After Kirkuk: What does Erbil’s defeat mean for the regional balance of power

In the short and medium term, the project of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq is over. Barzani’s independence gambit did not fail only because the balance of power was not in his favour, but also because the current Kurdish political class is not ready to establish an independent state.
Barzani’s resignation conveys a recognition on the part of Kurdish leaders in Erbil that he is no longer the man of the moment, capable of leading the region away from dangers threatening it [AlJazeera]
In the early hours of 16 October 2017, an Iraqi military force, with support from federal police units and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), was taking control of the city of Kirkuk. Although Peshmerga units loyal to Kosrat Rasul, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), attempted to resist the forces advancing toward the city, perhaps for no more than a few minutes, the operation concluded without notable casualties on either side. In fact, the Peshmerga units deployed to defend the Kurdish administration of the city knew in advance that federal forces were mobilising on the outskirts of Kirkuk; but as soon as those forces began to advance, the vast majority of Peshmerga fighters withdrew from their positions.
The Peshmerga, who function as the army of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, were not of one mind. Power in the region is split between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the governorates of Erbil and Dohuk, and the PUK in Sulaymaniya and Halabja; and the Peshmerga reflect this division. Clearly, the leadership of the PUK, dominated by the family of the late Jalal Talabani (with a few exceptions like Kosrat Rasul) and close to Iran, had agreed with Baghdad—with a nudge from General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard—to surrender their positions to the federal forces without a fight.
In the days that followed, federal forces advanced to impose control on Tuz Khurmatu, the fields of both Northern Oil and Northern Gas, Khanaqin, Sinjar, most of western Nineveh, and the Mosul Dam. Scattered skirmishes erupted between the two sides when federal forces attempted to advance on the crossings at the Syrian and Turkish borders, operated by the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities. Iraqi forces therefore not only took areas described in the 2005 Iraqi constitution as “disputed” (the Kurdistan Region’s forces had imposed control over these areas after the Islamic State’s expansion in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014), but also approached the recognised borders of the autonomous region. Although international air traffic to the Erbil airport was suspended by Baghdad in the wake of the referendum in Erbil held on 25 September 2017, it was reported that Baghdad remains adamant about taking control of the region’s principal airport and international border crossings.
This tremendous defeat of Masoud Barzani and the Erbil government of the Kurdistan Region exposes the magnitude of Barzani’s miscalculations as he moved ahead with the referendum on self-determination, heedless of warnings from Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran and Washington. But the implications of the defeat go beyond the threat to the Kurdistan Region to include the balance of forces within Iraq and the entire Levant. What was the nature of the defeat dealt to Barzani, his camp and Kurdish autonomy in Iraq? And what does the swift upending of Erbil’s fortunes mean for the regional balance of power?

From referendum to defeat

As soon as the referendum was held on 25 September 2017, Baghdad announced that it recognised neither the poll nor its results, calling it illegitimate and unconstitutional. In the days that followed, the Iraqi prime minister took a firmer stance. Baghdad demanded the Erbil government cancel the referendum and its results and surrender the disputed areas and land and air ports under Kurdish control to the federal government prior to new negotiations. The Abadi government reportedly had already made the decision to advance on Kirkuk and its oil fields as soon as Iraqi forces finished liberating Hawija from the Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish Region authorities had taken control of the Kirkuk governorate and most of the disputed areas in Diyala, Nineveh and Saladin after IS’s dramatic expansion in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.

What is the source of Baghdad’s hard line toward the region, and on what basis did the federal government act to regain control of Kirkuk and the disputed areas?

Al-Abadi would not have been able to move against the Erbil government without regional support and the certainty that the international community, especially the United States, would turn a blind eye. Iran and Turkey’s declared opposition to the Kurdish referendum and their refusal to recognise its legitimacy offered the first support to the federal government. As soon as Baghdad, which controls Iraqi airspace, called for a suspension of international flights in the Erbil airport, Tehran and Ankara responded, followed by all foreign airlines using the airport. Iran and Turkey even threatened to seal the borders with the Kurdistan Region entirely. US statements from the president and the secretary of the National Security Council affirmed Washington’s continued opposition to the referendum and said that the Trump administration would remain neutral in the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, thus denying the Barzani government the most important lever of international protection.

Barzani clearly not only misjudged the Turkish and Iranian position; he erred in assessing the size and influence of the states that encouraged him to hold the referendum and promised to stand by his side. Netanyahu proved unable to secure US support for the referendum and its result, while neither the United Arab Emirates nor Saudi Arabia was bold enough to declare support for Barzani and his camp. When the crisis came to a head and the weakness of Erbil’s position became evident, Netanyahu ordered members of his government to stop issuing statements in support of Kurdish independence. King Salman of Saudi Arabia also called Haider al-Abadi to reiterate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a unified Iraq.

In addition to his misreading of the regional and international landscape, Barzani rapidly found himself facing the collapse of his internal front. The divisions between Erbil and Sulaymaniya were not new: the bloody conflict between the KDP and the PUK resulted in more than 20,000 deaths in the mid-1990s. Absent American pressure, the two parties could not have reached the uneasy understanding in the period before the invasion and occupation of Iraq—an understanding that persisted until the autonomous region acquired constitutional legitimacy after 2005. Nevertheless, competition over influence and wealth fostered muted strife between Sulaymaniya and Halabja, where the PUK is ascendant, and Erbil and Dohuk, the stronghold of the KDP.

In the days leading up to the referendum, despite objections about the timing of the poll from the Talabani wing of the PUK, Barzani was welcomed in Sulaymaniya and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) organized a rally for him to advocate a yes vote in the referendum. This may have reassured Barzani that the PUK was finally coming around to support the referendum and that the region would unite under the Erbil government after the results were announced. In fact, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the widow of Jalal Talabani, and her son Bafil, who control the biggest wing of the PUK, were playing both sides. Dealing with the referendum as a fait accompli, they sent positive messages to Barzani in case his plan for the region’s independence succeeded, while also preserving close ties with Iran, the PUK’s strategic ally, assuring it of their independence from Barzani.

This two-sided stance made Sulaymaniya more amenable to Iranian pressure when Barzani’s isolation became apparent and Baghdad found a favourable opportunity to move against the region. On 12 October 2017, Soleimani arrived in Sulaymaniya to offer condolences to the Talabani family following the death of Jalal Talabani. It is believed that on his visit, the Iranian general—active in every region neighbouring Iran—was able to persuade the PUK leadership to abandon Barzani and agree with Baghdad to have Peshmerga units loyal to Sulaymaniya withdraw from their positions in Kirkuk and other disputed areas. This is, in fact, what happened on 14 October 2017 and next few days, with the exception of Kosrat Rasul, the vice-president of the Kurdish Region and the first deputy secretary-general of the PUK, who despite his partiality to Erbil, had no major impact on the course of events.

Even before Iraqi forces took Kirkuk, the morale of Barzani’s camp and the Peshmerga under him was not in top shape. The referendum crisis exposed gross misperceptions on the part of Barzani and his coterie in Erbil: they seemed shocked by the magnitude of regional opposition to the referendum, the extent of US abandonment, and the stridency of Baghdad’s position. As soon as it became clear that Sulaymaniya had unilaterally come to an arrangement with Tehran and Baghdad, the morale of the regional government and its Peshmerga forces collapsed. In more than one position, including those under the full control of pro-Erbil forces, Peshmerga fighters dropped their weapons and withdrew before any engagement with Iraqi forces. As the Peshmerga fled or withdrew, panic spread among the Kurdish population in the areas in the path of Iraqi forces’ advance. Roads were packed as tens of thousands of Kurds in Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Tuz Khurmatu, and western Mosul headed for the Kurdistan Region.

The Kurds did themselves no favours when, assuming the administration of ethnically mixed areas, they pursued policies biased against Arabs and Turkmen and took action to displace them when possible and alter the demographic composition of these areas. It was therefore no surprise to see the Arab and Turkmen population in Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh celebrate the departure of the Peshmerga and welcome Iraqi forces.

In the last week of October 2017, the situation began to shift slightly. As Iraqi forces approached the borders of the Kurdistan Region, Peshmerga forces showed more cohesion and readiness to fight. The environs around Makhmur, located southeast of Mosul, saw violent clashes between the two sides on 24 October 2017 when Peshmerga forces attempted to retake the city from federal troops. There were also clashes in Zummar, northwest of Mosul, and on the road to the Faysh Khabur crossing on the Syrian border, west of Mosul, which Baghdad announced it intended to seize control of from the Kurdistan government. After two day of armed clashes, neither side made any tangible headway, and on 28 October 2017, under US pressure, military officials with the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga negotiated in the field to reach a comprehensive cessation of hostilities and demarcate a line separating the two forces.

There was no doubt, in the days after federal forces took Kirkuk, that the situation of the entire Kurdistan Region was in jeopardy and that radicals in Baghdad and Tehran advocated a military resolution and the forceful removal of Barzani. In the final week in October 2017, however, the threat to the region receded and the Kurdish leadership regained some of its morale. The tangible shift came not only from the cohesion of pro-Erbil Peshmerga forces, but also from the marked change in the Turkish and American positions.

Strategic implications

Internationally, northern Iraq, especially the Kurdistan Region, falls within the American sphere of influence. The US has deployed various units in numerous areas of the region and northern Iraqi governorates since IS took control of much of the area in the summer of 2014. Despite Russian attempts to regain a foothold in the Middle East, Moscow knows that this area is one of US influence. Thus, regardless of the real Russian stance on the referendum crisis, Moscow’s role and influence remain marginal.

Regionally, Turkey enjoys relatively strong influence in Erbil and most of northern Iraq, due firstly to Barzani’s close ties with Ankara and accommodations offered by Turkey to the region over the last ten years, and secondly to the pro-Turkish tilt of most Sunni Turkmen and Sunni Arabs, who constitute the majority of the population of northern Iraq, since 2003. This helps explain Iran’s persistent efforts to remove Barzani and its close relationship with the PUK leadership. But despite major Iranian ambitions in northern Iraq, Tehran has proved unable to establish a secure, permanent overland communication line between western Iran and Syria in the face of American and Turkish influence.

The defeat of Barzani and his camp could shift the balance of power in northern Iraq, which would have ramifications for Iranian and Turkish jockeying for influence in their Arab neighbour and US ambitions to push back Iranian expansionism.

The US approach to the referendum was determined by two basic considerations. Firstly, the timing was wrong given the ongoing battle against IS’s terrorism: the issue of Kurdish independence would set off an extremely complex, unnecessary crisis with Turkey and Iraq. Secondly, the US has placed its bets on al-Abadi as the potential Iraqi national leader who can contain Iranian influence in the country. This was the same gamble Washington made with Nouri al-Maliki in 2010, only to discover that al-Maliki’s loyalty to Iran was much greater than anticipated and that Iran’s influence in Shia circles in Iraq was too deep and too broad to counter without a war.

The Turks approach the issue from a different perspective. On the strategic level, Turkish policy is based on preserving the unity of Levantine states, as long as Turkey is unable to lead the region toward a new regional order. Ankara believes the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq will have extremely adverse effects on the Kurdish question in Turkey and on the stability of the entire region. Moreover, it is no secret that many Turkish officials, including President Erdogan, viewed Barzani’s disregard of Ankara’s appeals to cancel the referendum as a betrayal and ingratitude for Turkey’s support of the Kurdistan Region in recent years, as well as accommodations Turkey made for the export of the region’s oil and protection given to Barzani from conspiracies hatched by his Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian foes to remove him. Turkey therefore responded in anger to the referendum, demonstrated by its unreserved support for Baghdad’s actions and its agreement with Iran to blockade and sanction Barzani.

With Barzani’s shaky position, the US worked to mediate a tactical understanding between Baghdad and Erbil that would entail a Peshmerga withdrawal from the remaining disputed areas without armed clashes. On 18 October 2017, the US successfully pressured the Iraqi prime minister to withdraw the PMF from cities with a substantial Kurdish presence, such as Khanaqin and Kirkuk, after PMF elements had engaged in reprisals against the Kurdish population.

Meanwhile, Turkey celebrated the Iraqi government’s control of Kirkuk, which it views as a Turkmen city, and Sinjar, which had been controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), known for its close ties with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara apparently disregarded the fact that YPG forces in Sinjar received their salaries from Baghdad and that Iraqi security elements had long ago established ties with the PKK with Iranian approval.

The day after Baghdad took Kirkuk, Soleimani sent a message to Barzani calling on him to admit the error of his political choices over the past few years. On 18 October 2017, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, advisor to the Iranian speaker of the parliament, told Mehr News Agency that taking Erbil would be much easier than taking Kirkuk; if Kirkuk had required a few hours, Erbil would take no more than a few minutes. On 19 October 2017, the Iraqi judiciary in Baghdad issued an arrest warrant for Kosrat Rasul, the sole PUK leader who resisted Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, due to statements in which he called the Iraqi army an ‘occupying army’. The same day, after meeting with the Iranian vice-president, the Turkish prime minister said that Turkey and Iran held a similar stance on the future of the region and that officials of the two countries were determined to maintain cooperation within this framework.

It had become clear that if the US, Turkey and Iran adhered to their positions in the crisis, the entire Kurdistan Region could collapse, and not necessarily by use of military force. There is very little trust between Erbil and Sulaymaniya, and a inclination to encourage Sulaymaniya to break off is apparent in both Baghdad and Tehran, thus cleaving the region into two: one including Erbil and Dohuk and the other with Sulaymaniya and Halabja. This would put the already utterly beleaguered Erbil government at the mercy of Baghdad and compel Kurdish leaders to capitulate. In other words, the threat to Erbil concerns not only Kirkuk or the disputed areas, but the very existence of the Kurdistan Region.

A few days after the loss of Kirkuk, credible sources in Erbil said that Barzani informed the US that if he did not receive explicit backing from Washington, he would be compelled to join the Iranian camp. Certainly, several of Barzani’s advisors have become convinced that Erbil has no chance of preserving what remains except by submitting to Iran. It is widely understood that if the regional government surrenders to Iran and its allies in Baghdad, the question of influence in northern Iraq will be settled in Iran’s favour. Even the limited Turkish military presence in Bashiqa, which Baghdad seems to be ignoring in the current phase, could be handily eliminated after the Turkish military base loses cover from Erbil and Iraqi forces take control of the Turkish-Iraqi border. As for Arab Sunnis in northern Iraq, they would no longer be capable of contending with the ruling Shia clique with Baghdad having scored an overwhelming victory over both IS and the Kurdistan Region.

It was these combined risks that prompted the small, though palpable, shift in the American and Turkish positions. On 26 October 2017, the US secretary of state had a lengthy phone call with Barzani; and the following day, the US announced a ceasefire between the Peshmerga and federal forces. On 28 October 2017, field negotiations began between Kurdish and Iraqi fighters. Iraqi and Kurdish sources reported that Tillerson, who arrived suddenly in Baghdad on 24 October 2017, informed his Iraqi counterpart that federal forces should not advance to the Kurdistan Region’s borders. The meaning was clear: though Washington had turned a blind eye to federal forces’ control of the disputed areas, it was still committed to protecting the Region and its existence on the basis of the 2005 Iraqi constitution.

At the same time, the Turkish president pointedly stopped making statements condemning Barzani and his policies; such statements had continued since the referendum on 25 September 2017 and even after Iraqi forces reclaimed Kirkuk. Sources close to the Justice and Development government said that Ankara would never allow Iraqi forces to take control of the Kurdistan Region and that Erbil and Ankara had resumed communications. This demonstrated that Turkey, like Washington, had come to realize that continuing to punish Erbil could backfire and lead to strategic shifts in Iraq and the region.

Limited options

There can be no doubt that in the short and medium term, the project of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq is over. Barzani’s independence gambit did not fail only because the balance of power was not in his favour, but also because the current Kurdish political class does not appear ready to establish an independent state. A political class that is largely mired in corruption and conflict over wealth and influence cannot shoulder the burdens of independence. Barzani’s resignation from the presidency of the Kurdistan Region on 29 October 2017 and the regional parliament’s decision to distribute his powers between the prime minister and the parliament was perhaps the first sign that Barzani was yielding to internal and regional pressures, which held him liable for the crisis of the region since the 25 September 2017 referendum.

Barzani will not disappear from Kurdish politics of course; he remains the president of the KDP and the prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, is his nephew. But no one can ignore the symbolic significance of his resignation. At the same time, the resignation conveys a recognition on the part of Kurdish leaders in Erbil that Masoud Barzani is no longer the man of the moment, capable of leading the region away from dangers threatening it. In any case, the consequences of the failure of Barzani’s project will not be felt only within the borders of the Kurdistan Region.

If Ankara acts to repair relations with Erbil, if Washington affirms its position on the inviolability of the Region’s borders, and if both Ankara and Washington pressure Baghdad to initiate broad-scale negotiations to reform the Iraqi state and build a new model of relations between the various constituencies of the Iraqi people, perhaps some balance of power can be preserved in northern Iraq, and Iran’s ambitions to extend its influence over all of Iraq can be thwarted.

Otherwise, the US will quickly discover that wagering on Abadi’s cooperation to push Iran out of Iraq is no less delusional than the similar bet it placed on al-Maliki. Turkey, meanwhile, will discover that it has turned over the entirety of Iraq to Iran of its own free will. Even when it comes to influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran will continue to enjoy the loyalty of the PUK while Turkey loses its Kurdish lever in the form of Barzani and his party. Or worse, Erbil could decide to throw its lot in with Sulaymaniya and join the Iranian side of the scale.