Iraq is on the brink of civil war. Iraqi Kurdistan’s contentious independence referendum and Baghdad’s heavy-handed response have set the stage for a military clash between the Iraqi military and Shia militias on one side, and the peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan on the other.
Both sides share responsibility for the instability and the quarreling. On the one hand, by including the disputed territory of Kirkuk in the referendum and declaring it Kurdish territory, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) undermined the legitimacy of the referendum by circumventing Iraq’s constitution, which has clear procedures (i.e., Article 140) in place for resolving the longstanding issue of disputed territories. On the other hand, the resolution of the disputed territories was scheduled for 2007, but Baghdad has vacillated and has hinted that it has no intention of ever resolving it — leaving Kirkuk and the other territories under Baghdad’s control. Baghdad and the Shia militias now occupy Kirkuk and the peshmerga are preparing to launch a counter-attack.
This startling series of events has raised three key questions: First, why did the Kurds hold the referendum at a time of so much political uncertainty and opposition from Baghdad and the international community? Second, why did the peshmerga willingly relinquish control of Kirkuk to Baghdad? Finally, what are the short- to medium-term consequences of the referendum and the battle for Kirkuk?
On September 25, 2017, over 90% of eligible voters in Iraqi Kurdistan (eligible voters must be Iraqi citizens, 18 years of age or older, and residents of Iraqi Kurdistan and the disputed territories under Article 140) voted in favor of separating from Iraq. The referendum is the culmination of long-held grievances by Kurds against the central government. The Kurds accuse Baghdad of willfully ignoring Iraq’s constitution and withholding Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of the annual budget. Since 2005, the Kurds have demanded a federal and democratic Iraq. According to the outgoing President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, this has not materialized: From the Kurdish position, Baghdad has failed to adhere to the terms of the 2005 Constitution, the most important of which include Iraqi Kurdistan's political and economic autonomy, the resolution of the disputed territories, and Kurds' share of Iraq's annual budget.
Barzani, who championed the referendum, and the Kurdistan Regional Government presented two reasons for holding the referendum. First, the Kurds believed that their command of disputed territories was a fait accompli and under no circumstances would they relinquish control to Baghdad. An independent Kurdistan is not economically viable without Kirkuk’s vast oil reserves. For a decade, the Kurds have been calling on Baghdad to implement Article 140 of the constitution, which outlines the procedures for resolving the dispute over Kirkuk, to allow formerly expelled Kurdish residents of Kirkuk to return, administer a census and hold a referendum on whether Kirkukis want to remain under Baghdad's administration or join Iraqi Kurdistan. Second, the KRG and Barzani wrongly believed that the Kurds would have international support from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and others.
This was a costly misreading of the international community’s willingness to accept the results of the referendum. It put the Kurds in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis Baghdad and its more powerful neighbors. In hindsight, it is clear that the referendum was a miscalculation. Iraq's neighbors, Turkey and Iran, who otherwise agree on very little, issued statements following high-level meetings to condemn Iraqi Kurdistan’s unilateral referendum. Others in the international community, including the United States, also unequivocally oppose Kurdish independence. The widespread condemnation from the international community emboldened Baghdad to impose heavy sanctions in response to the referendum, which included a blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan's airspace and a subsequent military assault to retake the disputed territories.
On October 16, 2017, Baghdad deployed its military and the controversial Shia militias (the Hashd al-Shabi) to retake the disputed territories of Shingal, Khanaqin, Tuz Khurmatu and, most importantly, Kirkuk from the peshmerga. These territories were seized by the KRG following the incursion of the Islamic State into Iraq in 2014.
The KRG believed that it was prepared for Baghdad's military assault on Kirkuk, but in a surprising turn of events, Iraqi forces rolled into Kirkuk unopposed. Analysts are scrambling to determine how this unfolded. Following shock and dismay, and accusations of treason from rival Kurdish factions, two theories have surfaced. Some argue that the unexpected peshmerga withdrawal from Kirkuk was coordinated between a faction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Baghdad. Led by Hero Talabani, wife of Jalal Talabani (former president of Iraq and longtime Kurdish politician), and her two sons, Pavel and Qubad, this PUK faction has rejected the accusation. Instead, Pavel Talabani claims that the PUK’s peshmerga withdrawal from Kirkuk was a tactical decision made by PUK commanders in the face of a “vastly superior enemy [Iraqi forces].” Others claim that the withdrawal was a joint decision by Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK in response to mounting pressure from Turkey and Iran.
In the short-to-medium term, these developments present serious political and military challenges to Iraqi Kurdistan. Politically, Iraqi Kurdistan will continue to face backlash and opposition to its independence aspirations. It will be increasingly isolated by Baghdad, its neighbors and the international community. Iraqi Kurdistan also faces internal instability as highlighted by the division between the PUK and the KDP. Militarily, Iraqi Kurdistan faces an existential threat from the Iraqi military and Shia militias, who possess superior weapons and political and material support from regional neighbors. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, the Kurds will resist Baghdad’s aggression, as they have for over a century. These conditions could produce a protracted conflict in Iraq.
Policymakers are confronted with seemingly unsurmountable challenges, but there is hope for a peaceful resolution. Massoud Barzani has called for diplomacy and negotiations to manage the crisis surrounding Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. And, in a move intended to contribute to stability within Iraqi Kurdistan and praised by the United States, Barzani recently announced that he will not seek re-election as president. Furthermore, U.S. officials are overseeing high-level negotiations to settle territorial disputes and to end the military clashes between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.
These are positive developments, but they will be insufficient without further U.S. engagement. The United States and the international community must take swift and decisive action to avert civil war in Iraq. As a first step, the United States must work with its allies, including Canada and the United Kingdom, to encourage dialogue between the Kurds and Baghdad. As a precondition for continued U.S. support in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, policymakers must demand from Baghdad and the KRG a de-escalation in hostile rhetoric and military action. Once the threat of civil war recedes, U.S. policymakers can promote the resolution of longstanding grievances between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad. Finally, the United States can use its sway over Kurdish public opinion and Kurdish officials to advocate for diplomacy, but it must demonstrate its commitment to Iraqi Kurdistan's autonomy and endorse Iraq's constitution as the legal and political framework for resolving disputes in Iraq. Without a political resolution to these issues, the potential for violent conflict will persist.
Zheger Hassan is an adjunct professor of political science at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He is also co-director of the Middle East and North Africa Research Group at the University of Western Ontario.