s network of IRGC-supported groups they are a key funnel for weapons across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

Washington has tended to naively confront Iranian influence in Baghdad by sinking funds into various mythological Iraqi nationalist leaders, from Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to Haider Abadi and Muqtada al-Sadr, all of whom ended up being closer to Iran than the U.S.

Maliki’s heavy-handed tactics against minorities fueled ISIS, Abadi called the Iran-backed militias the “hope” of Iraq and Sadr recently was summoned to Tehran to sit with IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

We went to northern Iraq to speak with Kurdish Regional Government politicians, government ministers, Peshmerga generals and others about their region’s role today. It left a sobering impression.

The 2005 Iraqi Constitution guarantees the Kurdistan region a budget for its Peshmerga and civil servants but Baghdad has systematically cut those funds. The Kurdish fighters who helped defeat ISIS lack basic gear such as body armor, proper barracks, night-vision equipment, anti-armor and anti-drone systems.

We drove out to their front line where ISIS members could be seen with binoculars hiding in caves. The Peshmerga hold the top of Mount Qarachogh, around an hour’s drive southwest from the KRG capital of Erbil. The Iraqi army and PMU hold a line several kilometers away in the plains below, while ISIS still operates in small groups between them.

U.S. interests in Iraq are to keep the country from being a springboard for instability in the region. But those interests are also to keep Iran from swallowing the country as its “near abroad,” perfecting a Hezbollah model for carving out a state-within-a-state.

How do you balance Iraq’s version of the IRGC? The White House has used “maximum pressure” on Iran but wants to avoid war. Iraq is a perfect place to broaden that policy by extending sanctions, imposed in July, to more PMU units. At the same time, Washington should work directly with the KRG, ensuring greater support for the Peshmerga and for other institutions.

There is reticence in the U.S. for open-ended involvement in Iraq. Suppo

rting Kurdistan regional institutions is a force multiplier: They are openly seeking greater partnership with the U.S. and they are a key conduit to security in eastern Syria where the U.S. plays a key role.

Too often U.S. policymakers seem to take allies for granted while imagining that adversaries can be bought off or co-opted by carrots and appeasement. There’s no evidence this has worked.

Baghdad’s response to the protests shows its fragility. It’s time to try a different approach, because Iraq is a linchpin of security in the region. Partnering with the Kurdistan region has the added benefit of showing Baghdad the U.S. is serious about going around it so long as it empowers militias and squeezes Erbil.


Seth J. Frantzman is the author of ‘After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East‘ (Gefen Publishing 2019).

Dr. Eric Mandel is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.

Reevaluating America’s Foreign Policy for Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

You can replace Afghanistan with Iraq, Kurdistan or Syria in the title and ask: Can they survive America’s exit, and does it serve America’s interests to hand them over to enemies of the West?

Americans are in no mood for new entanglements in the Middle East. The politically expedient choice for the US Congress and the president is to follow the nation’s mood – by not only avoiding any new potential areas of conflict arising with the aggressions of Iran and its proxies, but maybe by also abandoning allies who have worked side-by-side with American soldiers in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban, and forgetting their savage misogyny and its place as a safe haven where al Qaeda brewed its attacks on 9/11.

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Essay by Yaroslav Trofimov was titled, “Can the New Afghanistan Survive America’s Exit? An exhausted America, no longer determined to bring democracy to the Muslim world, just wants to leave.”

You can replace Afghanistan with Iraq, Kurdistan or Syria in the title and ask: Can they survive America’s exit, and does it serve America’s interests to hand them over to enemies of the West?

American foreign policy operates under a hundred-year-old construct based on the misguided belief that we must keep artificially constructed Middle East nation-states like Syria and Iraq whole, even when it flies in the face of reality – or of what is best for American interests or the people who live there.

Sixteen years ago, I recommended that Iraq be turned into three states, Sunni, Kurdish and the largest, Shi’ite. I was not alone. This was based on the obvious religious animosity, ethnic divisions and tribal nature of the country that had no historical antecedent, whose people value clan, tribe and religion rather than allegiance to the state itself.

The core American belief that dividing up Iraq or Syria is a bad idea because it will lead to failed states ignores the more plausible concept that, if put back together, it will not only be less sustainable as a whole state but, more consequentially, it may be more dangerous whole than divided – especially if the US abandons the region.

Today, the failed Iraqi state has been taken over by Iran, America’s most dangerous Middle East adversary, which not only has political parties allied with it in the Iraqi government but, more consequentially, controls the nation’s most powerful force: the Shi’ite militia al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, which has ethnically cleansed Sunni areas for an Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean and answers only to the supreme leader and his Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. How does this serve American interests?

In 2006, Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations – penned an op-ed in The New York Times recommending Iraq be divided into three autonomous regions, “giving each ethno-religious group… room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.”

In 2015, president Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter, speaking before Congress, said that Iraq is so broken that maybe it shouldn’t be put back together: “The question [is] what if a multi-sectarian Iraq turns out not to be possible?”

In 2016, CIA director John Brennan said: “I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction.”

MOST AMERICANS have no knowledge that most of the nations of the Middle East are artificially constructed entities based on the interests of the French and British after the First World War, when they divided the region not according to its natural tribal divisions, but according to their own economic interests, forcing antagonistic groups to live together in authoritarian regimes.

It didn’t work, and we have rarely stopped to ask why we want to keep putting these broken nation-states back together. How does this serve American interests?

Iraq was a dysfunctional nation long before it collapsed after the 2003 US invasion. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party repressed and terrorized the Sunni majority and the Kurdish North. After US president George H.W. Bush allowed Saddam to remain in power after America’s Gulf War in 1991, he took his vengeance out against the Shi’ites of the South and the Kurds of the North, who deserve as much as anyone to have their own independent state. He may not have had nuclear weapons in 2003, but he did use chemical weapons against his adversaries and still remained in power.

America, with good intentions, thought that all of the world’s people wanted Western style democracy, but soon learned that in the Middle East, other than Israel and the Kurds of northern Iraq, autocracy and Islam rule the day.

We live in a world where politicians are afraid to speak honestly to the American people for fear that they will lose their popularity and their ability to remain in office, especially those who seek our highest office.

Maybe it’s time for our political leaders to explain the world to our nation in something more than sound-bites and tweets that pollsters tell them will raise their numbers.

US President Donald Trump seems to believe that we should return to an isolationist strategy. That, despite his bellicose talk, is not very much different from Obama’s actions not to confront aggression even when justified. Obama’s great foreign policy fault was that he didn’t realize you couldn’t change the spots of the Iranian tiger; abandoning allies to realign with Iran; undermining American foreign policy by making America look unreliable to the world; and let everyone, friend and foe, come to see us as a paper tiger.

WHICH BRINGS US to America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq. These two Kurdish peoples share the same ethnicity but are very different. What they do share in common is that they were at the front lines of defeating Islamic State, helping the US achieve its primary strategy in the Middle East under both Obama and Trump. They also both live in states that are artificially constructed and, if put back together, will sow the seeds for more sectarian violence, pulling the US back to region it so wants to leave.

Now there is a call to withdraw American forces from both northern Syria and northern Iraq, abandoning important allies and forcing them, for their own survival, to make deals and to ally with America’s enemies. The Kurds of Iraq may have to cut a deal with Iran and the Iranian-controlled Iraqi government in Baghdad to survive, while the Syrian Kurds may have to work with their adversaries – the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia – in order not to be ethnically cleansed by Turkey. Millions of new Sunni refugees may flow from Syria to Turkey into Europe and onto our shores. How is this in America’s interest?

I recently interviewed American soldiers working with the Kurdistan military force, the Peshmerga, who are still fighting ISIS. Their unreserved clarity of purpose and their importance as American allies was striking – something Congress, the State Department and the president need to hear.

America’s chances for a new war in the Middle East are greatly increased by withdrawing from the Middle East; becoming isolationist as we did after the First World War, since we were totally unprepared when we were dragged into the Second World War.

A modest American presence remaining in Afghanistan, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq creates leverage for American interests far beyond the small number of troops remaining in harm’s way.

We certainly cannot cure the ills of the Middle East, but our goal should be to strengthen our allies and lower the flames that would certainly erupt with an American withdrawal. America’s primary goal is not only to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, but – more importantly – to create a long-term strategy to stop Iranian expansionism that endangers not only our allies, but also the world at large. Sorry, Mr. Obama, the Iranian Islamist regime is a leopard that will not change its spots – no matter how many pallets of cash we give them.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.