US-led efforts to counter the Islamic State (IS) with Kurdish peshmerga partners is having a backlash on Sunni Arab communities. Relying on Iraqi Kurds to act as coalition boots on the ground may help eliminate some IS safe havens, but it is fueling Kurdish land grabs.
Iraqi Kurds are using US airstrikes and the political vacuum in northern Iraq not only to push back IS, but also to recapture the disputed territories and oil fields — some of the very measures that have fueled Sunni Arab resentment since 2003.
These trends are undermining the effort to assuage Sunni Arab grievances and laying the groundwork for Iraq’s next protracted, subnational conflict.
While minorities and “apostates” have been brutally victimized by IS, Sunni Arabs have become primary targets in local anti-IS campaigns. In some areas, Shiite militias have retaliated against Sunni Arabs through kidnappings, killings and forced population displacements.
The militias remain stationed in Iraq’s disputed territories, which they helped liberate alongside Kurdish peshmerga, Iranian Quds Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Their engagement reflects Iranian influences in Iraq and disputes between Baghdad and Erbil that preceded the IS onslaught, and which are feeding local tensions.
Similarly, as Iraqi Kurds benefit from coalition airstrikes and take control of former IS safe havens in northern Iraq, they are engaging in demographic and territorial engineering to advance their nationalist agenda. Kurdish peshmerga are preventing Sunni Arab populations from returning to their homes while attempting to Kurdify these territories.