PetroStrategies, Inc., a French consultancy, presumes that Syria and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), and perhaps Turkey could benefit from the incursion by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) into North-West Iraq. In their June 16 issue of “World Energy Weekly,” PetroStrategies’ analysts write that all other parties, from Iran to the US, could be sensing a threat to different degrees.
The swift incursion made by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militia in northwestern Iraq last week and the threat that these now represent to the capital Baghdad make for two potential winners: Bashar Al- Assad, in Syria, and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in Iraq. All of the other parties, from Iran to the US, as well as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the European Union, could be sensing the threat, to different degrees. In principle, the most affected should turn out to be the Iraqi Shiites that support Nuri Al-Maliki, the outgoing Prime Minister (candidate for his own succession), but this is not certain. The latter could be blamed for having favored the emergence of ISIL through his sectarian politics, where the Iraqi Sunnis are concerned, and his inability to strike an agreement with the KRG. The Kurds took advantage of this to boost their autonomy. As for the Sunnis, after having been humiliated and bullied by the government of Al-Maliki, totally fed up, they ran into the arms of ISIL through their northwestern tribes, who joined the invading Islamic militias. But Al-Maliki could now argue that he is the last rampart against ISIL making further headway and he could ask for help from both the Iranians and Western powers. This is an argument that Bashar Al-Assad is already employing on the other side of the border, in Syria, to convince Western powers to stop supporting the rebellion against his regime. The time seems right for a political solution in Syria.
ISIL’s offensive is mainly directed at Baghdad. It is not targeted at Kurdistan, at least not at this stage. But no long-term coexistence looks likely between ISIL and the Kurds. The latter are moderate Sunnis in Iraq, while in Turkey and Syria, they are clearly on the Left. There is therefore no way that the Kurds will provide strategic support for ISIL. But they could allow the latter to weaken Baghdad, on the tactical front, both to strengthen the autonomy of their region and to settle to their benefit the disputes (constitutional, territorial, budgetary and oil) that have existed between and the Central Iraqi Government them since 2005. On June 10, reacting to the incursion made by ISIL, the Prime Minister of the KRG accused Baghdad of having “tragically” adopted a position that “prevented the establishment of cooperation” between the Iraqi security forces and the KRG, thus failing “to protect the people and city of Mosul”. He then stated: “We reassure the people living in the areas of Kurdistan outside the KRG administration that Kurdish Security Forces and Peshmerga are ready, as always, to handle the security situation in these areas”. Two days later, the Kurds occupied the city of Kirkuk and its oil region, the control of which they were disputing with Baghdad.
The short-term capacity of the US to impact the military situation in Iraq is low. Barack Obama has stated that he is studying all of the options. Iran seems to have provided military aid to the Iraqi army in order to take control of certain towns and villages: another case of shared interests has thus come to light between Tehran and Washington, after that of Afghanistan. Turkey is undoubtedly in the process of asking itself some important questions. Up to now, Ankara had turned a blind eye on the transit over its territory of thousands of extremist militiamen of all nationalities who have gone to beef up the ranks of ISIL in Syria and Iraq. But under the pressure of Western powers, and itself concerned by ISIL going from strength to strength, Turkey has sought to stop this transit over the last few weeks.
This turnaround has clearly come too late. As is the case with the Kurds, strategically, Ankara cannot wish that ISIL sets up camp at its borders over the long term. It could on the other hand be tempted to take tactical advantage of a new weakening of Iraq’s state structure in order to redraw the map of the region in its favor. The city of Mosul, occupied by ISIL without the slightest resistance, symbolizes a painful past for the Turks. This city was part of the Ottoman Empire. When the latter collapsed, the young Turkish Republic that succeeded it in 1923, under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal, could not do anything to counter an agreement that London forced on it on June 5, 1926, by the terms of which the oil-rich province of Mosul was placed within the borders of Iraq, which was at the time a British protectorate. ISIL’s occupation of Mosul “reopens an open wound in the collective memory of the Turkish State”, wrote one of the leading columnists of the Turkish press. ISIL itself says that by wanting to create an Islamic State that flouts the borders set out in the colonial era, it “is demolishing the Sykes- Picot” agreements of 1916, by the terms of which the Ottoman Empire was carved up. “Everybody is aware that once the borders start to change, no one can guess where it will stop”, the Turkish columnist observed.
The temptation to take military action must be great in Turkey at present. The Turkmen of this region are already asking Ankara to “protect” them. The Turkish army is superior in every respect to the other forces present in the region. After all, Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus since 1974 has not met with any insurmountable opposition from Europe and the US. It is even now being used as a negotiating card by Turkish diplomacy in its relations with the European Union. Some sources in Ankara also claim that ISIL’s occupation of Mosul opens up new possibilities for Turkey to deal with its “Kurdish problem”. The occupation of a territory separating the Kurds of Turkey from those of Syria would weaken the Kurdish side opposed to Ankara. It could put the KRG in a position of even greater dependence on Turkey. And then, by ridding the region of the presence of ISIL, Turkey would be doing the whole world a favor. Especially if its occupation were presented as being only “temporary”. At the outcome of this crisis, Baghdad may have no choice but to accept (nearly) all of the demands made by the Turks and Kurds.