“All political power comes from the barrel of a gun,” said Mao Zedung. The Kurds of northern Iraq got a stern lesson in Mao-style power politics over the past 2 weeks, as American-trained and equipped Iraqi government forces and Iranian-trained and equipped Shi’ite militias took back control over the city of Kirkuk and its oil-rich countryside.
Kirkuk has long been a diverse city, and control over it has long been contested. Saddam Houssein, back in the last century, forced out many Kurdish residents and replaced them with imported Arabs, Shi’ite and Sunni. When the ISIS invasion forced Iraqi troops out of Mosul in 2014, the Kurdish Regional Government sent Kurds back to Kirkuk and claimed the city and its regional oil revenues.
This year, 2 events decided outside Kirkuk produced this month’s reversal of powers there. First Kurdish and Iraqi military forces collaborated to force the Islamic State out of Mosul and then, the Kurdish Regional Government (the KRG) held a referendum on Kurdish secession from Iraq, and included Kirkuk city and province in its plan.
The KRG had been warned against both actions, but went ahead, confident the voters’ choice would stick. It did not and now Iran acting through Iraqi surrogates is teaching the lesson of Mao.
Just days before the Iraqi take-back of Kirkuk, the last city controlled by the Islamic State, Raqqa, Syria, the capital of their so-called caliphate was conquered by Syrian rebels led by the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Unlike, Kirkuk, Raqqa has never had much of a Kurdish population, and now that the ISIS militants have been driven out, to scatter across a forbidding desert area that straddles the Syria-Iraq border, what happens next is a perplexing 3-part question — part 1, what happens to Raqqa, part 2, what happens the remnant of the Islamic State, and 3, what happens next to the Syrian Kurds?
At the Trump White House, there seems to be an assumption that the United States will be able to dictate, or at least strongly influence the answers to all 3 questions. What’s been happening in and around Kirkuk undermines that assumption. American advice and American interests have been ignored or discarded by both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi National Government in recognition of the greater influence of Iran, and its closer and more focused gun-barrels.
Iran has interests and gunmen in Syria, too and on-the-ground allies from Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Russia, and goaded by the blustering hostility of President Trump, has little reason to make nice.
The lesson for Uncle Sam, or more to the point Uncle Donald lack the pedigree of Mao, but is worth heeding: even the biggest bully needs to pick his spots. After 14 years of fatal missteps in the Middle East, this seems not to be the place to brandish a big mouth or a big stick.
Tony Cheng is a respected veteran of global television reporting. Based in Bangkok, Thailand, Tony has reported for the BBC and Al Jazeera English, as well as CCTN, the Chinese Government’s English-language news service for whom he has recently been covering the front lines of the battle for Mosul in Iraq and for the ISIS caliphate capital in Syria, Raqqa.