Will the Iraqi Kurds be a collateral victim of the war in Ukraine? In and around Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Islamic State is back. It’s raising its head in Sulaymaniyah. It’s retaking its positions in the caves and tunnels of the Qaraqosh mountains. Along the old Sector 6 front, around Gwer, on a daily basis, ISIS tests the capacity of Gen. Sirwan Barzani, a leader of the Peshmerga, the regional military force.
The Kurds’ European and American partners don’t seem to appreciate the danger. They appear to regard ISIS as a tumor that has been excised, when it is more like mercury—a poisonous liquid that vaporizes and rests in suspension, waiting for its adversaries to lower their guard so it can condense anew. That is what is unfolding in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iran is at the helm, calling up its dormant agents in the area, galvanizing the Shiite militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces, sometimes supported by proper units of the Revolutionary Guards. It is firing missiles into areas reachable from the Plain of Nineveh. On several occasions this year rockets have fallen on the outskirts of Erbil and its airport.
Since the first Gulf War and the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurdistan has existed under international law as the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. But under pressure from Tehran, Iraq has been maneuvering for months and even years to weaken, humiliate and ultimately strangle it. It hasn’t received its share of the federal budget since 2014. The stipends of the 30,000 Peshmerga fighters haven’t been paid, while Iraq regularly pays the salaries, pensions and weapons of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces. Baghdad has prevented the exploitation and export of the Kurds’ petroleum reserves based on a flawed and cynical reading of the Iraqi Constitution.
Without the vigilance of a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers—including Sens. Jim Risch (R., Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) and Reps. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), Michael Waltz (R., Fla.), Dina Titus (D., Nev.) and Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.)—the Kurds would long ago have been sent back to their mountain redoubts.
Western leaders may believe that in the global war declared against them by a bloc of new imperialist authoritarian powers including Russia, China, Iran and Turkey, they can operate on only one front at a time. In this case Erbil may have to steel itself for a repeat of last year’s overnight withdrawal from Kabul.
But we ought to understand that Kurdish oil and gas are a serious alternative to Russian supplies—that Kurdistan is now, as it was when it served as our rampart against ISIS, a shield against Vladimir Putin’s energy blackmail and the ensuing chaos. America needs a bipartisan foreign policy committed to defending the West’s interests and values in both Ukraine and Kurdistan, as Thomas S. Kaplan and I, co-founders of the nonprofit Justice for Kurds, argued in these pages in May. The U.S. and its European allies should recall the wisdom of Cicero and see “the whole world as if it were a single city.”