The End of ISIS — the Beginning of the Battle for Its Heritage

The end of ISIS is very close. So close that regional players are already disrupting existing alliances, once created to overpower the common enemy, and are turning against one another — battling for who should “inherit” what after its defeat.

The loud beginning of this expected and explosive process was marked by the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani with the implementation of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum on 25th September.

This brave move gave Iraq a scare. The country painfully acknowledged the undeniable threat of its breakdown, and the loss of a vast and substantial part of its territory. Yet, the constant silence and lack of a clean-cut “no” from the United States regarding Erbil formed a new wave in the changing tides of the anti-Kurdish moods in Baghdad, stirring suspicion of a Western support for them. The existence of Kurdish minorities, in addition to concerns about their potential territorial integrity, mobilised Turkey, Syria and Iran to promptly crush the emerging Kurdish state. Although up until this moment, plans regarding the “heritage” of ISIS were delicately and silently designed in a context of mutual efforts towards its destruction, today they are being straightforwardly put in light.

The Kurdish referendum, even though obscurely coordinated with the United States, turned out to be a disastrous strategic mistake, since it practically destroyed the even minor chances of this nation to create its own independent state. Hence, being a major American ally on the battlefield, as well as considerably contributing towards all military actions, the Kurdish factor is also perceived as an essential tool of the pro-western influence throughout the region.

The Iraqi Clash with Kurdistan

A turning point in the Kurdish saga since the beginning of last week is the striking military invasion of the central Iraqi government, in the vividly disputed by Iraqis and Kurds northern regions, more precisely in Kirkuk and Sinjar.

Special Forces and Iraqi military units, supported by Iranian Shiite militia, such as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, were greeted by Arabs from mixed areas, who did not want to become part of an independent Kurdish state. Likewise, Baghdad succeeded in imposing full military control over Kirkuk, which is the petrol heart of the region, as well as the main source of revenue for all Kurdish plans. At present, a waving Iraqi flag is seen everywhere — at the K1 military base, at the airport, on administrative buildings. Thanks to the northern invasion, Iraq managed to keep its territorial integrity, but also obstructed the economic survival of an eventual independent Kurdish state, by appropriating Kirkuk and its oil wells.

It only took Kurdistan a day or two to forfeit the vast territorial acquisitions, made during the battle against ISIS. Let’s recall that the new territories were enlarged by 40% in the areas, where once the Iraqi regular army fled during the collision with the Khalifa.

In addition, the Iraqi prime minister Abadi did not justify the expectations to defend the American interests in the region. With a diplomatic manoeuvre, he turned to Tehran, precluding any eventual plans for the creation on an independent Kurdish state — a mission only possible at the expense of Iraqis territories.

All this is in a total contradiction with the policies of Israel and the United Stated in the Middle East, who see the Kurds as a genuine ally, and an advocate of their strategic concerns in the region.

Currently, the bold peshmerga warriors, disappointed by the turn of events, are abandoning towns and villages without a fight. The Kurds failed to prove unity also on a political level. Their leaders’ followers in Iraq — Barzani and the late Talabani — blame each other on the grounds of treason and bargaining with Baghdad, or rather for seeking selfish political acts threatening Erbil, of which the Referendum is just one example.

The Big Bet: the American Position

The US position has a key role in untying the Gordian knot in this conflict. Although currently neutral, the USA practically supports Iraqi’s prime minister Haider Al-Abadi, thus leaving the Kurds with the perception of being betrayed.

From a geopolitical point of view the dilemma, in which the US finds itself today, is not whether to defend the Kurdish or the Iraqi government — they both are American allies, receiving billions in the fight against ISIS, trained and supported by land and air during raids opposing the common enemy. The greater stake for the US at this point is for Iraq not to irreversibly enter Iran’s sphere of influence, on top of being its worst enemy and rival in the Middle East. As detrimental as it can be for Kurdish people, the American support for the Iraqi government is of vital significance at this stage, and is a topmost priority in a post-ISIS environment.

Here is another weighty priority: cessation of the reinforced axis between Syria, Iraq and Iran, supported by Turkey — a real nightmare for the strategists at the White House and the Pentagon…

Who Benefits From the Situation?

The big winner from of the fight against ISIS and the Syrian civil war turns out to be Iran, whose sphere of influence grew tremendously in Iraq and Syria. However, such a situation is certainly enraging Tel Aviv and would not be left unchanged.

Now the president Donald Trump is about to draw clear dividing lines, which Iran is not to infringe in Iraq, while Kurdish interests are most probably postponed for an uncertain period of time — or at least until Iraq unequivocally returns to the sphere of influence of American diplomacy.

One this is beyond doubt — the end of ISIS does not mark the end of all tensions in the region, but quite the opposite…