Kirkuk makes a big difference
Think of Kirkuk as the keystone that holds Iraq together. When the Kurds had it, they could claim possession of the oil resources as well as their cultural capital. Independence was a credible goal. Without it, independence is a pipe dream and maybe even a nightmare.
What caused the loss of Kirkuk, and now other disputed territories? There has so far been relatively little fighting. The peshmerga associated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who held Kirkuk, apparently surrendered most of their positions. The PUK is aligned in part with Iran, which commanded at least some of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that led the re-occupation of Kirkuk.
Iran is in fact a big winner from this latest military development, since it opposes Kurdistan independence vehemently. But so too do Turkey and the US. Sovereign states are loathe to see other sovereign states partitioned, not least because of fears for their own territorial integrity (Turkey and Iran) as well as their relations with the country in question (the US, Russia and others). Preserving the state structure in the Middle East is in fact one of the few things on which all the states there, and their foreign allies, agree.
The Kurdish independence referendum last month was a colossal miscalculation. KRG President Barzani tried to take advantage of his own momentary dominance in Kurdistan’s politics as well as the victory over ISIS to take what he saw as a giant step towards a goal he knows all Kurds share. But the PUK, Gorran and other political forces in Kurdistan were not happy to see Barzani get the credit and dissented from the process for preparing the referendum, which was shambolic to say the least. The foreign powers that count also objected. In this contest between national aspirations and geopolitics, the latter has won this round.
What now? Baghdad’s forces are apparently trying to restore their control to the situation in 2003, which means taking back most if not all of the so-called “disputed territories.” That might be a bridge too far, but in any event the main thing is to avoid bloodletting as much as possible, since that is what would make a bad situation more intractable. Baghdad already has in Kirkuk what it needs to block independence. What is needed now is to calm the situation and get Baghdad and Erbil back to the negotiating table, where they can discuss Kurdistan’s relationship with the rest of Iraq.
The retaking of Kirkuk and other disputed territories will strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and weaken KRG President Barzani, though the latter may gain inside Iraqi Kurdistan if the PUK is blamed for the military debacle. Abadi has suffered from his predecessor Nour al Maliki’s political maneuvers and was thought to be at risk in elections that are supposed to be held next year. He will now be able to face down criticism from those who thought he was soft on the Kurds.
The KRG is appealing to the Americans to engage. Washington had apparently tried hard to prevent the referendum by doing so. The Kurds made a big mistake in not making sure that effort succeeded. The US may now engage, but with entirely different facts on the ground. While sympathetic to the Kurds and anxious to keep them fighting against the remnants of ISIS, no one in Washington can force Abadi to give up Kirkuk. To the contrary: the Americans will want to maintain as strong a relationship with Abadi as possible, to counter Iranian expanded influence in Baghdad.
Kirkuk makes a big difference.
PS: Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador in the US, seems to me to do a good job in this interview with Wolf Blitzer: