Increasing moves by Russia and Iran are attempting to change the political face of the region. Iran along with its proxy forces such as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Hezbollah are extending the political and military reach of Tehran that may allow its influence to reach the Mediterranean. Russia has inserted itself into the Syrian civil war and has been making overtures to Turkey, whose relationship with the west has soured in recent years due to the actions of President Erdogan and his AK party.
This past June, Russia and Turkey announced that the Turkish military would purchase the S 400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia in lieu of purchasing a NATO system. The S 400 is the most advanced system in the Russian arsenal and could effectively deny the US-led coalition the ability to provide a no-fly zone over northern Syria or provide anti-Assad forces, including the Syrian Kurds, air cover.
Iran has continued to increase its power over the Iraqi government in Baghdad and is in full control of the PMF, which are technically under control of the Iraqi government but are in fact trained, armed, and loyal to Tehran. This is in addition to its support to Lebanese Hezbollah and continued support to the Assad regime. Iran has become the most powerful and influential force in the region.
While Russian intent is to reestablish the “Great Game” and reinsert itself as a regional power, Iran is suspected to be working with North Korea to continue its nuclear and missile research in technical violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran deal. The Iran deal was intended to keep Iran from continuing nuclear weapons research for at least 15 years, with an assumed breakout time of 1 to 2 years after that. Cooperating with North Korea, it is highly likely that Iran could have nuclear weapons in a very short time and has indicated it may pull out of the deal.
The North Korean program is directed at protecting North Korea from perceived US desires to overthrow the Kim regime and forcibly reunify the Korean peninsula. Another reason for North Korea to have nukes is to force a reunification on its terms and to blackmail the regional neighbors into accepting a unified Korea.
The Iranian program would have only one target, Israel, the only nuclear power in the region. It is unlikely that either country would hold back on the use of its nuclear arsenal. Should Iran decide not to launch at Israel it could still hold the region hostage with the threat of nuclear war.
Where does this leave Kurdistan? The answer is dependent on the actions of the US and the future of Kurdish independence. The future of Kurdish independence is less uncertain than the actions of the US. Assuming successful independence, the US must become the protector of not only Kurdistan but the region. A nuclear Iran will be a threat to not only peace in the region but the sovereignty of regional governments. The US will be forced to increase its presence in the region as well as ensuring that it is understood it will meet any use of weapons of mass destruction with a response in-kind. The easiest way to do this is to reduce the Iranian threat before it becomes overpowering.
A belief in US military power has been a problem recently, as the US has been perceived to be a paper tiger, a nation that will not use the full weight of its military. There is no quick and easy fix to this perception, but a strong response to North Korean activities would be a start as would be an unmistakable military presence in Kurdistan. Time is running short for Kurdistan to benefit from either US action or Iranian inaction. The face of the region is changing and the KRG must choose a protector. The only two countries that could fill the need are the US or Russia. Historically Russian assistance has cost nations sovereignty and independence of actions. Turkey could also fill in, but at what price.
Paul Davis is a retired US Army military intelligence and former Soviet analyst. He is a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently he is the president of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington D.C.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.