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​Real ‘Battle of Iraq’ is only beginning

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: July 03, 2014 15:08
A file picture taken on June 21, 2014 shows Iraqi Shiite fighters parading with their weapons in the capital Baghdad. (AFP Photo / Ali al-Saadi)

Ideology or religion, nationalism, self-determination, and independence appear lofty notions and goals, but in reality, it is "always ... about the oil, stupid!" to paraphrase Professor Schwartz paraphrasing Bill Clinton.

The news cycles in the first decade of the 21st century were dominated by the military events in Iraq. Following 9/11 the US government quickly decided that the time had finally come to invade Iraq (and reap its commercial benefits), even though the initial response was directed at Afghanistan. As eloquently illustrated by the veteran journalist Bob Woodward, the real goal had always been the invasion of Iraq, with President George W. Bush meeting repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks and his war cabinet from December 2001 to plan the US attack on Iraq.

At the time, the US administration even allocated between $100 and $200 million for covert operations in Iraq (compared to merely $70 million spent by the CIA in Afghanistan for similar purposes). Finally, Bush unleashed his campaign of "Shock & Awe" on 19 March 2003 and the subsequent invasion of the lands of Mesopotamia was completed on May, 1, when the US President announced that the mission had been completed. It’s hard to forget the iconic image of Bush, Jr., standing in front of a large banner displaying the words "Mission Accomplished" aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast. Unashamed and full of bluster, from the podium Bush, Jr. proclaimed that “[m]ajor combat operations in Iraq have ended”, adding that “[i]n the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

In truth, the real "Battle of Iraq" was only to start following the USS Abraham Lincoln announcement, ushering in a veritable civil war and the division of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.

Onset of division

In 2006 the fragmentation of Iraq even led then Senator and now Vice President Joseph Biden (D-Del) to pen a rather prescient op-ed in the New York Times, in conjunction with co-author Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. The piece proposed the idea “to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group ... room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests,” as a federal state consisting of a strong center and equally strong components. Biden's piece effectively suggested the establishment of “three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense.”

A first step in that direction had already been taken by the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq following the completion of Operation Desert Storm (1991). Following the 2003 invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the no-fly zone ceased to exist and became officially known as the KRG or the Kurdistan Regional Government. This de-facto independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has since then been at pains to establish good relations with its northern neighbor. While Turkey, for its part, appears to have been equally willing to treat the KRG on equal terms, given Turkey's own restive Kurdish population (and the ongoing conflict with the terrorist PKK) and the KRG's hydrocarbon reserves that constitute an attractive incentive for maintaining friendly relations and good business partnerships.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani (AFP Photo / Safin Hamed)

With the advent of Ramadan this year, the ISIS, simultaneously active in Syria and Iraq, officially announced the arguably partial achievement of their goal even holding "a parade in Syria’s northern Raqqa province to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic 'caliphate' after the group captured territory in neighboring Iraq," as reported by Reuters. The ISIS is said to have renamed itself into the Islamic State. Even though the report explains that Baghdadi has now been elevated to the position of "head of the state", the use of the term 'Caliph' really implies much wider aspirations. The Arabic term 'Khalifah' (transcribed into English as Caliph) literally denotes 'deputy' or 'successor', and in the context of a 'Khilafat' or Caliphate (as transcribed into English) refers to the succession of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam and the first ruler of the 'Ummah' or Community of Believers. Hence, the "hardline Sunni Muslim group" formerly known as ISIS in the West has now performed a cunning public relations exercise that at the same time is a threat to the legitimacy of the rulers of any state containing a Muslim population as well as an open invitation to anyone claiming to be a Muslim, as any believer should feel compelled to serve the 'Caliph', who is the 'Leader of the Believers' as the "Shadow of God on Earth'. And, in a very post-modern twist, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even assumed his own caliphal name as the "Caliph Ibrahim"

The Islamic State has now released yet another online video, posted on the Twitter account of the group’s al-I’tisaam Media Foundation, called “This is the Promise of Allah”, and the recording shows the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani proclaiming: "I say to the Islamic Ummah: Now we are in Iraq. Allah, glorified and exalted ... smashed these borders, the borders of Sykes-Picot, and now the Muslim can enter Iraq without a passport," as transcribed by the SITE Intelligence Group which keeps tracks “on all dimensions of extremism in the 21st century.”

As a result, Iraq has now been divided into three parts, with the Sunni section being linked to parts of Syrian territory. The Islamic State has now declared that nearly a century after the end of the Great War (better-known as World War I, 1914-18) and the application of the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916), dividing the territories of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire among the victors, a new world order has been established, or rather re-established. The Islamic State seems bent on unmaking the results of the Sykes-Picot agreement and redraw the map of the Middle East. The group has apparently even posted a map of their ambitions online – purportedly showing their plans for the next five years and this map shows vast swathes of Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe shaded in black, as indicative of territories the "Caliph Ibrahim" wants to rule.

The dismantling of Iraq into three separate entities would create a precedent that could very well also engulf the populations of the region. The Islamic State's recent appearance on the Iraqi scene directly endangers the KRG, as a quasi-autonomous Kurdish entity on Turkey's borders. Even though, the KRG has been able to profit from the recent turmoil, adding more ground to its territory, but given that military gains and losses are seldom set in stone, the eventual outcome of the Islamic State's onslaught is still open to drastic and dramatic changes, reversals, setbacks and victories. At the moment, for instance, the Islamic State is battling its erstwhile Syrian ally the Nusra Front for control of the city of Abu Kamal on Syria's eastern border with Iraq. The Coventry-based one-man Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the fighting has been escalating now for nearly a week. The border town is located in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, which happens to be a region rich in oil, and thus one can see that even terrorist groups do not shy away from engaging in resource wars.

The black gold stack

The Middle East is proverbial for its underground hydrocarbon wealth and Iraq is a land that "swims on a sea of oil", to use then-US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz' now infamous 2003 words. With 140 billion barrels estimated, Iraq has the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), "Iraq has five super-giant fields (over 5 billion barrels) in the south that account for 60 percent of the country's proven oil reserves. An estimated 17 percent of oil reserves are in the north of Iraq, near Kirkuk, Mosul, and Khanaqin ... The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area contained 4 billion barrels of proven reserves... KRG stated that this region could contain 45 billion barrels of unproven oil resources."

As a result, the Islamic State's assault did not fortuitously start in Mosul, just beyond the so-called Sunni Triangle (areas north and west if Baghdad which are not very rich in oil resources). But, according to Stony Brook Professor Michael Schwartz, the Sunni Triangle "has almost the entire length of the only substantial pipeline that exits the country (to Turkey), a significant refinery in Haditha, and the Baiji petroleum complex, which contains an electrical power plant serving the northern provinces and a 310,000 barrel per day oil refinery producing a third of the country’s refined petroleum", in addition to a "number of small oil fields".

In other words, the Islamic State planned its attack in order to maximize the oil reserves held by Sunnis. The sectarian Maliki government restricted the Sunni share of Iraq's oil revenue following the final departure of the US-led occupation. And now, Sunni extremist belonging to the terrorist group formerly known as ISIS, aided by erstwhile Saddam loyalist and members of Sunni militias known as Sahwa, originally recruited by the US to fight "Al-Qaeda" but now abandoned by the Maliki government, as well as huge numbers of foreign fighters steaming in to join the Jihad in this live front in the intra-Islamic Cold War, have forcibly taken hold of various oil assets. Their possession is hotly contested and intensely fought over. In the end, however bloody the fighting and however fierce the ideological opposition between Sunnis and Shi'ites, "[i]t has always been about the oil, stupid!" according to Professor Schwartz paraphrasing Bill Clinton's speech-writer James Carville.

Turkey plans

Turkey, the direct successor to the Ottoman Empire in the region, is famously the one local without any substantial oil fields in its possession. The fact that the Ottoman province of Mosul (originally part of Baghdad province, the area was given provincial status in 1878) was excluded from the territories held by Ankara in the Lausanne Treaty and assigned to the British Protectorate of Iraq has always been a source of great frustration on the Turkish side. But now, the AKP-led Turkish government has been establishing friendly ties with the KRG in northern Iraq, as a way of accessing oil wells beyond its borders. The oil trade between Ankara and Erbil has been going strong now for a while, much to the chagrin of the central government in Baghdad however. As such, Turkey has used its business relationship with the KRG to construct its own section of "Pipelineistan" in western Asia.

Now that ISIS in cooperation with erstwhile Saddam loyalists, Sunni militias, and innumerable foreign fighters from across the world, is in the process of effectively Balkanizing the state of Iraq, the ties between Turkey and the KRG appear as crucial as ever. Particularly now that the Islamic State has gotten hold of Syrian territory actually bordering Turkey, in the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, facing the Turkish Akçakale in the province of Urfa.

Iraqi forces and mainly Shiite Muslim volunteers arrive in the predominantly-Sunni Muslim city of Samarra, 124 kms from Baghdad on July 2, 2014 (AFP Photo)

Even though the Islamic State has now brought the intra-Islamic Cold War between Sunni and Shi'a Islam to the forefront of global attention, underneath this ideological rhetoric and behind the bloody fighting resides the true prize of the vast hydrocarbon wealth hidden underneath the sand of the Middle East.

The sudden appearance of ISIS has also disrupted the recently revived and augmented oil trade between Ankara and Erbil. This "messy Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey energy love affair" had just started to bear fruits when Mosul fell.

Now that the ISIS in cooperation with erstwhile Saddam loyalists, Sunni militias, and innumerable foreign fighters from across the world, is in the process of effectively Balkanizing the state of Iraq, the ties between Turkey and the KRG appear as crucial as ever.

Israeli view

Quite apart from the "messy Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey energy love affair" and global oil traders still having faith in the continued oil production in Iraq's South, another player also seems willing to intervene and in doing so, possibly upset the political tranquillity enjoyed by Turkey. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that the Kurds “are a nation of fighters and have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence.” In fact, a few days prior to Bibi's pronouncement, the Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman had already told US Secretary of State John Kerry that the appearance of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq is all but a “foregone conclusion".

In Turkey, a shaky Kurdish peace process has been underway for some years, initiated by Erdoğan's overtly Islamic AKP. Now that the likelihood of a full-fledged Kurdish state, in lieu of a quasi-autonomous KRG, on Turkey's borders appears like a real possibility, Turkey's authorities must feel a certain amount of apprehension.

A few days prior to Bibi's really rather unexpected endorsement of Kurdish statehood, the KRG's PM Nechirvan Barzani visited Turkey, where he met with the wily Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan as well as Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirli, before getting together with Turkey's PM. After all, Turkey is not just concerned over any possible oil deals with Iraq and the KRG, but at the same time the issue of the Turkish hostages held by the now-Islamic State has not been resolved either. As such, Barzani and Erdoğan jointly called for the formation of a unity government in Iraq, an inclusive administration that will include all segments of Iraqi society.

Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan's regional government. (AFP Photo / Safin Hamed)

Thus, the Israeli Netanyahu has now really thrown a considerable spanner in the works, an obstacle that could not just undermine Iraqi integrity but also jeopardize Turkey's Kurdish peace process. But in reality, Bibi's remarks did not really fall from the sky. It has been some years now that the state of Israel established an Israel-Kurd Institute based in Iraqi Kurdistan as a think-tank to foster relations between the Jewish state and the KRG.

In other words, Israel appears to have been harboring its own designs on the KRG's oil wealth for quite some time. On Monday 23 June, the Kurdish tanker SCF Altai unloaded its cargo at the Israeli oil port of Ashkelon. The Israeli journalist Ksenia Svetlova explains that those "who monitor Kurdish-Israeli relations were not surprised. The ties between Israel and the Kurds began in the early 1960s, when Israeli intelligence agents operated in Iraqi Kurdistan and helped local authorities. The level of cooperation increased significantly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with Israeli contractors and companies entering Iraqi Kurdistan and routine reports in Iraqi media about Israeli commandos training the Kurdish peshmerga". These close links were however never officially acknowledged, and Svetlova recognizes that "Israel is neither the closest nor the most important ally for any future Kurdish state,” mentioning Turkey and Iran. With the emergence of the Islamic State (or the terrorist group formerly known as ISIS) a number of previously quite hidden relationships have come out in the open. Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran are all inter-linked due to their local Kurdish populations, and in combination with the hydrocarbon wealth wielded by some, Israel has been insinuating itself as well into that geographical fix as well.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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