The Battle of Kirkuk* and its implications were a significant twist in the balance of power north of Iraq as Iran tried to amplify the project, which sought to separate the Kurds from the authority of the Shiite allies in Baghdad, and which didn’t hesitate to systematically end the situation by cooperating with its Taliban comrades.
The independent Kurdish project, led by Masoud Barzani** in northern Iraq, didn’t stop at putting an end to Iranian rule in its Iraqi territories, but also constituted a main support vessel for the control of powers competing with Iran in the region, mainly the United States and Turkey. Moscow and Iran are contemptuous of the American presence in the region.
It seems somehow clear that Iranian efforts to contain the Kurds succeeded, as Barzani’s last visit to Tehran was a Kurdish acknowledgment of the leading Iranian role in Iraq and the withdrawal of total dependence on Americans, who were criticized by Barzani in his infamous speech during the Battle of Kirkuk for abandoning their Kurdish allies.
In northern Syria, the horizon of conflict is moving toward the same Iraqi path in the north. After Iran almost overcame its biggest challenge by escalating the armed, jihadi opposition, and, after it shrank its power in the country, Russians and Iranians started working on the Kurdish file in northern Syria. The goal was clear: returning the Kurdish areas to the authority of Damascus, hence Tehran, even if Kurds retain a margin of self-governance. This was followed by ejecting the American competitor from its field in northern Syria by withdrawing the Kurds to the line of the Iranian-Russian axis. Iranians and Russians are aware that they have to sacrifice much to the Kurds to cut ties with Americans, as Kurds consider Washington an idol for their independent entity project north of Syria. Tehran will have to guarantee the Syrian Kurds that Iran will accept their entity under the umbrella of the Russian-Iranian axis, as was the case in Iraqi Kurdistan.
While the American coalition will grant more independence to the Kurdish regions, having to accept the Russian-Iranian role – which seeks to place them under the umbrella of Damascus – will grant the Kurds a semi-sovereign administration with limited powers. Kurds are unlikely to cut ties with Washington unless prompted to and under threat, exactly as was the case in Kirkuk. The same scenario is bound to happen in Afrin, where Kurds are trying to sway negotiations to their side to allow the entry of regime forces to the area, which was the threshold of the Iranian movement toward the Kurdish regions because it falls outside American protection. This rendered Afrin the weakest link north of Syria, and provided the break through which Iranians will escape to more prominent regions of the Kurdish Rojava Province of northern Syria.
The last offensive by the regime on Kurdish-controlled regions was in Deir ez-Zor and was a preliminary maneuver to prepare for the next phase. It is also the next Kurdish spot to be targeted by Russia and Iran in northern Syria after Afrin. However, the second phase will be way more complicated than Afrin for the American strategic presence over there, even if the American withdrawals in the region indicate that the Americans hold an unprecedentedly weak foothold in Iraq and Syria.
*Editor's Note: The Battle of Kirkuk began on Oct. 15, 2017, and was a military deployment by the Iraqi Security Forces to retake the Kirkuk Governorate from the Peshmerga militia.
**Editor's Note: Masoud Barzani was the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region from 2005 to 2017 and is the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.