Nothing united Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds like the mortal threat posed by the Islamic State. But with the terrorist group now in full retreat on the battlefield, it didn't take long for Iraq's old sectarian animosities to resurface — presenting a major new headache for the Pentagon and the Trump administration.
With Islamic State now driven out of its major bastions in Iraq and Syria and on the verge of being wiped out as a military force in the Middle East, those deep-seated cleavages within the region are re-emerging in fresh rounds of political and sectarian infighting.
Washington's remarkable feat of uniting lifelong enemies in the region into a military coalition formidable enough to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria appears to be coming apart at the seams. Since September's referendum by Iraqi Kurds — a vote aimed at charting a path toward an independent Kurdish state — US-backed forces in the fight against Islamic State have quickly turned their guns on one another.
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier takes the lead during urban combat maneuvering training held near Irbil, Iraq, Oct. 29, 2015. Army photo by Spc. Tristan Bolden.
Iraqi government forces, backed by Shiite militias trained and equipped by elite troops from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, rapidly and violently recaptured critical territories in northern Iraq's Kirkuk and Sinjar governorates this month.
Kurdish peshmerga, who claimed the contested territories after driving out Islamic State fighters in 2014, were quickly outgunned by Baghdad's troops and the Iranian militias known as Popular Mobilization Units — which only months before had fought alongside the peshmerga in the battle for Islamic State's Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.
Meanwhile, defense officials in the White House and the Pentagon continue to tout the cohesiveness of the anti-Islamic State coalition, brushing off concerns that the politically, ethnically, and religiously diverse factions will undermine efforts to build a united Iraq.
That rosy assessment, said one former US ambassador to the region, puts the coalition's entire victory at risk.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee Meeting, along with Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 22, 2017. Photo from US State Department.
"The ISIS fight is over, and the new fight for the region is unwinding now," former US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said. With the fall of Mosul in July and the collapse of Islamic State's self-styled capital of Raqqa this month in Syria, regional players are reverting to their sectarian loyalties in an attempt to secure their holds on power, he said.
"Nobody in Irbil is thinking of the ISIS threat [anymore]. No one in Baghdad is thinking about it," said Mr. Jeffrey, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The US government has not gotten its head around that yet."
But remarks by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson seem to indicate that mentality is shifting, at least among the US diplomatic corps. In his harshest rebuke yet of Iranian military influence in the coalition, Mr. Tillerson demanded that Tehran pull back its paramilitary forces from Iraq. "Certainly, Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home," he said alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during a joint press conference in Doha.
"Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors," the top US diplomat said. Pentagon officials reiterated their faith in all members of the coalition days earlier, telling reporters that the US-led coalition remains as robust as it was since the early days of the war.
"The coalition is very strong. And again ... I think the relationship is very strong," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters at the Defense Department on Oct. 20.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Photo from US State Department.
While underlying ethnic and sectarian tensions were a constant threat to unravel the US-backed coalition, Irbil's decision to press ahead with its independence referendum vote was the trigger that brought tensions to the fore, Mr. Jeffrey said.
"I do not know what they were doing, but they missed this one," he said regarding Irbil's inability or unwillingness to anticipate the regional fallout from the referendum vote, which Iraq, Iran, Turkey and the United States all opposed.
The decision unleashed a new round of violence in northern Iraq over the past several weeks. The result was the Kurdistan Regional Government's secession of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and handing over Sinjar to the Iranian-backed militias federalized by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during the height of the war against Islamic State.
Kurdish pershmerga soldiers securing an oil field in Kirkuk, Iraq. Photo from Voice Of America.
The referendum vote stirred decades-old conflicts suppressed during the Islamic State fight, a former top Iraqi diplomat said. The referendum vote in Iraqi Kurdistan and ensuing aftermath "is a clear example where the political leadership have not been able to resolve some of the core challenges they have been facing since 2003," former Iraqi Ambassador to the US Lukman Faily said Oct. 23.
"Even if the government can find some solutions to these new crises, the underlying challenges in relation to political and social harmony requires much more soul searching by all stakeholders who instigated a needless referendum in which [Iraq] will feel its consequences for some time to come," he said in a statement.
Besides fueling internal strife, the referendum created openings for world powers aside from the US to expand their influence in the country. Baghdad's reliance on the Shiite militias armed by the IRGC, which the Trump administration placed on the official list of recognized terrorist groups this month, has further cemented Tehran's sphere of influence in the country.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Photo from CounterExtremism.com
"The US has been sidelined in this crisis, [and] that is a dangerous precedent," Jennifer Cafarella, the senior intelligence planner at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Washington Times shortly after the recapture of Kirkuk by Iraqi forces.
"Mr. al-Abadi does get to claim this as a win," Ms. Cafarella said, but she noted the armed support from Iran undermines the legitimacy of that victory in Kirkuk. "This was not a unilateral operation by Iran" in Kirkuk, but the thinly veiled presence of military advisers from Iran only shows Tehran's reach into Iraq, she added at the time.
Tehran is not the only US adversary wading into the growing problem of Iraqi Kurdistan. On Oct. 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would maintain economic and diplomatic ties with the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, but urged Irbil to continue dialogue with Baghdad.
"We understand the hopes of the Kurdish people as it concerns their striving to strengthen their identity, their self-awareness," Mr. Lavrov told reporters during a joint briefing with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari.
"However, we believe it is correct to realize those desires, those hopes exclusively via the Iraqi government and taking fully into account the significance the Kurdish question has on a regional scale, and taking into account the need to avoid additional sources of instability in the region," he added, according to Reuters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo from Moscow Kremlin.
However, analysts say Russia's overtures and seeming support for Kurdistan's referendum effort is Moscow's attempt to fill the vacuum of support left behind by Washington. Moscow is reportedly attempting a similar effort to persuade US-backed forces in Syria to abandon their American patrons and side with Russia.
Turning support of American proxy fighters in Syria to Russia has always been part of Moscow's regional strategy for the country, said Christopher Kozak, a research analyst specializing in Syria at the Institute for the Study of War.
"Russia's role is to co-opt our US-[backed] forces on the ground" once Islamic State is defeated in Syria, Mr. Kozak said in a September interview. "They see the best option is to have some kind of regime rapprochement [with the SDF] and remove the US. That would be the best position from the Russian perspective."
While it remains unclear what Moscow's strategy for Iraqi Kurdistan may be, a robust Russian presence in northern Iraq coupled with its already formidable military presence in Syria, would give Moscow the opportunity to press its interests deeper into the Middle East as the US military posture in post-Islamic State Iraq begins to wane.