Iraqi Kurds should pursue coexistence, not secession
It has been about two months since Iraq’s Kurds started their emotional roller coaster journey from glimmers of independence to the dark chasms of defeat and the reality that they will be stuck with federal rule from Baghdad. The Kurds had never felt so strong and self-assured and likely believed that they could achieve anything.
However, reality proved that no amount of self-belief could surmount the insurmountable. They are left with their leadership in disarray and factionalism tearing what remains of that leadership apart.
How did it all go so horribly wrong for Iraq’s Kurds? Ever since the Islamic State (ISIS) burst onto the scene in a violent orgy of death and mayhem in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which rules the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, had actually been a net beneficiary of the terror group’s onslaught. Not only were rival Iraqi government forces roundly defeated by ISIS, they were also put to flight, with thousands of soldiers deserting and abandoning their posts in the face of ISIS’s rapid advance.
One of the areas the Iraqi government abandoned was Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Long claimed to be the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” the KRG deployed its militia, the peshmerga, to the oil-rich and ethnically diverse city and, with the aid of extensive US air support, took control of Kirkuk. The capture of Kirkuk was the realisation of a long-held Kurdish separatist dream. It inflated the Kurds’ self-confidence to dangerous levels. This would cause them serious trouble three years later.
Not only did the KRG under then-President Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), hold Kirkuk, it also cut a deal with Turkey to export some of Kirkuk’s vast oil resources without Baghdad’s authority. Even though the KRG had financial problems due to the federal government’s decision to withhold the Kurds’ 17% share of the Iraqi budget, Erbil did not seem to mind. It was acting as a state in all but name and selling oil to international markets via Ankara’s good offices, including to Israel.
Throughout the 3-year conflict against ISIS, Baghdad moaned and complained but could not really do much. Its resources were being expended on fighting ISIS, as well as financing the corruption within the government’s halls of power. Also, the federal authorities had little support, as the United States and Turkey stood by Erbil and Iran had little appetite to intervene on Iraq’s behalf while fighting ISIS in Iraq and assisting Syrian President Bashar Assad in slaughtering his own people.
This changed when the Kurdish leadership, in its hubris, miscalculated international support for secession from Iraq and called for an independence vote, including in areas disputed between Erbil and Baghdad. The call for independence was also to mask the KRG’s cash problems and came about under pressure from the KDP’s rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is closely linked to Iran. Hindsight is always 20/20 but it is doubtful that Barzani would have called the referendum if he knew that the PUK would ultimately betray not only him but the 92% who voted “yes” to secede from Iraq.
While people often imagine the peshmerga is an effective and united force, it is anything but. This mythology was encouraged by the US-led coalition, which often described its Kurdish allies as “the most effective force on the ground” against ISIS. However, the peshmerga is divided by party and not national loyalties and, without US air support, it would have been mauled by ISIS exactly as the Iraqi Army was in 2014.
As it turned out, the PUK encouraged the referendum while secretly using it as an opportunity to bring about the downfall of Barzani. Members of the Talabani family, who have led the PUK since its inception, felt that Barzani controlled too much while they had too little. When the leader of Iran’s al-Quds force, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, knocked on their door, they were only too happy to oblige him and ordered their peshmerga fighters to hand over military installations to the advancing Iraqi forces without a shot being fired.
By October 16, it was all over, as the KDP peshmerga was surrounded, outgunned and outmanned in Kirkuk. The rapidity with which its forces abandoned their apparent Jerusalem should serve as a remarkable reminder to all how symbolism and ideology only last for as long as one group feels empowered. The second the Kurds realised that no one was coming to save them this time, they abandoned the city that they said they would die for.
After Barzani resigned following his failure to realise Kurdish independence and the shrinking of the KRG’s territory by a woeful 40%, his successors have been making offers to Baghdad to surrender all claims to any oil fields, as well as to hand over control of all international borders to the federal government. While the Kurds will likely not abandon hopes for independence any time soon, the humiliation they have felt even when they were at their strongest will make them consider mutual coexistence with their Arab and Turkmen countrymen as being the best long-term option.