By Dr. Can Kasapoglu
So far, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish Peshmerga have come to the brink of a serious civil war twice already, once in 2008 and then in 2012, during previous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.
In the first crisis, the ISF elements entered the town of Khanaqin in the Diyala governorate near the Iran border. At the time, the storm was weathered thanks to the U.S. intervention.
The 2012 crisis stemmed from Maliki’s military buildup along Diyala, Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din through the initiation of the Dijala Operations Command.
With incumbent Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi assuming office, and due to the pressing Daesh threat, the tensions between Erbil and Baghdad have relatively eased.
This time, Iraq might be moving closer to an uncertain path, which could end up in a civil war, due to Erbil’s plans to make an independence referendum despite objections.
In fact, during the course of the counterterrorism operations to defeat Daesh, the KRG Peshmerga forces have continuously attempted to bring about new fait accompli situations in the disputed territories.
This military expansionism now manifests itself in the referendum plans. Politically, the million-dollar question is: “Can Barzani really accomplish what he thinks”? Militarily, the same question is a little bit different: “If the conflict becomes inevitable, what would the day-after look like”?
Can Baghdad take military action?
When Daesh captured Fallujah and Mosul, the ISF was mostly portrayed as an obsolete entity with a collapsed chain of command and lost fighting spirit.
What else could be said for the Iraqi military formations? Indeed, the ISF deployments in Mosul had outnumbered the Daesh offensive by a very advantageous force-to-force ratio. Furthermore, they enjoyed much better equipment, including high-end platforms left by the U.S. forces.
Yet, the ISF could not hold its ground against hybrid warfare concepts. Many of the Iraqi Army’s U.S.-manufactured Abrams main battle tanks were damaged -- and some were destroyed -- by anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM).
More disgracefully, the entire Iraqi Army leadership collapsed during the Battle of Mosul in 2014. At the time, some eyewitnesses reported that the Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions and units, even their uniforms, and deserted. Nothing worse could be imagined for an army in terms of military dignity.
A critical parameter of the KRG referendum’s military dimension is the warfighting capabilities of the ISF. Following the disastrous 2014 – 2015 period, the ISF has witnessed a major reshuffle in its doctrinal order of battle. While there are various open-source surveys about the number of brigades that Baghdad could use, most of them are undermanned. Some of these brigades are even the equivalent of a battalion with only 1,000 men in uniform.
While many of these units’ combat-readiness levels are questionable, some are truly battle-hardened and well-experienced following the successful anti-Daesh campaign. Without a doubt, the
Due to the operations to liberate Mosul from Daesh elements, both the ISF and its accompanying militia have reached a robust concentration close to the KRG-controlled areas. However, it should be noted that some of Baghdad’s military formations are deployed around the rural and suburban belt around the capital and some are conducting counterterrorism operations in areas away from the KRG. For instance, at the time of writing, anti-Daesh operations in the province of Anbar were continuing.
In summary, although Baghdad has the means to act militarily against the referendum, setting up the necessary deployment levels close to the attack positions would take time.
Shi’a militia factor
In addition to the risk of an escalation between the ISF and Peshmerga, there remains a stronger likelihood for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to act if Erbil carries on with the referendum.
Especially given the Israeli support to the KRG’s independence agenda, some radical PMF factions could capitalize on their militias’ aggressive sentiments and may attempt to conduct retaliatory countermoves.
Especially the Mosul campaign revealed that although they operate in cooperation with the core ISF formations, some PMF groups could show
Thus, some PMF stakeholders could see their reaction to a possible Kurdish referendum as a good investment for the forthcoming 2018 elections in Iraq.
Besides, some PMF factions are extremely pro-Iran and have been heavily supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its elite Quds Forces.
Therefore, Tehran’s negative stance about Erbil’s independence tendencies might go well beyond rhetoric through proxies.
However, it should be noted that both the PMF and the IRGC remain overstretched due to the pressing anti-Daesh battlefields in Iraq and Syria. As a result, they may not have enough force concentration to shortly fight Peshmerga units in a tough geography that favors the defensive side.
At this point, an important question arises about the unity of the Peshmerga forces in case of a military escalation. Although there have been efforts to form a centralized command structure for the KRG’s military apparatus, there is no unified and central political oversight on the ‘Peshmerga’ forces.
Furthermore, these fighters have a record of fighting each other during the Kurdish civil war between 1994 and 1998.
Geostrategic impacts of the fierce clashes between the KDP and the PUK are still visible in the control of terrain. This political terrain has transformed upon the Gorran (change) movement’s initiation into the Iraqi Kurdish politics a decade ago.
Furthermore, recent open-source intelligence reports from the ground suggest that there is a gap between the equipment of the Peshmerga forces outside of Mosul and the disputed territories centered around Kirkuk.
According to these reports, the KRG elements in Kirkuk lack modern arms and are equipped with Soviet and Yugoslav-made weapons.
Turkey’s military perspective
From the Turkish administration’s standpoint, the PKK-affiliated groups’ recent concentrations around Sinjar dangerously complicate the picture. The PKK and its affiliates have adopted a negative stance about Barzani’s
The terrorist threat emanating from the PKK and its offshoots remain the primary national security concern for Ankara. Thus, within any scenario regarding the referendum, the rise of the PKK-affiliated groups should be taken as an indicator suggesting Turkey’s military reaction.
In fact, the Turkish Air Force has conducted strikes against PKK elements in this region before. When it comes to a land incursion, however, it should be noted that a campaign for Sinjar would involve more complicated political-military parameters compared to Operation Euphrates Shield, which captured al-Bab from Daesh.
Militarily, operating in Sinjar would mean setting up a much longer logistical support line, which would be risky in the hostile territory.
Secondly, fire-support by artillery elements would have to be conducted within foreign territory, whereas Euphrates Shield was supported from frontier areas.
Thirdly and finally, such a campaign would reflect a combination of hybrid warfare and mountain warfare operations. In doctrine, mountainous terrain puts extra pressure on military concentrations during offensives. Besides, the key necessity in attacking from higher elevations to lower ones is very well-trained units with professional experience in maneuvering in harsh mountainous terrain.
Turkey does have elite mountain commando units to get the job done. Yet, some of these formations are assigned to counterterrorism missions within the Turkish territory. Politically, deploying large combat formations into that deep Iraqi territory would also be very complicated. Thus, although a land incursion into Sinjar does not seem highly likely in near future, seeing more Turkish airpower may not be surprising.
Turkey’s military power remains a game-changer in the region. Recently, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched high-profile drills near the Habur border crossing with the KRG-controlled areas. The formidable military buildup includes heavy armor, artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, mobile air defenses, and mechanized formations.
Although the reported force concentration itself (around 100 tanks and armored vehicles) would not be adequate for an incursion, this exercise remains Ankara’s most significant political signaling to make Erbil return from a very risky path.
Furthermore, Turkey’s Second Field Army has been significantly reinforced in its area of responsibility along the Iran/Iraq/Syria borders. Thus, should Ankara opt for launching a military campaign, the units currently engaged in drills could as well act as the tip of the spear for a much larger follow-on force. It should be noted that any aggression against Iraqi Turkmens could trigger Turkey’s military reaction too.
Apart from the military toolkit, Ankara also has a broader range of options to put pressure on the KRG referendum. In fact, closing the Habur crossing, say for three days, would bring about much more devastating impacts on Erbil than moving three battalions into northern Iraq. The same could be said for commercial flights and trade.
Simply put, Turkey is the geopolitical gateway of the KRG into the world, and being so, it naturally enjoys the upper hand.
The KRG referendum has the potential to turn into a time-bomb for the region. In the absence of viable U.S. support, under objections from Iraq’s most powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran, and lacking unity among different Iraqi Kurdish actors, Erbil seems to have slim chances of accomplishing the desired end-state. On the other hand, forcing the limits could trigger a broad array of conflict scenarios, ranging from intra-Kurdish clashes to an ethnic civil war in Iraq.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.