Middle EastSource : http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/world/middleeast/sinjar-iraq-kurds-isis.html
Sinjar Victory Bolsters Kurds, but Could Further Alienate U.S. From Iraq
By TIM ARANGONOV. 13, 2015
ISTANBUL — It was a full two months after Islamic State militants stormed through Iraq, massacring captured troops and driving to within a few miles of Baghdad that the United States began taking direct military action in the country.
The Obama administration only intervened with airstrikes after the militants were threatening the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and waging atrocities against the Yazidi minority in Sinjar, near the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. That fact was immediately seized on by Iraqi politicians, who accused the United States of being more concerned about protecting the Kurds than Iraq’s Arab majority.
Now, with Kurdish forces backed by American air power driving jihadist fighters out of Sinjar on Friday, the United States-led coalition appears to have a new and important victory against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
But it may come with a cost: the further undermining of the Iraqi government’s authority, and intensified concern about the Kurds’ desire for independence. Political figures in Baghdad are again sounding alarmed, both about the United States’ reliability as an ally and about the unity of country.
The Kurdish capture of Sinjar, with no Iraqi military forces in sight, offers the Kurdistan Regional Government a chance to claim control over a city that before the Islamic State invasion was nominally under the control of Baghdad.
The president of the Kurdish government, Massoud Barzani, made that intention clear, holding a news conference on Mount Sinjar in which he pointedly referred to Sinjar as being a part of Kurdistan — and pointedly ignored the role that rival Kurdish groups played in retaking the city.
The result is likely to further embolden the Kurdish government as its pushes toward its goal of statehood, something the United States has opposed, while further alienating an Iraqi government that has become closer to both Iran and Russia. Russia in particular has been more active in the region, expanding its military role in the Syrian war next door and establishing a joint intelligence command center in Baghdad with the Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian governments, over the objections of American officials.
As if to drive home their complaint with the United States, a delegation of Iraqi lawmakers visited Moscow on Friday to talk about more Russian military involvement in Iraq — a development that would further challenge both American influence in Iraq and the Obama administration’s long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
Ayham Kamel, the director for the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy firm, said, “The Sinjar operation will remind the key decision makers in Baghdad that the U.S. has a broader sense of strategic cooperation with the Kurds than with Baghdad.”
“The quick gains here against ISIS,” Mr. Kamel added, “are going to undermine the broader picture of the unity of Iraq.”
The liberation of Sinjar allowed the Kurds to again expand the borders of their region at the expense of the central government. The biggest prize came last year when Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk and its vast oil fields, territory long disputed by Arabs and Kurds that experts worry could spark a new, ethnic conflict if the Islamic State is defeated and the Iraqi Army is revitalized.
Even as the Kurds celebrated victory in Sinjar, the tense relations between them and the central government erupted into violence in the disputed city of Tuz Khurmato, near Kirkuk, as Shiite militias loyal to Baghdad battled Kurdish pesh merga forces. Several people were killed, according to officials, and a hospital, a government office and dozens of homes were set on fire.
There are also longstanding tensions between Baghdad and Erbil over how to share Iraq’s oil revenue, an issue that became more urgent as oil prices declined and both governments faced budget crises.
When the Obama administration decided last year to begin military operations against the Islamic State, first in Iraq and then in Syria, its strategy seemed simple: combining American air power with local ground forces to defeat the militant group.
The Americans found that Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria were their most reliable proxies on the ground — as opposed to Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq that have eclipsed the struggling Iraqi security forces.
In Syria, a growing relationship with Kurdish militia fighters helped lead to a military success against the Islamic State in the northern town of Kobani. Now, Kurdish forces have succeeded in Sinjar with the help of heavy American airstrikes and Special Forces advisers on the ground.
But the fact is that Kurds have been willing to fight only to protect and expand territory they see as rightfully theirs, and are unlikely to play an important role in wresting the Islamic State from Sunni Arab strongholds in places like Mosul or Anbar Province in Iraq, or in Raqqa, the group’s capital in Syria.
Speaking about the Kurdish victory in Sinjar, Maria Fantappie, the senior Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, said, “The cost of it is the fact that you don’t necessarily have the means to restrain the political ambitions of this ally.”
The close relationship between the United States and the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria has also complicated relationships with two of America’s most important regional allies: the Iraqi and Turkish governments.
“I think Sinjar adds momentum not just to the U.S. campaign against ISIS, but also U.S.-Kurdish cooperation, which builds on U.S. support for Kurdish forces in Syria,” Ranj Alaaldin, an expert on Kurdish affairs and a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics, wrote in an email. “That will no doubt alarm Baghdad, Turkey, as well as the Iranians and Russians, both of which are competing with the U.S. to bring the Kurds within their orbit of influence.”
In Syria, the United States has allied with the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which has long been at war with the Turkish state. And the P.K.K., which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and other governments, was deeply involved in the battle for Sinjar this week.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, an Iraqi Shiite lawmaker, said Friday that the American-Kurdish alliance in Sinjar provides “more proof to the Iraqi government to not rely on the United States.”
“The real support given to the Kurds and the fast victories against ISIS,” he added, “will give another pretext to look at alternatives and establish coalitions with other countries.”
For some Iraqi politicians, closer ties with Russia offer an increasingly attractive alternative — or at least an important insurance policy.
“One of the possible fallouts from this operation is that Baghdad may look more closely to Russia,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst and senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq.
Iran, a longstanding ally of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government whose role has complicated the United States’ efforts to influence events in the region, has welcomed a deeper Russian role in Iraq. And the Kremlin appears to be open to it.
After the delegation of Iraqi lawmakers met with Russian officials in Moscow on Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, “The Iraqi representatives emphasized their readiness to further strengthening cooperation between Moscow and Baghdad on counterterrorism matters, and they noted the possibility for Russia to continue its security assistance to the Iraqi government.”
Omar al-Jawoshy and Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow.
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