Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani gambled and lost

Will Kurdistan get a second chance?

  • Iraqi Kurds had hoped to leverage their help in defeating Daesh into independence
  • Instead, they lost territory and risked an Iraq invasion if they didn’t back down
  • If talks between Baghdad and Erbil don’t work out, protracted war could result

Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, may have miscalculated when he thought that the time was ripe for a formal declaration of independence. The so-called Arab spring in 2011 spurred the KRG’s parliament to affirm the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination. President Barzani, the driving force for independence, wanted to hold a referendum as early as 2014, but agreed to a postponement to avoid disrupting the fight against Daesh, also known as Islamic State (IS). When the referendum was finally held on September 25, 2017, a solid 92.7 percent of voters supported independence, on a 72 percent turnout.

Independence, however, is a long way off – if it remains on the cards at all. Mr. Barzani soon got a taste of realpolitik. The Iraq central government naturally opposes what it sees as an attack on its territorial integrity; Iran and Turkey, the two countries directly bordering on the autonomous region, are also vehemently against, with a view to the influence on their own significant Kurdish minorities.

They lost no time making good on their threats to use force if the referendum went ahead. Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shia militias pounced on the Kurds. Worse, the United States, a longtime Kurdish ally, strongly opposed the referendum and did not lift a finger to stop Baghdad’s reassertion of control over Kirkuk and other disputed territories held by the Kurds. Israel was the only state to give at least moral support to Kurdish independence aspirations.

Barzani’s gambit

Finding himself very much alone, Mr. Barzani decided not to seek another term and resigned. Yet before the referendum, he had valid grounds for hope. Did not the Peshmerga – the Kurdish militia – play a major role in driving Daesh out of northern Iraq? The Kurds’ stubborn resistance in 2014 helped prevent Daesh from seizing Baghdad and kept Kirkuk out of its hands, while the Iraqi army was melting away.

For three years, Peshmerga fighters paid a heavy price to hold the thousand-kilometer northern front in lieu of the Iraqi army, until that force – retrained and re-equipped by the U.S. – could again take the field. During that time, the Kurds conquered parts of Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces and in 2016 liberated Mount Sinjar, where Daesh had massacred the Yazidi minority. Thanks to these efforts, the terror organization’s ambition to weld together its Syrian and Iraqi territories was thwarted.

Mr. Barzani thought that Baghdad would be grateful to the Kurds for saving the country from Daesh

Somewhat naively, Mr. Barzani thought that Baghdad would be grateful to the Kurds for saving the country and that with Islamic State’s defeat, he could present a bill for services rendered. He also counted on support from Washington, since the U.S. had been instrumental in creating the autonomous region in 1991 and had trained and equipped the Peshmerga. Military cooperation had also been close between American forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which had just completed the liberation of Raqqa.

In any case, with the future of postwar Iraq up for discussion, now was the time to raise the Kurdish flag and make sure Kurdish interests would be considered. It is hard to fault this reasoning, even though many commentators now blame Mr. Barzani for the KRG’s current plight.

Kurdish aims

The Kurdish problem surfaced at the end of World War I, when this nation – one of the oldest in the Middle East – failed to get its own state after the calculations of the great powers gave priority to the Arabs, Iran and Turkey at their expense. Scattered between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the Kurds have rebelled many times, losing at least 150,000 dead in repressions since the 1960s alone.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq was the first approximation of statehood won by the Kurds in centuries. The autonomous region was created and protected by U.S., which imposed a no-fly zone in 1991, and was officially recognized as a federal entity by Iraq’s new power-sharing constitution of 2005.

This document stipulated that the Iraqi president would be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia Muslim and the parliamentary speaker a Sunni. The Kurdish Regional Government was awarded a percentage of the federal budget commensurate with its share of the population and the Iraqi army was forbidden to enter the region, which relied on the Peshmerga for its defense. Some 6 million people, including smaller ethnic minorities – including Turkmen, Assyrians, Yazidis and others – live in a territory the size of Switzerland.

Map of Iraqi Kurdistan and disputed areas
The Iraqi federal government’s reassertion of control ejected Kurdish forces from most of the disputed territories they had taken during the fight against Daesh (source: macpixxel for GIS)

A key aim of the KRG was to keep possession of territory won back from Daesh. These areas include parts of Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces, and especially Kirkuk and its oil fields. During the war, the Erbil government earned much-needed revenue by exporting oil through Turkey. According to the authorities in Erbil, this land was forcibly “Arabized” by Saddam Hussein through ethnic cleansing in the 1980s and 1990s. Baghdad rejects that claim and is demanding that these territories be returned to its jurisdiction, especially Kirkuk.

By insisting on raising the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk and holding the independence referendum (including in the disputed territories), Mr. Barzani escalated the conflict with Iraq to the point of no return. Only after all possibility of compromise appeared to have vanished did he (perhaps belatedly) announce that there were no plans to seek immediate independence and that he wanted to negotiate with Baghdad.

Iraqi crackdown

Iraq, Iran and (to a lesser extent) Turkey responded with punitive measures – closing the borders and suspending flights to the autonomous region. Iraq demanded cancellation of the referendum, and when that failed, its army, backed by Iranian-sponsored Shia militias, moved into the disputed territories on October 16.

Tehran helped clear the way for Iraqi forces to seize Kirkuk and the oil fields

Tehran helped clear the way for Iraqi forces to seize Kirkuk and the oil fields through direct mediation by Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds special forces units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. In talks with senior leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two leading Kurdish parties, General Soleimani made it clear that Baghdad would retaliate as savagely as Saddam in the 1980s unless the Peshmerga withdrew from those territories.

The threat worked. Seasoned fighters though they were, the Peshmerga offered only token resistance before retreating. Kirkuk and its oil fields were taken in a matter of days; so were Mount Sinjar and Khanaqin on the Iranian border. The Shia Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) militias went on a rampage, pillaging and burning and in effect “cleansing” Kirkuk of its Sunni Kurds. Tens of thousands fled to Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, the capital of Iraq Kurdistan. This began a new refugee crisis.

At one stroke, the KRG lost its chief source of revenue and its two main parties – Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK – started blaming each other. In the convoluted Iraqi situation, the Kurds were still getting a percentage of budget revenue under the 2005 constitution, but the government announced it would be cut from 17 percent to 12.6 percent – increasing the pressure on Erbil. The United Nations was meanwhile demanding an end to targeting civilians and called for aid to Kurdish refugees. Undeterred, Baghdad threatened to send its troops on into the KRG itself unless Mr. Barzani caved in.

Kurdish Peshmerga artillery battery shells Iraqi forces
Oct. 20, 2017: Kurdish Peshmerga soldier loads a howitzer to bombard Iraq forces (source: dpa)

Regional players

It soon became clear that each interested party was using the Kurdish referendum for its own ends – from the countries involved to the party leaders in the KRG.

Iraq cannot accept Kurdish independence because it would pave the way for the country to disintegrate along ethnic lines.

Iran sees an opportunity to increase its influence in Iraq; driving the Kurds out of the disputed territories allows Iranian troops and allied militias to move freely in the southern part of the autonomous region and through Iraq to northern Syria and Lebanon. Tehran also gets more leverage on oil prices now that Kirkuk is back under Baghdad’s control. Under Iranian pressure, crude oil is already been ferried by truck from Kirkuk to the Iranian refinery at Kermanshah, and the two countries are discussing a pipeline to ramp up exports of refined products through Iran.

Turkish authorities do not want the KRG destroyed, even though they strongly oppose independence

This is a blow to Turkey, which had hoped to become the main exporter of Iraqi oil through the Mediterranean. In general, Ankara’s position has been more ambiguous. It sees an autonomous Sunni Kurdistan as a strategic ally against the penetration of Shia Iran. Therefore, the Turkish authorities do not want the KRG to be destroyed, even as they strongly oppose its independence. Ankara is also keen to stay on good terms with Erbil to prevent any danger of it cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting for independence from Turkey.

Mr. Barzani was a frequent visitor to Ankara and the KRG has close commercial ties with Turkey. Bilateral trade amounts to about $2.5 billion a year; Kurdish crude is exported by pipeline to the Ceyhan terminal in Turkey. Therefore, Ankara limited its sanctions to suspending flights to Kurdish airports. The border and, more importantly, the KRG-operated pipeline stayed open, even though it is now the Baghdad government exploiting the Kirkuk fields.

Russia and the U.S.

Russia refrained from taking a stand before the referendum; it then called for preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity while expressing its understanding for the national aspirations of the Kurds. The fact is that Moscow has invested more than $4 billion in Kurdistan – almost entirely in gas and oi operations. Last February, it concluded an agreement to buy Kurdish crude transiting via Ceyhan to Germany, where it would be refined and sold to European markets.

In June, Russia’s biggest oil company Rosneft was granted five oil exploration permits in Kurdistan. In September, it announced plans to finance a pipeline to export gas from the KRG. This suggests that Moscow does not believe that the Kurdish autonomy is seriously endangered and is not worried that political turmoil in Iraq will impact its investments. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan just three days after the referendum, probably stressed the importance of an autonomous Kurdistan and urged him to preserve the status quo – which is so important to regional stability. Crucially, Russia has not yet reacted to the diversion of Kirkuk’s oil output to Iran.

The U.S. is a strong ally of both Iraq and the Kurds, having trained and equipped both their armies, and even fought alongside them. Yet it did nothing to defuse the confrontation beyond expressing opposition to the referendum and support for the territorial integrity of Iraq. Washington did not exert itself to mediate between the two sides, or – as far as we know – try to thwart Iranian intervention. On the evidence, the Trump administration is still unwilling to take a strong stand in the Middle East.

Syria, with its own de facto autonomous Kurdish zone, is sitting on the sidelines and awaiting developments.

Iraqi prime minister congratulates officer on the liberation of Mosul
July 9, 2017: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (L) celebrates victory over Islamic State at Mosul. The fall of that city paved the way for Baghdad to deal with the Kurdish autonomy (source: dpa)

Under pressure

Betrayed by his allies at home and abroad, and faced with his country’s ruin, President Barzani had to step down. His resignation opened the way for direct negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad. Mr. Barzani took care to split his executive powers between the prime minister, the government, the parliament and the judiciary pending the election of a new president.

Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani (Massoud’s nephew) is for the time being the leading public figure in the KRG. However, he lacks the extensive powers and influence of his uncle – and crucially, did not get the title of Peshmerga commander. His first step was to freeze the referendum results and announce the regional government’s readiness to negotiate.

In Baghdad, however, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi did not relent. The federal government continued to insist on cancellation of the referendum results. The Iraqi Army and Shia militias tried to forcibly occupy Fishkabur – the border checkpoint where Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet and where the strategic oil pipeline into Turkey runs – but met fierce resistance and were forced to retreat.

In a worst-case scenario, Baghdad, pressured by Iran, could scrap Kurdistan’s autonomous status entirely

Baghdad then agreed to a limited cease-fire and negotiations between the military commanders. The federal government demanded that the Peshmerga retreat from all disputed areas and let the Iraqi army take control of the border – thus effectively cutting off contact between Iraqi Kurdistan and the autonomous Syrian Kurdish cantons. To avoid more bloodshed, the Kurds agreed, handing over all oil facilities, airports and border checkpoints in exchange for restoration of Kurdistan’s 17 percent share in the federal budget. As a gesture of goodwill, the Kurds also acknowledged the Iraqi supreme court’s ruling that secession is prohibited under the 2005 constitution.

In return, the Kurdish side wants Peshmerga participation in border controls, withdrawal of Shia militias from the disputed areas, and continued coordination with the Iraqi military in operations against Daesh. However, Iraqi officials are refusing to deal with the KRG until it abrogates the results of the independence referendum.

Lengthy conflict

What are the options now? Both Middle Eastern countries and Western nations have declared support for Iraq’s territorial integrity. So has the UN Security Council, though it criticized violent attacks by Iraqi forces against the Kurds. Irresistible political, military and economic pressure is being exerted on Kurdistan to submit and forego its dream of independence, at least for the time being.

Yet the referendum results, even if they are declared invalid, express the very real aspirations of a people that has been fighting for its freedom through more than a century of oppression. Intervening at last, Washington is trying to pressure Erbil and Baghdad into a compromise, but the Kurds see a pro-Iraqi tilt and have lost confidence in the U.S.

If the two sides refuse to budge, the conflict will keep escalating and Iraqi-Iranian forces will spill into Kurdistan itself, in violation of the Iraqi constitution. The Peshmerga would put up fierce resistance and the UN, U.S. and even Russia would likely intervene, leaving the solution in limbo.

In a worst-case scenario, Baghdad, pressured by Iran, could scrap Kurdistan’s autonomous status entirely, triggering a lengthy conflict that could draw in Kurdish minorities from neighboring countries. Such an eventuality would scuttle any hope of restoring peace and stability to Iraq and Syria. While this turn of events does not seem very probable at the moment, it cannot be excluded given volatile conditions in the region.

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