The name Tillerson is a comforting one to policy makers, suggesting the son of tillers who have learned the soil can only be tilled with toil. But Secretary Tillerson’s unfortunate response to the Kurdish referendum was deficient in both style and substance. You cannot sit on fences in the Middle East, because they are generally mined. In the case of Kurdistan, his miscalculation has led to a misreading by the bad guys abroad. With the reading and ’rithmetic messed up, we are left with the writing. Hopefully we can get a message through the noise.
We will start with the urgent new information and work our way back. The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) warned Wednesday afternoon of Iraqi armed forces and Shia militia elements preparing for a “major attack” on Kurdish peshmerga forces positioned southwest of Kirkuk and north of Mosul. The KRSC tweeted: “We’re receiving dangerous msgs that Iraqi forces, incl PMU & Fed Pol, are preparing major attack in South/West Kirkuk & North Mosul on Kurdistan.” We have confirmed the accuracy of this directly with the office of the Prime Minister of Kurdistan.
“Fed Pol” in the tweet are the Iraqi Federal Police. The PMU are so-called Popular Mobilization Units. They total about 110,000 Shia militiamen trained, supported, and sometimes manned by Iranian Special Forces pursuant to a 2014 fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The fatwa called for the raising of an expressly Shia army inside Iraq.
If such an attack ever occurs, it will represent an awful leap backward into the abyss for that region. It will set American policy goals back significantly. Number One, this will take the mask off the Iraqi government. This might be useful for convincing those slow on the uptake, who have been reluctant to accept that Iran is controlling Iraq, soldering the Axis of Evil more tightly than ever. Number Two, this will embolden Iran in its adventurism. If they can pull off this kind of heavy-handed squelching of a democratic entity in their backyard, the United States and Coalition forces will suffer a decline in both capacity and credibility.
All this has been a growing problem since the days of Obama, but Tillerson impugning the legitimacy of the Kurdish independence referendum was meant to restore a status quo that is an ante which has already been upped. The short-sightedness of his response has led to this new flexing of ominous muscle on the Kurdish flank.
On September 24, Baghdad initiated operations against the ISIS stronghold of Hawija on the southwest side of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk. These operations targeted ISIS, a move designed to please Trump while enabling Baghdad and its Iranian thugs to pre-position combat power along a critical border with the Kurdish region. These elements have been reinforcing positions in the past 24 hours, consolidating on critical terrain from which offensives can be launched against Kurdish forces defending oil-rich Kirkuk.
The Prime Minister’s office also reports simultaneous Iraqi activity north of Mosul. “We expect the forces there to attempt to open a corridor seven to ten kilometers wide running south from the Turkish border and along the Tigris. This will be an attempt to bypass Peshmerga forces defending near Habur Gate.” The Habur Gate is the primary Point of Entry between Iraq and Turkey. It is located north of the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Baghdad currently depends on commercial traffic through Habur Gate. An estimated 75% of all commercial traffic through the Gate is bound for Baghdad.
Again, Tillerson’s announcement triggered all this activity by giving the bad guys the idea that the United States does not value the vision of Kurdistan as a sovereign player in an emerging Middle East. Even if he did not have the courage to echo Benjamin Netanyahu and endorse the Kurdish referendum results, he could have chosen moderate language which communicates that we share the dream of an independent Kurdistan. (Off the record, a former NSA and a former ambassador to Iraq both commented that Tillerson has “dragged his feet” before and after the referendum, exacerbating the crisis.)
Here is a model of a more far-sighted statement: “The United States respects the rights of the Kurdish People to determine their political future. The Kurdish Regional Government has been a force for democratic values and peaceful coexistence in the region since 1991. We recommend that any significant structural shifts be engaged in a deliberate and deliberative process. A successful Kurdistan is one at peace with its neighbors.” This sort of tone communicates a concordance of worldviews. That was conspicuously absent in the Secretary’s comments on the referendum.
We do not believe that the Administration really meant to hang the Kurds out to dry. But it is becoming clear that Iran and its Iraqi proxy believe that Kurdistan is on its own. If we allow this attack to take place, we will lose both capacity and credibility, as cited above. It is time to be smart. It is time to be tough. It is time to be a friend that our friends can count on.
*This piece was written with Ernest Audino, Brigadier General US Army (Ret), who is a Senior Military Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is also the only American general officer to have served a full year in Iraq as a combat advisor embedded with Kurdish peshmerga forces.