If this produces true civil war, then Iran is likely to be the only side to benefit

The attack on Kurdistan looks like a disaster for the Kurdish people, yet it is far more than that. It also represents an attempt by the powers around Kurdistan, particularly Iran, to push their power in the Middle East, with potentially dangerous consequences for the world as a whole.

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America has yet to intervene in the conflict in Kurdistan, citing its support for both the Baghdad government and the KRG. Yet, by failing to intervene, and by failing to support the continuation of Kurdistan, it risks accidentally handing power to Iran as the situation devolves into conflict. Even if Iraq somehow manages to pull itself back together by force, the American ideal of it providing a neat balance to its Iranian opponents can never be realised.

In refusing to support Kurdistan, America has abandoned its most consistent ally in the Middle East. It is more consistent than Iraq, which was actively its enemy in two major wars. It is far more consistent than Iran, which has long since regarded it as an enemy, or Syria, which is aligned with Russia. It is more consistent than Turkey, which has spent the past years steadily moving away from democracy and has cracked down on tens of thousands of its own citizens. It has also abandoned one of the few places within the Middle East that represents a consistent friend to another of its major allies: Israel.

Doing so might not destroy Kurdistan directly, but it opens the door to those who would. Maybe not Iraq, because Baghdad has its own problems at the moment, but Iran and Shiite militias may well seek the end of Kurdistan to the benefit of the Hashid al-Shaabi.

Let’s not pretend that America has no culpability in that. It is American made weapons that are being used against the peshmerga, American made weapons that are allowing Baghdad to steal back territory that it didn’t have the willingness to protect from Daesh, but now wants when the situation is easier for it. If this produces true civil war, then Iran is likely to be the only side to benefit.

Why would it seek to do so? The expansion of its power and the destruction of potential opponents are both powerful incentives, but there are more specific things that we need to worry about in a destabilised situation. It seems likely that, if it is able to contribute to an unstable situation in Kurdistan through militias it controls, Iran will seek to carve out a northern corridor for itself with which to link up with Syria. If it does so, it will allow for the two allies in the region to connect up and move forces easily within the Middle East. That would make both more powerful and create a more dangerous situation for the world.

The temptation is to dismiss this, and say that it is not about Iran, but about Baghdad attempting to piece its country back together or impose order within its borders. However, such a view would ignore the role that Iranian controlled militias are playing in the conflict, and the amount that Iran stands to gain. An excuse to intervene would, at the very least, provide it with an opportunity to deal with its own lingering issues with its Kurdish population.

Can we imagine that it wouldn’t seek to try to destroy a major US ally in the Middle East at a moment when the US is increasing pressure on it? Can we imagine that it is not taking advantage of the publicity offered by Jalal Talabani’s family, seeking to use that connection as an excuse to interfere?

It will not do this directly, of course. The Syrian and Yemeni conflicts have already damaged the Iranian economy through the need to commit resources, while many Iranian soldiers have been killed in the Syrian war. Instead, Iran is engaging in a proxy war using groups such as Hashid al-Shaabi, paying them using money from Iraqi Shiite benefactors and captured oil. If it succeeds, it gains power and oil wealth. Even if it fails, it loses nothing, and may even see Iraq weakened as a rival in the region.

The danger posed by the Iranian backed Hashid al-Shaabi cannot be underestimated. Already, it is taking Kurdish women, destroying houses, while banning any cultural expression of Kurdish identity, including its flag and language. If allowed to continue, it seems undeniable that they will seek to employ the kind of tactics used to try to repress the Kurdish people at other times, with their power grab turning into a slaughter.

I doubt that will spur the US into action, because when has it ever stood up for Kurds just because it is the right thing to do? What might is the appearance of Iranian military bases around Kirkuk. Not Iraqi, not militia, Iranian. Once they realise what is happening, they might decide to act to prevent expansion, but by then it might be too late.

The danger in all this is that the White House is simply not getting all the information available regarding this conflict. It is being shown an image of a simple internal struggle between two of its allies, and assumes that it can afford to sit back and see who emerges as the victor. Instead, it is facing a proxy war between a Kurdish side representing its interests and a set of militias that owe far more to the Iranians than to Baghdad. Failure to intervene will do untold damage to the Kurdish population, but it will also dramatically impact on US interests in the Middle East.

By Davan Yahya Khalil