Tensions Peak in Northern Iraq

Escalating tensions on Iraq's northern border strengthen the case for a strategic reset of policy in Iraq and the Middle East, says Brian Katulis.

The Turkish parliament’s 507-19 approval to authorize the Turkish military to conduct military operations in Iraq brings an escalating crisis on Iraq’s northern borders to a head.

The vote does not necessarily mean a large-scale ground invasion is imminent, but it does raise several red flags about what is to come in the next few weeks and whether the United States has the right policy for this volatile region of the world.

The United States has not done enough to address the growing tensions in northern Iraq. Conflict over the northern city of Kirkuk between Arabs and Kurds continues. At the end of last month, Iran closed its border with northern Iraq in protest after U.S. forces detained an Iranian in the northern city of Sulaymania and accused him of facilitating weapons smuggling and training on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Adding fuel to the fire, the U.S. Congress considered an ill-timed resolution on the Armenian genocide that led Turkey to withdraw its ambassador to Washington for consultations. Though it looks like the U.S. Congress will not move forward with this resolution, the confluence of events raises questions about the overall U.S. approach to the region.

During the past year, Turkey and Iran have both conducted cross-border strikes into northern Iraq in response to attacks by Kurdish terrorist groups. These attacks, as well as other signs of growing instability in northern Iraq, garnered little attention from policymakers in Washington, who focused the Iraq debate narrowly on President Bush’s tactical surge of forces to the central part of Iraq.

The surge, which will end because of a military readiness crisis next year, has failed to achieve its fundamental objective—advancing Iraq’s deadlocked national political reconciliation. And the resources and attention paid to the surge have had a high opportunity cost for the rest of Iraq. U.S. policy has focused on holding together a center in Iraq that may no longer exist, and in the meantime the situation in other parts of Iraq and the region as a whole has deteriorated.

The United States does not need more of the same tactical adjustments like the Center for New American Security’s narrow plan that advocates for little more than more of the same on training Iraqi security forces. The United States needs a complete overhaul in its approach to Iraq and the Middle East. Rather than advocating simplistic non-solutions like a "soft partition" of Iraq, as advocated by many out-of-touch policy elites in the United States, our country needs to adopt a fundamentally new approach that comprehensively addresses the multiplicity of security challenges directly tied to Iraq.

In short, the United States needs to hit the CTRL-ALT-DELETE buttons in a Strategic Reset of overall U.S. policy in the region. It needs to send a clear signal that the United States military is not going to continue to shoulder the burden of an open-ended troop presence in Iraq, and it should mitigate the risks of a redeployment of U.S. troops with intensified diplomatic efforts to stabilize conflicts and tensions in the region.

Rather than allowing Turkey and Iraq to drift into military confrontation, the United States needs to take decisive diplomatic action to contain the brewing crisis in northern Iraq. Both Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government have strong economic incentives to avoid conflict—Turkey is a main supplier of electricity to northern Iraq and a leading trade partner.

Only by engaging in a strong diplomatic push toward stability in the north can the United States leverage these ties into a cooling down of the conflict. Ultimately, however, the problems of the Turkey-Kurd relationship require a political solution. The United States needs to facilitate direct talks between the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.

The United States must lean on the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to take real measures against the PKK, something that has not yet been done. Even if the PKK cannot be totally defeated by the KRG, it can at least be politically, economically, and socially cut off from the rest of KRG territory. In addition, the United States should offer to deploy troops as a guarantor to any agreement achieved between the KRG and the Turkish government.

The president’s current policy of strategic drift regarding Iraq’s neighbors has contributed to the escalating crisis between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds. Tactical tweaks within Iraq will not help resolve the multiple issues Iraq and its neighbors are confronting. Only a complete re-conception of America’s role in Iraq and the region can help the United States work constructively and decisively to de-escalate a dangerous international situation.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow