Large shockwaves are reverberating across Iraq and the whole Middle East as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its sweep through large parts of northern Iraq. While city after city falls, from populous Mosul to largely Ba’athist Tikrit, best known as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and now to Tal Afar, a strategic town west of Mosul, all the Iraqi armed forces have been able to muster so far is a faltering defense.
In contrast, in only two days the Kurds took control of some ISIS-threatened territories—ones that had been constantly disputed between the autonomous Kurdistan Region and the central government for the eleven years since Saddam Hussein fell from power. In the case of Kirkuk, the symbol of the Kurdish national struggle, the Iraqi forces hastily retreated and Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, assumed control in a matter of hours. With Kurdish interests at great risk and a security vacuum to be filled, the Kurds were not about to remain idle.
The seeds of Sunni insurgency were sown long before ISIS came to town, and it is hardly the first time that the volatile Sunni plains and cities such as Mosul and Fallujah have been under the control of Sunni insurgents. Neither is it the first time the Kurds have had to step in to restore security. Indeed, it was the Peshmerga who helped bring control and stability to Mosul and the surrounding area between 2004 and 2005, and again in 2008, when the areas were threatened by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the groups that would eventually merge to become ISIS.
Now, much like they were in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003 that transformed Iraq’s sociopolitical landscape and sparked the fierce sectarian showdown that followed, the Kurds could yet become the main victors of the latest turmoil that has plagued Iraq. As the Kurds face off against ISIS on their doorstep, the Peshmerga are increasingly being viewed as key players against ISIS rebels and a main factor in the battle to secure stability. The price they could demand from Baghdad for this support in beating back an insurgency, however, could permanently alter the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s borders, its political status—and its fortunes.
Bailing out Maliki?
The ISIS attacks could not have come at a lower point for relations between Erbil and Baghdad. For years, there has been a fierce dispute between the autonomous region and the central government in Baghdad—over oil exports, the status of disputed territories, and the Kurdistan Region’s share of the national budget. Now, facing this growing insurgent threat, administering newly captured territory with significant minority populations, and hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the crises in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds must ask themselves if they should rush to bail out Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. After all, it is Maliki’s policies the Kurds blame for stoking this latest sectarian fire.
The Kurdish leadership has long issued warnings about what in its view were divisive policies pursued by Maliki and his government. Instead, recurring themes in the Kurds’ post-2003 rhetoric were calls for national reconciliation and moves to bring Iraq’s Sunni community, which was feeling increasingly disenfranchised, back into the fold through political incentives and greater representation.
But if anything the sectarian divide only grew larger, especially during Maliki’s second term, when many Sunni political figures were exiled or ousted from government. Eventually, major Sunni protests in Anbar province at the end of 2013 were met with a violent crackdown. Now that those protests have mutated into a sectarian conflict exploited and exacerbated by ISIS militants, there are calls for all concerned—from Shi’ite militias to the Kurds and international parties such as the United States—to step in and help preserve the unity of Iraq.
The Kurds, however, have long aspired to the opposite of a united Iraq: they want an independent country for their nation formed, at least in part, out of the area of northern Iraq currently administered as the autonomous Kurdistan Region. As the ISIS crisis looms larger, they are not likely to step in to preserve anything other than their own interests—and certainly not to rescue Maliki or Baghdad from the mess that, in the Kurds’ view, they have created. Only a few weeks ago, after all, Erbil and Baghdad were at loggerheads about oil sales and arbitration, and Baghdad has failed to pay the Kurds their share of the national budget since January.
Now, if Baghdad wants the Peshmerga to step in as they have done in the past, it will have to promise something in return. Even if Baghdad met key Kurdish demands—for greater control over oil exports from the region, payment of the overdue portions of the national budget, and formal recognition of the territories the Kurds currently hold as part of the Kurdistan Region—it would likely not secure more than limited support from Kurdish leaders in the battle against ISIS.
While the contentious US invasion of Iraq in 2003 created something of a sectarian whirlwind that today continues to rip through Iraq, for the Kurds it marked the beginning of a national renaissance and the creation of a Kurdistan Region a world away from the dark years of oppression and genocide under Saddam. Their strong economy is underpinned by a rapidly growing energy sector and control of billions of barrels of oil that is serving as the fuel for independence—literally—and in recent fighting their security service has proven itself to be among the more effective and better-organized forces operating in Iraq.
Between economic growth and the longstanding pursuit of complete independence, the Kurds’ goals have been lofty. It is Baghdad that the autonomous region’s Kurds deem as the major impediment to their continued progress, with the ongoing oil dispute proving particularly damaging to the relationship.
Control of oil revenues and oil exports was in many ways the last umbilical cord that Baghdad had over the region. By agreeing lucrative energy contracts with Turkey, the Kurds called Baghdad’s bluff and pressed ahead with an independent oil sale, to Baghdad’s vocal consternation. The Iraqi government even filed for arbitration against the Kurdistan Region over the oil sale issue—in part because economic self-sufficiency would help propel Iraqi Kurdistan to greater autonomy and eventual independence.
But while even two weeks ago Kurdistan’s first independent oil sale, through the Turkish port of Ceyhan, was highly controversial, the tone has certainly changed now that Iraq is swept up in sectarian bloodshed and seemingly dependent on the Peshmerga for security support. It would be a bit rich for Maliki to dictate the terms of oil sales while he is fighting an enemy only the Kurds have won against so far.
On that platform of relative economic success, Kurdistan has prided itself on its rapid advancement and relative stability. At the same time, Iraq as a whole has suffered. But, the goalposts for the “Other Iraq” have now shifted substantially, due to the Kurds controlling territory outside their official autonomous region and with substantial minority populations. They must incorporate a large Arab minority and a number of smaller minorities, not to mention the many refugees, inside territory with a border shared not with the Iraqi state, but with a region now controlled by ISIS militants.
The price of an army
If they manage all this, the Kurds stand to gain a great deal, not least of which is control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region. They saw Kirkuk slip through their hands in 1991, the year of the Kurdish uprising against Saddam that saw their autonomous region first established. Again in 2003, Kirkuk fell just beyond their grasp as they succumbed to US and Turkish pressure. Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution aims to deal with Kirkuk and other disputed territories, and it should have been implemented by the end of 2007. Much to the frustration of the Kurds, Baghdad has had no appetite to address the issue, and even a national census—an important first step in dealing with the disputed territories—has been repeatedly put off. Today, the Kurds are not about to forego yet another golden opportunity to seize Kirkuk, said by many to be the “Kurds’ Jerusalem.”
To keep Kirkuk—and the entire Kurdistan Region—safe, the Peshmerga have formed what for now has been an effective security barrier against ISIS and its allied forces. For now, the Peshmerga are in defensive mode only: While there have been skirmishes, ISIS do not have endless forces or firepower, and it is unlikely they could wage and win a war against well-prepared Kurdish forces. And, where the Iraqi forces, which were organized along sectarian lines, swiftly retreated, the Peshmerga have stronger ties of loyalty—and would likely defend Kurdish lands to their last breath.
Perhaps even greater than the prospect of more territory in Iraq or greater control of oil revenues is the chance for increased unity with Kurdish populations living outside the autonomous region, namely in Syria and Turkey, and for improved ties with old enemies such as Ankara.
Amid cries that the Middle East’s borders are eroding, Syria’s Kurds have carved out their own autonomous territory in the northeast of that war-torn country, and in a symbolic move the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces fought side-by-side with the Peshmerga along the Syrian border in the effort to drive out ISIS rebels. At the same time, Syrian Kurds, bolstered by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have built strong ties with the Turkish Kurds—and, of course, there is the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent unilateral oil sales could not have come without the cooperation of Turkey.
The Turkish government has fast realized that, far from being a threat, the Kurds are its natural partners and a newfound strategic player Turkey needs and can rely on in stormy regional waters. The ISIS onslaught has undoubtedly changed Turkey’s Iraq calculus, pushing Ankara closer than ever to Erbil. In a bizarre twist of fate, the US spent years and much effort bringing Ankara and Erbil closer together. Now that Turkey and Kurdistan are enjoying strong economic, political and strategic ties, they are viewing the developments with great caution. While in 2003 the Kurdish occupation of Kirkuk caused an outcry from Ankara, Turkey may now actively support it, especially with the protection it affords the Turkmens living in Kirkuk and the potential benefit to Ankara if Iraq’s Kurds control even more oil resources.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the Kurdish population has long been complete independence. As the Iraq crisis continues almost unchecked, the Kurds could be getting closer to outright independence. The short-term goal for the Kurds is about consolidation and stability. ISIS forces may not invade the newly demarcated line between the territory they hold and the expanded Kurdistan Region, but they can certainly wreak havoc on Kurdistan and its interests. The immediate goal for the Kurds, then, is to preserve the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdish populations in the greater Kurdish area.
The Kurds will keep a close, diligent eye on developments, and once Kurdish interests are secured, they will not jump in with both feet into the Iraqi quagmire. Depending on how the Iraq crisis unfolds—and the staying power of an alliance of ISIS, armed locals and old Ba’athists—the Kurds may well need to strike a deal with Baghdad in order to keep their own peace. Either way, the Kurds will need to maneuver carefully between Sunni militants and a weakened Maliki administration.