With the Islamic State dispersing, and yet to metastasize into a deeply entrenched guerrilla campaign, the Iraqi national government has been able to take up arms against a different insurgency. Because Sunni-Shia tensions have yet reemerge as the driving force behind the crescendoing, perpetual Iraqi Civil War, Iraq’s political and military leadership have been able to shift their attention to the Kurdish secession effort. Having Kurdish populations of their own and claims to pieces of the traditional Kurdish homeland, Turkey, Iran, and Syria share a common interest in suppressing Kurdish independence. Like the Islamic State, the Kurdish territories are one of the few interests these neighbors have in common.
Confronted by overwhelming opposition from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and the United States, the Kurds have been forced to retreat from independence. Iraqi forces advanced in US tanks with US arms at the direction of Iranian military advisers when the Kurds were pushed from the city of Kirkuk and the surrounding area. The spectacle certainty demonstrated the international backing the Iraqi central government has against Kurdish forces. The Kurdish push for independence will not, however, end with the resignation of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and the loss of Kurdish independence. It was, after all, the Kurdish Peshmerga who secured Kirkuk from ISIS when the Iraqi military shamefully abandoned their posts in advance of a massive Islamic State offensive.
Iraqi forces may be more confident than they were, while Kurdish forces may not be able to match their firepower, but history teaches the world that the fight for Kurdish independence is just the beginning. The Middle East faces a perpetual threat of war and instability for numerous reasons. One is that political and sectarian factions struggle to unite behind common causes. Another is that they struggle to unite against common enemies. Iraq is not the exception. It is the rule. The United States, for example, had to topple the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein and his minority Sunni faction. As sectarian violence spread across the fledgling democracy, it was, again, US and international forces that held Iraq together.
Steeped in corruption and incapable of functioning on their own, Iraqi forces fled from the Islamic State, because they did not fight for the Iraqi People or the Nation-State of Iraq. They fought only for themselves and their tribes while many Iraqis joined the military simply to earn a living. Only because the Islamic State became a threat to so many factions were Iraqis able to come together and drive them back. As terrifying as the Islamic State was to Westerners, the simple fact is that ISIS was not the top threat to the leaders of the Middle East. Turkish leadership, for example, viewed the PKK and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which halted and reversed the advancement of the IS, as far greater threats than the Islamic State.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the Middle East are far more concerned about their regional rivalries than proper security and governance. For them, the top national security priority is advancing their own interests. In turn, they consider their greatest national security threat to be any rival that creates imbalance among the regional rivals. The Islamic State eventually upset the balance enough for them to do something about it. In the process, the Iraqi military gained some valuable experience and confidence by confronting IS, but securing and governing a territory is vastly different than capturing one. It requires dedication on behalf of ecurity forces and public officials as well as the support of the governed. Iraqis have too often demonstrated a lack of all these things.
It seems Baghdad’s primary motivation for securing Kurdistan is self-interest. In other words, Iraq’s political class is not willing to allow the Kurds to take something that they claim for themselves. Kurdistan is not an issue of proper governance, security, or freedom. Like all things in Iraq and the Middle East, it is an issue of who controls what. Instead of building civil institutions for the common good of all Peoples and fighting the common enemy for the security of all, nations are driven to dominate and consume the world their benefit. It is this mentality that prevents the region from uniting to create a secure and stable society. Unfortunately, the sad true is that the world is becoming more like Iraq and the Middle East.
Baghdad was able to seize Kirkuk from the Kurds, because it had international backing. In truth, Iraq is a weak nation that cannot truly control its own borders. It is barely a sovereign nation. Like Syria, which is no longer capable of enforcing its own sovereignty internally or internationally, it can recapture lost territory with foreign help, as well as there is no significant resistance, but it cannot secure or govern its own territory. By seizing the territory claimed by the Kurds, the Iraqis have expanded their responsibilities, yet they have not strengthened their ability to hold that territory. Above all, they are fighting for control of an asset, not seeking to safeguard a People and provide proper governance, thus Baghdad has only managed to inflame another dimension of the Iraqi Civil War.
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