By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team
Key Take-Away: The combined Kurdish offensive against ISIS in Sinjar is less significant as a tactical gain against ISIS than as a symbolic victory for multiple Kurdish factions that will ultimately compete for dominance. Coalition airstrikes and advisers supported the KDP Peshmerga operation, while fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syrian Women’s and People’s Protection Units (YPJ and YPG), and local Yazidi militias also participated. The competition between the KDP and the PKK will likely intensify during the ongoing political crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan over the KDP-held regional presidency. PKK and Peshmerga mobilization in Iraq, even when directed against ISIS, threatens local Arab populations who fear Kurdish occupation on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It also threatens Turkey, among other regional actors, who fear Kurdish autonomy and the potential for Kurdish forces to gain the upper hand in Mosul ultimately. The Kurdish victory at Sinjar therefore requires that the anti-ISIS coalition balance the interests of Kurds and Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq. Ethnic tensions were also exposed in Tuz Khurmato, where PUK Peshmerga clashed with ethnic Turkmen Iranian proxy militia members. The clash was violent enough to cause ISF, Peshmerga, and proxy militia forces to move forces to Tuz Khurmato to prevent escalation, while delegations of PUK, Iranian, Iranian proxy, and Iraqi government leaders and officials arrived to negotiate ceasefires between the combatants. This ethnic fault line challenges the interests of Iran as well as the U.S.-led coalition in a sector of northern Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) where the ISF is less dominant than either Iranian proxies or forward-deployed PUK Peshmerga. Ethnic tension and intra-Kurdish competition both work to the detriment of northern Iraq’s security at a tenuous time for PM Abadi’s government.