As the war against the Islamic State as an entity controlling territory comes to a close in Iraq, control over territories disputed between the Iraqi central government and the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government (KRG) has come to the forefront. Forces officially affiliated with the Baghdad government, as well as militias aligned with it on this issue, have taken control of several key disputed sites, including Kirkuk city and Sinjar, which were previously held by Kurdish forces. While it initially seemed that the aim of the operations was just to assert the boundaries that existed prior to the Islamic State surge of 2014, there are indications the rollback may go as far as the 2003 boundaries. What is the root of this crisis? And what, if anything, should be the U.S. role?
Inevitably, much commentary has taken on a moralistic tone, lamenting a supposed U.S. abandonment of the Kurds to the Iranians and their clients, or getting into arguments about whether places like Kirkuk are actually Kurdish. The issue at hand, though, is not so much right or wrong over who should control which area as strategic failure.
The root of this crisis lies in the miscalculation by Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who rule in the KRG capital of Arbil, to insist on going ahead with the unilateral independence referendum last month. It was clear from the outset why the referendum in the present circumstances was problematic. Holding the referendum unilaterally in disputed territories, for example, was sure to provoke a wide spectrum of local Iraqi opposition transcending many sectarian boundaries, including not only Sunni and Shi’a Arabs but also many members of Iraqi minorities such as the Turkmen and Yezidis (the latter not necessarily identifying as ethnically Kurdish, despite speaking the Kurdish language).
This Iraqi domestic opposition to the referendum has been the strongest and main incentive for Iraq’s prime minister Hayder al-Abadi to take action, given his desire for political legitimacy for next year’s parliamentary elections and the risk of being undermined by actors who are far closer to Iran, such as the previous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who became much more closely aligned with Iran from 2010 onwards. The perceived need for Abadi to outmaneuver more pro-Iranian hardliners in Iraq is likely the main explanation for the U.S. position, which did not actively oppose the reassertion of federal government control over places like Kirkuk, even as Iran is also exploiting the situation in a bid to dampen as far as possible the prospect of a Kurdish state, fearing a ripple effect among its own Kurdish populations.
Besides strong local Iraqi opposition, there was by no means a unanimous consensus among the KRG’s various factions to hold the referendum, with the main reservations existing within the area’s other main political faction historically (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK], which is tied to the Talabani family and controlled Kirkuk city) and the opposition Gorran movement. There were suspicions, for instance, that the referendum was merely being used by Barzani, whose original legal mandate as KRG president had expired in 2015, to gain legitimacy to consolidate his power. Iran has exploited internal Kurdish divisions in the current crisis through ties to the PUK in particular.
In the long-run, there have been serious questions as to how viable an independent Kurdistan can actually be given the KRG’s trajectory in recent years. For now, unable to survive on its own financially, the KRG has generally remained reliant on Baghdad for funding in order to pay salaries of government workers and personnel. The calculation by Barzani has been that the region can come to sustain itself through essentially being Turkey’s economic vassal, relying on independently exporting oil to Turkey and using that country to gain access to the sea and wider markets. This outlook, of course, was the biggest incentive for KRG control of Kirkuk and its environs, given the oil resources there.
Yet even with the KRG’s full control and development of these resources, it could never be as lucrative as Iraq’s vast oil fields in the south, and global oil prices have been falling anyway as worldwide production has increased. In addition, despite the economic ties Ankara developed with the KRG, it was always clear Turkey opposed the idea of an independent Kurdish state, preferring to keep the KRG as a client region economically dependent on it while remaining officially a part of Iraq. After all, like Iran, Turkey fears a ripple effect among its own Kurdish population.
In short, facing opposition from its neighbors, financially weak and internally divided, Barzani had very little leverage on his side, and it was obvious that a unilateral independence referendum at the present time would not have been able to change that. Contrary to what Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker writes, to the more sober observer it did not even seem to be the case that the dream of an independent Kurdish state was “tantalizingly within reach.”
The various problems facing the KRG did not stop foreign supporters and lobbyists of the KDP from insisting the referendum was some kind of “historic opportunity” or painting inaccurate pictures of how the KRG’s economy was faring. These advocates only helped to reinforce this bad decision-making by telling the KDP what it wanted to hear. Indeed, they have done their clients a considerable disservice and failed in their role as advocates. Good advocates not only support their clients’ fundamental cause (in this case, an ultimately independent Kurdistan) but also advise their clients on sound strategy. It would have been far better to encourage dramatic internal political and economic reform within the KRG to give the entity a better hand for eventually negotiating over disputed territories with Baghdad, so that an actually viable independent Kurdistan could emerge from an amicable divorce with Iraq.
Unfortunately, though, much damage has already been done. Having lost many of the disputed territories, economically isolated by its neighbors and internally divided even further now, the KRG’s overall position is even weaker than before.
Looking forward, what should the U.S. response be? Those who lament the supposed abandoning of the Kurds suggest the U.S. should have actively taken the KRG’s side on the issue of disputed territories and supported the unilateral independence referendum. But what would such policies have actually entailed or accomplished? Airstrikes against Iraqi government forces? On the strategic level, KDP advocates often argue that a U.S.-supported independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be an effective counter-balance against Iran. There is little evidence to back up this argument. Given the area’s geographical position, this Kurdish state’s role in wider regional politics would be marginal, having little impact on issues like the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the theaters where it plays out. Nor would this Kurdish state act as an obstacle to Iran’s reach towards the Mediterranean, or have leverage over the government in Baghdad.
Even with full U.S. support in these circumstances, the prospects of realizing a viable independent Kurdistan are still dubious. An independent Kurdistan would require buy-in from at least one of its neighbors in order to be economically viable. It is difficult to see how that buy-in could be gained through U.S. support. One might argue that Turkey would be the most viable candidate for U.S. outreach to encourage this buy-in, but why should Turkey listen to the U.S.? After all, the past few years have seen general U.S. disregard for Turkish concerns about military support for the Kurdish YPG in Syria against the Islamic State: the YPG, linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, is regarded by Turkey as a terrorist organization. That is not to say the U.S. support for the YPG has necessarily been wrong, as there were no other viable ground forces in Syria to support as the Islamic State surged in 2014. Yet it must be understood that that support has had consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations, and those consequences would be relevant were the U.S. to support a unilateral pro-independence policy for Iraqi Kurdistan.
The only logical U.S. policy is to pursue a midway course between the KRG and Baghdad. There is an important U.S. interest in preventing Iraq’s government from becoming totally aligned with Iran at the expense of any U.S. influence. It is impossible to remove Iranian influence in its entirety from Iraq or prevent Iraq from having friendly economic ties with Iran, but an Iraq in which Iran faces some limitation and competition with American influence is far more preferable to one totally dominated by Iran, which would be the outcome of simply throwing in the American lot with the KDP and the path it has pursued.
There is also a U.S. interest in continuing to maintain ties with the KRG. Right now, therefore, the goal must be to act as a mediator between the two sides, encouraging an immediate return to negotiations over the disputed territories with a focus on taking into account the concerns of local populations in these areas, rather than giving unconditional tacit or explicit support to one side. While those words might sound like a trope and Barzani in particular is in a terrible position for negotiations, there is no viable alternative.
The initial U.S. calculation with regards to the Iraqi government’s retaking of Kirkuk city was understandable, but there is a risk of things going too far in the moves on disputed territories. Accordingly, the U.S. should use its leverage with Abadi, who has already done enough to bolster his legitimacy, to urge for military manpower and efforts to be redirected towards retaking the remaining border areas with Syria from the Islamic State and securing those areas to undermine the Islamic State’s future insurgency prospects. More broadly, the security/internal stability angle is probably the best one to play up for the encouragement of a return to negotiations over disputed territories.