Iraq's blockade of Kurdistan frustrates Western counter-terror training

Canada and Germany have suspended programs for Kurdish fighters, a key force battling ISIS, after an independence vote angered Baghdad
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

The Iraqi government is intensifying pressure on Kurdistan, nearly two months after the semi-autonomous northern region declared independence from the central government in Baghdad, complicating western training efforts for Iraqi forces and the fight to make sure militant groups like ISIS don’t reassert themselves.

The independence referendum spurred harsh sanctions from the Iraqi government, including travel restrictions, budget cuts, and restrictions on the region’s airspace. Baghdad also re-asserted control over border territory that had been captured by the Kurds from ISIS.

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The vote, which saw 92 percent support for independence with a 73 percent voter turnout, has also put an indefinite pause on Western training missions for Kurdish military forces. On Monday, an Iraqi court declared the referendum unconstitutional, and Baghdad has generally rebuffed efforts from Erbil, the Kurdish capital, to ratchet down tensions.

Until November, the Peshmerga, the semi-professional fighting force of the Kurdistan Regional Government that has proved itself incredibly effective against the Islamic State, benefitted from training missions run by Canada, Germany, and Turkey. Those efforts have been suspended due to the independent vote and the Kurdistan Regional Government is not thrilled with the situation.

‘We have to fight ISIS’

“This is not the right thing to do,” Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told VICE News from Halifax, where an array of senior military and government officials from NATO and NATO-allied countries gathered over the weekend.

“There should be clear statements from Washington, from Ottawa, from London, Paris, Berlin, from all of our friends around the world — from Rome, Canberra, Beijing, Moscow — that the Kurdistan Regional Government is a legitimate entity, is a friend and partner, it is a force for peace and moderation,” he said.

“We’re not going to get involved in internal disputes,” said Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan

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Bakir added that while ISIS may have been beaten on the battlefields, there is no guarantee that it has made its last stand. The possibility that another terrorist organization may fill the vacuum in war-torn Syria is also distinctly possible.

“We have to fight ISIS culturally, economically, logistically, socially,” Bakir said during at the Halifax International Security Forum.

The minister made a direct call on the West to bypass Baghdad and deal with Erbil directly. “If there is a will, there is a way,” he stressed.

Turkey halted its training immediately after the independence vote in September, while Ottawa and Berlin suspended theirs in October.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen initially told journalists that the mission had been paused, according to Deutsche Welle “so no wrong signal would be sent.” Berlin, however, opted to reboot its training after a week, having received assurances that the training and weapons provided by Berlin would only be used against the Islamic State.

Canada’s mission remains suspended.

Ottawa’s mission brought tactical helicopter units, medical training and a contingent of special forces deployed near the front lines in an “advise and assist” mission: close enough to engage in firefights with the soldiers of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

‘Supporting Iraqi forces’

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan made it clear that “we’re not going to get involved in internal disputes.” Sajjan said training missions with the Kurds won’t resume without a green light from Baghdad.

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“The last thing you want to be doing something in a different country that the host country doesn’t want you to do,” Sajjan told VICE News. “So we’re very comfortable with where we’re at.”

Asked whether ending an ongoing training mission, in essence, sent the message that Canada did not recognize Kurdistan’s bid for independence, Sajjan disagreed.

“The only message we’re sending is that we’re supporting the Iraqi Security Forces.”

Last Friday, Ottawa announced that it would be increasing its continent of military trainers in Iraq, sending 20 military engineers to conduct explosive training with the Iraqi Security Forces in Besmaya, near Baghdad — far away from Kurdish territory. A senior source in Sajjan’s office stressed that the new commitment was not meant to replace Canada’s suspended mission in Erbil.

A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence could not provide details on what the Canadian military personnel have been doing since the mission was suspended.

“In the interim, they continue to monitor the situation and plan for the next potential phases of operational activity,” the spokesperson told VICE News.

Currently, there are around 150 Canadian personnel stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Closed-door protests

It’s not just pressure from Iraq that is giving Canada pause — Turkey has also renewed its high-pitched rhetoric on growing Kurdish autonomy.

General Hulusi Akar, Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, also spoke in Halifax over the weekend, slamming his fellow NATO allies — America, in particular — for training and arming Syrian Kurdish fighters who have helped to push ISIS out of Raqqa and elsewhere.

Akar made little distinction between the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish fighting force; and the PKK, a listed terrorist organization in the U.S., which has fought for Kurdish independence for decades, targeting Turkish military personnel and civilians in the process.

Akar’s comments sparked closed-door protests from the Kurds present at the meeting.

Talks are continuing between Erbil and Baghdad. Sajjan told reporters those talks were “going well” — but the Kurdish government says there is current no prospect of a deal to de-escalate tensions on the horizon.