Well, we’ve done it. We’ve given Kirkuk to the Iranians.
Kirkuk. The Heart of Kurdistan. It’s the Jerusalem of the Kurds, our only trusted and loyal allies in Iraq. It’s also the last piece of terrain needed by Tehran to complete its overland, unimpeded access to the shores of the Mediterranean and to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
And it’s precisely where President Trump’s new hard line on Iran, barely 72 hours old, was put to the test and failed.
Actually, it didn’t fail. Our State Department failed it. Rather than act to dissuade or disrupt this past weekend’s bold and open advance on Kirkuk by a significant collection of Iranian-controlled combat power, we demurely averted our eyes and said we weren’t taking sides. But we didn’t even do that. We stayed out and let the Iranians in. By remaining passive our State Department wittingly accepted the foreseeable end state — the immediate annexation of half of Iraq’s Kurdish Region by proxy forces loyal to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Corps (IRGC), an organization President Trump three days earlier designated a terror organization.
Let that sink in.
Don’t think that’s the case? In the week prior to the attack on the night of Oct. 16, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, crossed into Iraq and openly shuttled between two important Kurdish towns near the Iranian border, Sulaymania and Tuz Khurmatu. The first is the base for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a Kurdish political party with a pro-Iranian faction, and the second is a PUK-dominated Kurdish town that is geographically significant, as it controls ready access west to Tikrit and northwest into Kirkuk. Shia militias aligned with their coreligionists in Iran had been building combat power outside the town for the past year. While Gen. Soleimani chatted, his allies in Shia-dominated Iraqi army units began moving his way, too.
But they didn’t stop. They joined and continued northwest. American RC-12 reconnaissance aircraft watched from overhead while a wide spectrum of Iranian-dominated combat power consolidated into attack positions on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk. These included various Shia militias, the Al Badr brigade, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (wearing police uniforms), Khorasan units, Tafoof units, and the 20th Brigade of the Shia Popular Mobilization Force. They were joined by Iraqi Army units comprised of nearly 100 percent Shia fighters, units such as the 20th Brigade of the Iraqi Army, Baghdad’s Anti-Terror Brigade, the Iraqi Federal Police and an armor brigade from the 9th Division of the Iraqi Army.
They now occupy Kirkuk. Irbil, the Kurdish capital, could be next. In a statement issued on Oct. 17, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a close ally of Tehran, announced Iraqi forces will take Irbil within the next 48 hours.
So, here is the question for Washington: What do we do when Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi next tells Washington he wants all U.S. forces out of Iraq? He no longer needs them. ISIS has been crushed. The Kurds are being crushed. The ayatollahs in Iran now move his lips, and Iranian foreign policy has long been purposed to displace the Americans from Iraq. Their day has come.
Much like a day that came in 1972 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ejected 15,000 Soviet military advisers from his country. Later that day, Comrades Leonid Breshnev and Alexei Kosygin likely looked at each other across a couple of stiff Stolichnayas and asked in unison, “What the heck just happened?” Their answer is lost to history, but whatever it was, it was too late. Next to fall was Egypt’s Friendship and Cooperation Agreement with the USSR. Then came the coup de grace when Sadat placed his signature on the Camp David Accords.
These developments were together the clear signal of the beginning of the end, a stunning strategic reversal for the Soviets. They were out. The Americans were in. The USSR had been displaced from her important interests in the region and replaced by the USA.
The Russians had learned the hard way the First Rule of Alliance Building: Don’t lose the allies you already have. Like frogs in a pot of water being slowly heated, the Russians had blithely splished and splashed until it was too late. They’ve waited 45 years for an opportunity to muscle back in. Much like their friends in Tehran.
We’ve just now given both of them their golden opportunity. We allowed Kirkuk to fall. We failed to back our longtime trusted allies, the Kurds, and allowed their Jerusalem, the last remaining piece of terrain open and welcome to the development of a counterbalance to Iranian power, to be seized by Iranian proxies. We’ve accepted a strategic end state of expanded Shia dominance that is now physically linked from Tehran through Kurdistan to the Russian naval base at Tartus on the Syrian shoreline along the Mediterranean and to Tehran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
The Americans are out. The Iranians and their Russian allies are back in.
• Ernie Audino, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, is a senior military fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.
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