Iraqi, Turkish actions against Kurds give breathing room to Islamic State group
With the Islamic State group's so-called caliphate destroyed, the group has reverted to its roots as a non-state terrorist organisation. Despite various claims the group has not suffered a complete defeat and has demonstrated on several occasions in recent months that it still has the capability to mount attacks against its enemies.
Separate actions by the governments of Ankara and Baghdad against the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have diverted attention and resources from the fight against the remnants of IS, and given the group a breath of respite at an important juncture in the campaign against it.
Before the Iraqi government wrested the entire province of Kirkuk from the control of Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-October 2017 it launched an operation to remove IS militants from the province's town of Hawija. While the operation was seemingly a swift success - Iraq recaptured the town in just over two weeks - it has become clear that the Iraqi forces didn't thoroughly rout the militants, who have a well-documented track record of going to ground when they lose territories, so they can attack at a more opportune time.
Instead, Baghdad used the large number of Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) paramilitaries and troops it sent into the province to take over Kirkuk's provincial capital city and the rest of the province. A secret Iran-brokered deal with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party made the take over relatively easy, as the vast majority of the Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk were under PUK command and were subsequently withdrawn on October 16.
Two months later, after a separate campaign targeting the remaining swathes of territory IS held in the sparsely populated eastern Anbar province, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that Iraq had achieved final victory over the militants. Despite the premier's declaration, Iraqi forces have since launched operations across Kirkuk targeting the group, and Kirkuk police have even had to reassure residents in the city who are fearful of IS sleeper cells.
There are, according to one estimate, 2,000 of the militants still active in Kirkuk who "only carry out killings and explosions against Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi [PMF] forces", Kawa Mama Parwiz, a police chief in Kirkuk, told the Kurdish Rudaw news agency. A similar-sized IS force infamously conquered Mosul in June 2014, where the population were distrustful at best of the Iraqi military.
Parwiz even goes so far as to claim that IS did not offer any resistance during the Hawija operation as part of an agreement with the Iraqis. Consequently the militants "are still there and have not been killed".
Thousands of Peshmerga fought IS across the region before last October's pullout. A year earlier, in October 2016, the Kurdish fighters swiftly prevented a sophisticated takeover attempt mounted by the militants on the provincial capital, where they were trying to undermine the just-launched Mosul operation by conquering oil-rich Kirkuk.
The sudden removal of such a battle-hardened force was obviously going to create a serious security vacuum.
Despite Iraqi military deployments since Abadi's December 2017 declaration of victory, IS remains a threat there doubtlessly greater than Baghdad is willing to admit.
Furthermore, the Iraqi move on Kirkuk undermined the unprecedented historic military cooperation between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga achieved on the eve of the Mosul offensive in October 2016. Former Kurdish President Masoud Barzani even said that this was one area of cooperation he wanted to preserve - even if Iraqi Kurdistan completely seceded from Iraq.
There has been some reported coordination between PUK Peshmerga - not Peshmerga forces under the command of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - and Iraqi forces in Tuz Khurmatu this February, likely directed against IS elements in the area who could well be capitalising on the widespread displacement of Kurds there caused by seemingly indiscriminate PMF attacks.
While the precise extent of the cooperation is unclear it's unlikely to rectify the security vacuum caused by Baghdad's military takeover of these territories, the ultimate status of which remains disputed under the Iraqi Constitution.
In the long run, Abadi's declaration of victory could end up resembling former US President George W Bush's absurdly premature 2003 'Mission Accomplished' speech, at least partially thanks to his own government's actions in Kirkuk last October.
Turkey began its ongoing Operation Olive Branch against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the country's northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin on January 20.
This has predictably taken the attention of Syrian Kurds away from their important efforts fighting the remnants of IS in Syria's east to moving to Afrin, through regime-controlled areas, to bolster their Afrin comrades' fight against the Turkish offensive.
Turkey sees the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a militant group considered terrorists by Ankara, which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for neatly 35 years.
The US has meanwhile used the YPG, and the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - an Arab-Kurdish coalition of militias of which the YPG is the largest fighting group - as its primary ally on the ground against IS in Syria.
|Kurdish YPG fighters had held the three cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira along Syria's frontier with Turkey|
The YPG-SDF forced IS from its de facto Syrian capital city, Raqqa, and seized large swathes of Deir az-Zour province from the militants, where most of Syria's oil reserves are to be found.
As in Iraq, IS has been successfully removed from all the major urban centres it had captured, but still has militants in the countryside and desert who will need to be confronted through an extensive counter-insurgency campaign.
The US is retaining troops in both Iraq and Syria, with the Pentagon saying it will train its allies how to do this and ensure that IS' defeat on the battlefield is solidified through both counter-insurgency and stabilisation efforts.
Also, as with the Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk, the Turkish operation against Afrin is distracting from this effort and has given IS remnants in Syria a respite.
The Pentagon acknowledged that an "operational pause" in their anti-IS efforts in eastern Syria was caused by Operation Olive Branch - but pointed out that its allies have not given up any ground captured in the IS fight in order to reinforce Afrin's defences.
Ankara has demanded that Washington stop its Kurdish allies from sending approximately 1,700 fighters to Afrin to fight Turkish forces there.
It was predictable over the course of recent years that any Turkish attack against Afrin would result in the Kurds redirecting resources from the IS fight to defending territory they held. The US-led coalition were lucky that Turkey moved against Afrin only after IS was forced out of Raqqa, otherwise the militants would likely still be there.
If the Afrin battle drags on and further saps the resources of the YPG-SDF in eastern Syria, then pressure could be taken off IS and the group could well start to bounce back in some areas - needlessly undermining the hard-won battlefield victories and sacrifices made over the past three years to destroy that infamously tyrannical group.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.