Spillover from the Syrian conflict heightened tensions between Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey this week. On Saturday, around 7,000 Iraqi Army troops were dispatched to Rabia and Zumar in northwestern Ninewa province to control the border crossing with Syria in disputed territory long claimed both by the federal government and by the Kurdish Regional Government. The deployment left federal troops less than a kilometer from Kurdish forces near the village of Qahira, with a Kurdish intelligence officer insisting that the federal forces would not be allowed to advance further into areas claimed by and under the control of the Kurds. KRG Deputy Peshmerga Minister Anwar Haji Osman stated that an Iraqi attack on the Peshmerga would be met with Kurdish advances across the disputed territories. While the federal government and Kurdish political parties traded accusations that each was violating the Iraqi constitution and seeking to provoke conflict, two Peshmerga battalions were deployed to the area with a backup artillery unit, to which Baghdad responded by sending helicopters and artillery.
The tension at the border was exacerbated on Sunday when an Iraqi official claimed that Iraqi security agencies had uncovered a secret weapons deal between KRG President Massoud Barzani and an unnamed foreign country that included Russian-made anti-armor and anti-aircraft missiles as well as heavy weapons. The official claimed that Iraqi authorities have obtained “all the documents” relating to the deal and are trying to block it, insisting that only the federal defense ministry can buy arms. Peshmerga Ministry spokesman Jabbar Yawar immediately denied the accusation.
On Tuesday, a spokesman from President Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party admitted that the party had given a “very small” number of young Syrian Kurds “basic training in camps in the region in order to fill any security gap after the fall of the Syrian regime.” The announcement prompted a meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and KRG President Barzani at which Davutoglu urged the KRG not to support a Syrian Kurdish party that is allegedly collaborating with Iraq-based Turkish Kurdish rebels. The meeting was followed by a rare joint statement by Turkey and the KRG promising cooperation to tackle any threat from violent groups seeking to exploit a power vacuum in Syria.
On Thursday, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi Parliamentary Security Committee, Hasan Jihad, stated that Iraqi Army troops had pulled back from the contested area after American-sponsored negotiations between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. Even as tension at the Syrian border appeared to die down, however, the issue of the disputed territories continued to draw heat after Davutoglu visited Kirkuk, making him the first Turkish Foreign Minister to visit the disputed city in 75 years. The meeting further strained Iraqi-Turkish relations, coming days after Turkey issued a residence permit to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, whose trial for terrorism is ongoing in Baghdad. Iraq was quick to protest Davutoglu’s Kirkuk visit, summoning Turkey’s envoy to Baghdad on Friday to complain that the Foreign Minister had neither asked for nor obtained Iraq’s permission to enter the country.
On the commercial front, too, disputes between Baghdad and Erbil continue. On Tuesday, it was announced that French oil company Total would move into the Kurdistan region, purchasing interest in two oil exploration blocks from US-based Marathon Oil. A spokesman for Iraqi Deputy PM for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani pronounced the contract illegal, and on Wednesday a senior Iraqi oil official declared that Baghdad is working to disqualify and terminate Total’s share in southern Iraq’s Halfaya oilfield.
The week’s developments exemplify the propensity of the Syria conflict to enflame longstanding tensions in the region, particularly with regard to groups such as the Kurds whose presence crosses state borders. While crisis appears to have been averted in Ninewa, the Iraqi-Peshmerga standoff demonstrates that the disputed territories issue remains a key challenge to Iraqi security and requires urgent and sustained engagement from all stakeholders. Turkey’s improving relations with the KRG, meanwhile, continue to cause friction with Baghdad, making clear the need to place Iraqi-Kurdish engagement at the top of the agenda for stability in Iraq and its environs.
To learn about the evolving relationship between Kurdistan and the United States, read Ramzy Mardini's backgrounder, " Relations with Iraq's Kurds: Toward a Working Partnership." For a comprehensive look at the first two months since U.S. troops left Iraq, read " Iraq's Recurring Political Crisis." To read a transcript from the Feb. 29 event "Policing Iraq," click here, and to read a transcript from the Feb. 16 event "Iraq After the U.S. Withdrawal," click here. To read past weekly updates, click here.