On September 25th, the Kurdistan Region overwhelmingly voted for independence, with the final tally being at a 92% independence vote throughout the referendum. Immediately after the results of the referendum were confirmed, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) immediately stated that it intended to negotiate with Baghdad with a clear political mandate, but stopped short of fully declaring independence. However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promptly declared that “the United States does not recognize the… unilateral referendum,” while the Iraqi government quickly imposed a ban on all international flights into Kurdish airports, and threatened to seal off land borders and seize areas including Kirkuk, which the Kurdish Peshmerga took from ISIS. On October 16th, The Iraqi government followed through with its threats, with regular Iraqi troops and Shiite militias launching an assault on Kirkuk, successfully seizing the city from Kurdish forces. The sudden assault has engendered worry in Washington that the main beneficiaries of this new conflict will be Iran and ISIS, and that America would be further constrained in a situation where two US trained forces clash, and ignore US priorities in the region.
First, historical context regarding the region is needed. The Kurdish people are an ethnic and linguistic group that primarily live in a contiguous region comprised of parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. After World War I, artificial states were set by the Sykes-Picot agreement to reward and control ethnic groups that assisted the Triple Entente during the war. Kurdistan, however, was not considered in the agreement, and was ultimately divided between the then newly drawn states of Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey and Iran. They suffered persecution in most countries, but nowhere did the Kurds suffer more than in Iraq, particularly under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In 1998, eight combined military operations under the Anfal campaign barbarically killed 50,000 innocent Kurdish citizens of Iraq, often by way of chemical weapons. The turning point for Iraqi Kurds, however, was in 1991, when a short-lived post-Gulf War rebellion was brutally repressed. Sights of Kurdish refugees fleeing into the mountains tugged at the hearts of citizens and policymakers worldwide. Itching for an excuse to hobble Saddam Hussein, the Clinton Administration established a no-fly zone over Kurdish parts of Iraq. After a four-year civil war that followed the no-fly-zone, the Iraqi Kurds formed an informal government, which became official in 2005 as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Built upon foreign direct investment, a cosmopolitan and fairly successful society also developed in Kurdistan
Now, the KRG, which continues to be an invaluable ally to the Iraqi government and the United States in the fight against ISIS, has held its referendum, and the Iraqi government’s response clearly signaled its view of the results. In the immediate turn, this is seen as an opportunity for Iran to increase its already considerable and growing influence in Iraq, with a senior intelligence planner for the Institute for the Study of War stating that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, was most likely “instrumental in forcing the Kurds to step down.” Furthermore, with Iranian backed militias pushing past their original territory as part of the Iraqi assault force, the Iraqi government has made quite clear that it is quite willing to increase the Quds Force’s power in Iraq in order to execute what its security policy.
Furthermore, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is up for re-election in 2018. In order to win, he needs the support of two of the three main factions in Iraq: Sunni Iraqis, Shiite Iraqis, and Kurdish Iraqis. If he cannot win the Kurdish vote, he will push to be viewed as tough against Kurdish national aspiration. As the journalist Amberin Zaman put it at a recent Elliott School panel “Regional Repercussions of the Kurdish Referendum,” “(Haider) Abadi is quite happy to… (threaten)… the Kurds… Because he needs them (to achieve national unity).” Furthermore, Zaman noted, Turkey’s president Erdogan, who “has staked his career on Turkish nationalists… Who view (the Kurds) as an existential threat,” will be facing municipal, legislative, and presidential elections in 2019, and will also maintain campaign appearances of being tough on Kurdish aspirations in Iraq as well. Therefore, until 2019, this situation will remain volatile.
The US has not made it clear how exactly it intends to address the situation if at all, with its initial milquetoast response to invaluable partners in Operation Inherent Resolve having clashed and remaining in a state of political aggression. Normally, the US would have pulled out significant stops to prevent two US armed allies being at serious risk of fighting each other with American weapons. However, as David L. Phillips, former senior State Department official told The New York Times, “At a minimum, the U.S. knew that the attack (on Kirkuk) was coming,” implying that the Trump Administration green-lighted the attack. This stance has confused many former US officials, with former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council Joshua A. Geltzer stating in an interview that the United States’ refusal to commit to countering Iranian influence given the assault on Kirkuk “makes little sense for an administration interested in getting tougher on Iran.”
That said, this is not a situation where the United States can sit on the sidelines, yet for the past two months, it has done so. In an article for Foreign Policy, Harvard researcher Emile Simpson noted a common counterterror pattern where the United States would declare military victory after debilitating a terror group, but would fail to reach a necessary political solution regarding the factors that elevated the potential for conflict in the first place. Furthermore, as stated by Geltzer, there is no reason as to why any administration, especially the current one, would want a scenario where Iran increases its power in Iraq. Yet that is happening now. Iran, fearful of its own Kurdish population attempting to separate, is attempting to have veto power over the KRG’s decision to even have a referendum. Furthermore, while the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons is addressed by treaty, the issue of the Quds Force spreading influence is still a serious threat to world security, one that can only be emboldened by the current US response, especially as Iranian-linked militias are leading the charge. Finally, this is extremely damaging to United States’ credibility in global affairs. Two US armed forces under the Operation Inherent Resolve umbrella are engaged in a political standoff. Although much of this is due to political realities within the KRG and Iraqi Parliament, it is also partially due to the United States, willing to use force in the region, being unwilling to implement a political solution. It is disturbingly telling that when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Iranian backed militias to leave disputed territories, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded by stating that “They (aforementioned militias) are part of the Iraq’s state institutions.” As another panelist at the Elliott School’s event on the subject, Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy describes it, concerning the Iranian backed militias’ growing influence, “Lebanization of Iraq is happening… the virus is taking over the host.”
The United States should have decided by now how it intends to respond to developments in Iraq; while the intended US response could vary, it will undoubtedly need to include a political solution. As tense a region as the Middle East is, the United States needs to make hard political choices a rival state grow in influence.
Iraq also needs to make its own political decisions. The question of how it further responds to the Kurdish referendum for independence will be a major decider on whether Iraq is a pluralistic democracy that accounts for the different ethnicities that comprise its citizenry or not. Under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi government persecuted Sunni Arab Iraqi citizens, only to find that its actions gave ISIS a fertile recruiting ground. Whether the current Iraqi government will attempt a political solution that either grants more inclusiveness in its political system or attempts to suppress Kurdish aspirations by force, could either reverse exclusive governance in Iraq, or increase it. Furthermore, the new government in Iraq hasn’t entirely shut out Kurdish voices and policymakers. Its constitution, according to aforementioned panelist and academic Bilal Wahab, had “98% approval by Kurdish voters at the time,” and Kurdish citizens were seriously invested in its development.
The KRG also has hard choices that it needs to make. Certain experts question if Kurdistan is ready for independence. As the aforementioned Bilal Wahab pointed out, although a fairly well developed region, the Kurdistan region still lacks a strong financial sector, and the private sector depends heavily on the public sector for credit. Many corporations are “The other face of political parties.” This is a region with some 21 universities, and will need serious economic sector development if it is to accommodate all its students after they graduate. Furthermore, politically, the KRG is in disarray, with “several people (thinking that they are) the leader.” KRG President Mazoud Barzani, the only political leader with the authority and political credibility to keep the nation together, has been significantly weakened. It may very well be advisable for the KRG to develop political and economic credibility, and then take its demands to Baghdad. Furthermore, statehood may not be the only solution to Kurdish aspirations. With further political and economic credit, KRG leaders could “focus on autonomy or federalism” and develop Iraqi political institutions and laws to be more equal and granting Kurds and other Iraqi minorities more political ability.
However, this political conflict will remain to be a serious issue until at least 2019. The most serious question remains as to what happens afterwards, and will it lead to either an amicable divorce or mutual increased union between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, or yet another bloody and all too avoidable war in the region.