Iraqi Army Launches Offensive to Frustrate US Operations in Syria

Victory would mean the US may no longer cross from northern Iraq into Syria at will

Just rolling back Kurdish-held Iraq to 2003 lines of control is no longer enough. Feeling a weakness of the divided Kurdish regional authority the central government in Baghdad is making a play to break the power of the former entirely.

Thursday Iraqi army and militias launched fighting in the north of the country aimed at expelling the Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the strategic tri-border area between Syria, Turkey and Iraq, which the Kurds have held since at least the 1990-91 Gulf War. The Washington Post:

Iraqi forces backed by Iranian-allied militias began an assault Thursday to reclaim more Kurdish-held territory in Iraq, advancing toward a crossing in the country’s western border region that provides the only access for U.S. military operations in northern Syria.

A protracted fight over border crossings could severely disrupt U.S. military activity in neighboring Syria.

After a brief but intense bout of clashes Iraqi PM declared a 24-hour halt to fighting Friday. The end of the ceasefire was also to serve as a deadline for the Peshmerga to withdraw from the border crossing with Turkey at the Assyrian town of Faysh Khabur.

The deadline has now passed but it is unknown if offensive has resumed already (numerous Iraqi forces are still tied up in the larger offensive against ISIS further south).

Fighting in the area

If Iraq, after a quarter of a century or absence, regains control of this crucial piece of real-estate it would mean:

  • Baghdad would control a piece of border with Turkey meaning oil could be exported and pipelines laid down without Kurds having a say, or taking a cut.
  • Iraqi Kurdistan would be cut off from Kurdish-held northern Syria, meaning the two may not easily trade or come to each other’s aid.
  • Finally, as The Washington Post notes, it would mean the US military could no longer transfer its resources from Kurdish-held Iraq to Syria at will. Any such transfers would have to be approved by Baghdad. Seeing that Iraq’s sympathies in Syria lie with the government of Bashar al-Assad it is not clear a green light would come easily, or cheaply.

The only remaining route for the US into northern Syria is via Turkey, but Ankara is likewise deeply frustrated with US activities there seeing how they are in support of the PKK-inspired Syrian Kurds. – The US forces a prospect of having two regional powers, both hostile to its Syria project serve as gatekeepers to its access to Syria.

No wonder that the US is calling for calm and for everything to be resolved without fighting — ie for Iraq not to press its advantage. Albeit it publicly joined in the criticism of the Kurdish independence referendum (lest it loses all influence in Baghdad and Ankara) the last thing the US wants is for the Kurdish Regional Government — which is much more pro-western than Iraq is — to be brought to its knees.

Actually the Pentagon is already complaining the Iraqi offensive has made its life in Syria more difficult:

Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State, said the fighting has hampered its efforts to defeat the group, citing the inability to move military equipment and supplies to allied forces in Iraq and Syria.

Dillon said that the majority of the flights carrying humanitarian supplies into Syria have not been disrupted but that the transport of heavy military equipment that cannot be flown in has.

Should the fighting resume the US will no doubt play up the role of the Iranian-backed popular militias, but it should be kept in mind these militias have since become formally a part of the Iraqi armed forces (they are salaried by the government), and that actually the effort is being spearheaded by regular Iraqi army on the orders of PM Abadi as even The Washington Post admits.

Heavy fighting in the area recently

At least one voice in the mainstream media, Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner is already calling for the US to enter the fray, and divide and bomb Iraqis:

That victory wouldn’t simply be in preventing the Kurds from moving personnel and supplies, but in subjecting the U.S. to those same restrictions. Iran will thus be able to extract political concessions in return for allowing border crossings.

..

On the contrary, this is just the latest stage of a Russian, Iranian and Turkish effort to carve out a new political reality in Iraq and Syria.

First, President Trump must endeavor to persuade Iraq’s prime minister to suspend any federal force involvement in offensives towards Faysh Khabur.

Still, the U.S. should be prepared to use military force to ensure the remaining Kurdish-held border crossings do not fall. The PMF recognize their vulnerability to U.S. air power and likely can be deterred from continuing north. If not, the U.S. must be ready to bomb them back into their box.