A Kurdish peshmerga on patrol
On Monday July 16 the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish Peshmerga conducted an operation in the Makhmour region against the Islamic State (ISIS) group. The operation killed at least 14 ISIS members but also resulted in the deaths of between 5 to 7 Peshmerga troops. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, which coordinated the raid and gave it air support, hailed what it called “outstanding” coordination between the ISF and Peshmerga. Upon closer inspection, however, it remains clear that neither side directly worked together in the assault and that coordination in general between them remains nonexistent.
The Peshmerga have sought to clarify that they did not coordinate directly with the ISF, just with the coalition. The Peshmerga have not worked directly with the ISF against ISIS since the former seized Kirkuk from them on October 16 along with other major disputed territories between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Region. This resulted in brief clashes between the two sides in the ensuing days and essentially destroyed what had been hitherto productive coordination, even called “historical”, between them against a common enemy.
Jabar Yawar, the secretary-general of the Peshmerga Ministry, told MECRA that all operation against ISIS in Iraq post-October 16 took place without any “coordination” between Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The ISF have launched successive operations in Kirkuk itself since then, just last month launching a new one in retaliation for ISIS’s grisly murder of ISF personnel on the Baghdad-Kirkuk road.
The Peshmerga take the fight to ISIS on their own independent of the Iraqi forces but in coordination with the US-led coalition, Yawar clarified. He went on to explain that if Iraqi operations against the ISIS forced its members to head towards the Kurdish-controlled areas, they will push back the ISIS group, but stressed that even under such circumstances they have no mechanism in place to communicate with the Iraqi forces.
In early July an ISF delegation visited Peshmerga officials to request their permission to pursue ISIS militants into an area the Peshmerga controlled. The Peshmerga denied that request, underscoring the distrust that continues to exist between the two sides sine October.
“We want to return to the past security arrangement we had with the Iraqi forces,”
Yawar also told MECRA that the two sides have not held any recent meetings to discuss a security mechanism in these disputed areas. The coalition, he said, “is encouraging” both sides to go back to the security arrangements that were in place in the disputed areas before the recent tensions.
“We want to return to the past security arrangement we had with the Iraqi forces,” Yawar said, adding that they have made such requests to Baghdad, “but we have not received any positive response yet.”
The disconnect between both sides has verifiably benefitted ISIS. Following the July 16 clashes the Kurdistan Regional Security Council (KRSC) noted that: “ISIS terrorists capitalized on the Peshmerga-ISF security gaps in the area to attack nearby forces.”
Yawar previously denied reports and rumours that the Peshmerga were going to return to Kirkuk under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition. Readmission of the Peshmerga into these areas is seen as a solution to effectively combat ISIS there since it would refill the security gaps mentioned by the KRSC and prevent the group from regaining any foothold in the volatile region by exploiting the lack of ISF-Peshmerga coordination to its own advantage, a strategy it has proven very astute at using elsewhere in the past.
“you cannot have joint security mechanisms in mixed ethnicity areas if you do not readmit the Peshmerga” – Michael Knights
“Across the fronts, ISF has been unwilling to readmit Peshmerga into areas the Kurds lost in October 2017,” Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, told MECRA. “This is the basic problem: you cannot have joint security mechanisms in mixed ethnicity areas if you do not readmit the Peshmerga.”
Knights points out that during the July 16 offensive in Makhmour the “Peshmerga worked the northern slopes of Mount Qarachogh and ISF worked the southern slopes and both stayed on ‘their sides’ of the front line.”
“Generally, the Makhmour area is probably the place where the Peshmerga and ISF have consistently worked the best together since 2016,” he elaborated. “The Peshmerga were willing to let ISF transit Kurdistan to use Makhmour as a jump off point for liberating Qayyarah.”
That initial coordination in Makhmour, carried out in early 2016, was followed-up by later coordination between the two the following October, on the eve of the Mosul operation, which was hailed as historical since it marked the very first time in history the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army worked together in a meaningful way against a common adversary. This became completely undone almost exactly a year later as a result of the Kirkuk crisis and looks as distant a prospect as ever today, less than two years later. Rebuilding any real trust between the two sides is therefore likely to take some time.