It took less than a week for Iraqi forces to completely seize Kirkuk from Kurdish Peshmerga and effectively end a territorial dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region over the oil-rich province. It took a week after this defeat for Kurdish President Masoud Barzani to step down in order to avoid the fallout of his own political gamble.
While the loss of Kirkuk itself may not spell disaster for Kurds, it represents a rude awakening after the post-independence vote fever. It is out in the clear — the realization that it took Iraqi Kurdistan less than a month to showcase just how vulnerable it was, both to regional circumstances and its own structural shortcomings.
However, what ate the Kurdish independence dream from within has hardly been the talk of the day in a cacophony of punditry, threats and accusations following the humiliating defeat in Kirkuk.
Admitting the Mistake
If many like to proclaim Iraqi Kurdistan as the shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, the sight of demolished offices belonging to its political opposition might warrant a deeper look into the shattered state of Kurdish broken aspirations and compromised institutions.
The clashes followed the Kurdish parliament’s acceptance of Masoud Barzani’s resignation, which might sound like a generous move, if it hadn’t been legally overdue — his second (and according to the law, last) term expired in 2013.
His grip to power was also behind the parliament’s two-year hiatus, creating a vacuum in which Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) rendered its opposition irrelevant and essentially put an equals sign between KDP and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
While Barzani was hasty to ride the momentum of post-referendum euphoria to electoral victory, announcing presidential and parliamentary elections for November 1, the whole ordeal was canceled less than a week following what a cynic could describe as a PR disaster in Kirkuk.
“I refuse to continue the position of president of the Region after November 1, 2017, and the presidential law of the region should not be amended, nor should the term of the Regional Presidency be extended,” Barzani said on Friday.
“I don’t expect Barzani to admit he made a mistake when he went through with the independence referendum. I don’t see him claiming responsibility,” says Idan Barir, research fellow in the Forum for Regional Thinking and a PhD candidate in history at Tel Aviv University. “He created and cultivated a new level of expectations among the Kurdish people, and now they will not let him off the hook. Resigning was the only way out for him.”
But this does not take Barzani out of effective power, which will now be distributed between the Prime Minister (Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan), the president of the council of ministers, the presidential body of the parliament and the president of the judicial council — all controlled or heavily influenced by KDP.
Barzani’s senior assistant Hemin Hawrami told The Associated Press that the president will “stay in Kurdish politics and lead the High Political Council,” which replaced the High Referendum Council after the fallout.
If one takes into account that Barzani has not signed Erbil’s offer to “freeze” the referendum outcome, an essential capitulation to Baghdad, it is likely that he intends to capitalize on the nationalist narrative and the expectations, without actually taking the blame for what happened. But what really happened?
The Blame Game
Following the weeks of increasing pressure from Baghdad and neighboring countries, by mid-October, Erbil knew that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi meant business when he repeatedly said he would assert Iraqi control in every corner of Iraq.
A couple of days after Kurdish National Security Council voiced concerns about increased activity along the borders of Kurdish-held disputed territories, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) attacked the areas south and west of Kirkuk, quickly advancing through key areas and reaching the governorate building in less than 24 hours. By the end of the same week, Kirkuk was under total control of Baghdad, with Kurdish flags stripped from all government buildings, and more than 100,000 civilians fleeing Kirkuk, Makhmour and Tuz Khurmatu for fear of sectarian reprisals.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Iraqi forces were largely unopposed by the Kurdish Peshmerga, allegedly by the units allied with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two largest Iraqi Kurdish parties and the chief rival of the KDP.
While both parties spoke with one voice mere days before Kirkuk, rejecting Baghdad’s repeated request to “cancel referendum results,” this was followed by utter dissonance.
“What happened in Kirkuk city was the result of unilateral decisions of some persons within a certain internal political party of Kurdistan, which eventually led to the withdrawal of the Peshmerga forces, as was seen,” Barzani said, referring to PUK.
It’s hard to argue with facts, so PUK’s public consensus was denunciation of those who ordered withdrawal. “Some apostates abandoned the PUK’s doctrine without returning to our party’s leadership and became the invaders’ assistant to obtain some personal, temporary gains,” said the vice president of Kurdistan and PUK deputy leader Kosrat Rasul Ali.
“Unity is the only way to empower our struggle,” he concluded.
Yet despite calling for unity, PUK doesn’t seem to maintain any at the moment. Bafel Talabani, the prominent PUK figure and the oldest son of its late leader Jalal Talabani, insisted that the withdrawal was “tactical” and only made after its military leaders saw almost 100 men lost facing an enemy vastly “superior in firepower.” He went on to claim that Kurdish leaders rejected numerous consensus proposals prior to the referendum.
“We would have kept Kirkuk, and the tragedy that has befallen the Kurdish people would not have taken place,” added Talabani. “But unfortunately, again, the leaders in Kurdistan were frankly unable to decide the correct course,” he said, describing the independence referendum as a “colossal mistake.”
However, placing the blame did not remain within the Kurdish yard. Many media outlets, including Reuters, reported that Bafel had held several meetings with Qasem Soleimani, a prominent Iranian military commander in charge of the PMU.
“We understand from our sources on the ground that neighboring Iran played a decisive role in making the PUK choose the right course with Baghdad,” one Iraqi intelligence official told Reuters.
“Soleimani’s visit … was to give a last-minute chance for the decision-makers not to commit a fatal mistake,” an anonymous source from PUK confirmed to the news agency.
“I think this Iranian conspiracy theory, let’s call it like that, is too complex, and if you look closely, it all goes back to Rudaw media network,” says Barir. “Compared to the big Iraqi army with American weapons and American training, Kurdish Peshmerga was fit to protect very small territory, and on top of that, it was unmotivated and underpaid, having not received salaries for more than a year. It is much more plausible than some mysterious deal brokered by Iran, which would require stronger alliances and connections between PUK, Baghdad and Tehran, and it simply wasn’t there.”
Why Was No the Forbidden Word?
With Talabani’s statement and the Kurdish establishment’s apparent need to blame lack of political unity on external factors, the conversation about Kirkuk quickly circles back to the question of the independence vote, which seemed — only seemed — to be the one thing Kurdish politicians managed to agree on.
Even the Gorran Movement, currently trying to save its credibility in the face of ultimate defeat, didn’t dare to explicitly tell its voters to say “no” in the referendum. Suddenly, opposition to the vote seems abundant across the political spectrum.
“Our people have lost many of their achievements which they gained shedding their blood. Peshmerga [fighters] lost their grandeur. We lost many friendly countries. The reason for all of this is due to the failures of the party in power,” Gorran spokesman Shorsh Haji said.
The opposition feared to even utter “no” to the independence vote, mainly because it was too weak and felt that being on the wrong side of Kurdish century-old statehood struggle would additionally alienate it from its prospective voters.
But if the miscalculation and its price were obvious to politicians, why didn’t they seem to bother Kurdish people, who voted in favor of secession by an overwhelming 90%?
It is a given that Iraqi Kurds never felt like they genuinely belonged in Iraq, and that their statelessness and struggle for freedom and recognition shape their political culture. But in practical, strategic terms, after 2014, the mere existence of Iraq seemed to end in a question mark. Islamic State took over a third of the country, while Kurdish Peshmerga forces moved into disputed territories, including Kirkuk, stopping jihadists’ advances into oil-rich areas of the country.
“The Kurds had their amazing chance to declare independence at that point, and many criticized Barzani for losing this opportunity,” Barir says. “He felt that another opportunity presented itself a year ago, when the outcome of the war against ISIS was still uncertain.”
When the independence referendum was declared, Iraqi forces were still stuck in what seemed to be a zero-sum game in western Mosul, where jihadists’ guerrilla tactics rendered swift and efficient advances all but impossible. Large swaths of both Syrian and Iraqi territory were still held by ISIS, and the Kurds can’t be blamed for feeling wary of the Iraqi army’s newfound unity hanging by a thread for the sole purpose of ousting ISIS. After all, more than a decade of deep divisions and insurgencies were precisely the reason why ISIS took hold in Iraq in the first place.
On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with the Kurdish point of view and expectations — but as volatile as the Middle East is, things can turn around in a matter of weeks. Once it became clear that Baghdad had gained the upper hand, once the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Russian-backed government forces started rapidly gaining ground on Islamic State in Syria, things had already gone too far.
“It was too late for him to pull back when these circumstances changed. Barzani was sort of dragged into the referendum by Kurdish public expectations, and maybe even diaspora Kurds’ feelings. He understood that the vote won’t pass unnoticed, but he went through with it,” says Barir.
After the fiasco in Kirkuk, Kurds aired a lot of grievances over what they saw as the United States’ ultimate betrayal of their interests.
“With every step, (Washington) emboldened Baghdad, Iran and Turkey … each one of them thinking: ‘Well, so the Kurds are on their own, we can do whatever we like,” the Kurdish government representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, told Reuters.
It is likely that Baghdad wouldn’t have launched an offensive on disputed territories without Washington’s blessing, but the discussion about the futility of U.S. policy in the Middle East warrants its own separate story. The Kurds, on the other hand, did not take into account that they bit two hands that fed them — one in Baghdad and one in Ankara.
Have the Kurds Lost Their Friends?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the strongest supporters of Barzani’s bid to shake off Baghdad’s influence in the KRG, and Haider al-Abadi seemed more than willing to negotiate with Kurds emboldened and empowered by Ankara’s and the U.S.’s support. For all of his flaws, he was a refreshing change after the rigid and sectarian Nouri al-Maliki.
Barzani pledged Kurdish loyalty to Baghdad in the fight against ISIS, so making a move while the fight was still ongoing could rightly be seen as a betrayal from Abadi’s point of view. Decisive punitive measures, crowned with Iraqi forces’ effective takeover of the major Kurdish border crossing with Turkey echo his threat that after the independence referendum, Kurdistan would be in a worse position than on September 24, losing some of its hard-earned independence.
Moreover, Abadi struck a conciliatory tone after Erbil’s capitulation, but it is clear that he will exploit all of KRG’s newly formed weaknesses.
Turkey has been swinging back and forth on Erbil, constrained between its lucrative economic deals with the Kurdish Regional Government and a need to extinguish flames of its own potential Kurdish insurgency inspired by the Iraqi Kurds’ success. Some feel that the KDP lost Ankara for good.
“Turkey doesn’t want to deal with Barzani anymore, but this process, which inflicted serious damage on the KDP and the PUK, may expedite a new scenario: the PKK gaining strength in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK’s influence is surely growing among the Kurdish youth, especially in PUK-controlled areas. Therefore, in the long run, a Kurdish rout and apparent collapse might not turn out to be the victory that Ankara has been dreaming of,” Fehim Tastekin wrote in Al Monitor.
This scenario could also push KDP back into Ankara’s good graces, but one does not need to look so far ahead, given severely reduced oil exports from KRG to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, and the financial losses that come with it. Iraqi authorities ordered urgent repairs to an old pipeline circumventing the Kurdish region, but it will take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to make it functional, according to RBC Capital Markets.
On top of that, Russian energy giant Rosneft has agreed to take control of the main oil pipeline in Kurdistan, something Ankara didn’t like.
“I don’t think there is anything to be lost for good. If Ankara needs KRG, it might go back to it, especially after the Russians tacitly offered to become the Kurdish outlet for oil. Ankara doesn’t want to give up on that position,” Barir concluded. “The only thing that is lost, at least for any foreseeable future, is the Kurdish prospect for independence.”
Barzani missed an opportunity in 2014, miscalculated in 2017 and refused to backtrack — and the reason can be pinned down to his political ambition and attempt to stay afloat by spearheading the highly sentimental issue. It also might have been too tempting for Barzani to engage in populism and talk about grand causes instead of the boring and pressing economic difficulties in the KRG.
Maybe this sentimental cause would have received due discussion if the opposition in Kurdistan was a relevant political factor, rather than a mere talking formality, a position Kurdistan landed in because of Barzani and his autocratic tendencies in recent years.
And this brings the story of the Kurdish pursuit of independence back to the basic, structural sign of the KRG’s inability to transform into an entity that might fend off Baghdad, Tehran or Ankara on its way to a viable state, much like Israel, from which Kurds drew a lot of inspiration.
If the Kurds have a consensus about what they want, they lack any consensus on the road to their ultimate goal, and the price they are willing to pay for it — hence the Kirkuk defeat. Following that disaster, Kurdish politicians showed a staggering lack of accountability for the mistake they all willingly made.
As soon as presidential power was distributed to several political bodies, Gorran began preparations to assume the position of Suleymani governor, showing that the lost Kirkuk and the referendum thus became a battlefield where the opposition is attempting to level its political score with the KDP.
In this political struggle, Kurdish independence, people’s most prized goal, turned into a stake, and it has been lost. What Kurdish leaders are doing now is complaining about the cards they were given, forgetting that it was themselves who put the bet on the table in the first place, unable to quit while they were ahead.