The Kurdish battle plan for ISIS was not just dethroning insurgency in northern Iraq, but to solidify their case for an independent Kurdistan.

Kurdish, Kurdistan, ISIS, independent Kurdistan, guerrilla army, sovereignty, referendum, Kurdish referendum, Kabir Taneja
Photo: Konrad Lembcke/CC BY-NC 2.0

As of today, it is safe to say that the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which had commanded significant influence in both Iraq and Syria is, territorially, in recession. While the Iraqi government announced the ‘liberation’ of Mosul in August, the so-called Islamic State’s de-facto capital Raqqa in Syria is now on verge of collapse as well, in efforts led by Kurdish fighters and other cocktails of anti-ISIS militia collaborations.

The fall of ISIS, as Jason Burke, journalist and author of various books on terrorism and jihadism notes is nothing short of “impressive”. ISIS, during its juggernaut in 2014, took control of vast swathes of land, population and economy in both Iraq and Syria, declared its ‘caliphate’ later the same year in Mosul and commanded international news airwaves with its impressive media propaganda machinery.

However, government officials in the region, specifically in Iraq, even during the continuity phase just last year when ISIS was still making an impact, were confident of a role-reversal in the near future. During this period, another outcome of a post-ISIS push was becoming glaringly clear to analysts that while fighting ISIS was becoming the central gravitational pull for Iraq’s sectarian divides to work together, absence of the same without political vacuums being simultaneously addressed could become as problematic.

Kurds, the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, have been on the forefront of fighting ISIS. Backed by the West and regional powers, the Kurdish battle plan for ISIS was not just dethroning an insurgency threatening the little land they governed somewhat autonomously in northern Iraq, but to solidify their case and intent to have an independent Kurdistan, or in effect, redraw the geographical lines of Iraq and its neighbors as we know of today.

Backed by the rapid slide of ISIS, the Kurds organised an un-supervised unilateral referendum vote on 25 September, claiming a landslide victory on the creation of an independent Kurdish state. The referendum and its architect, president of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KOR or Iraqi Kurdistan) Masoud Barzani, who hails from the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). For this referendum, Barzani also introduced parts of northern Iraq such as Kirkuk into his sphere of autonomy, which irked Baghdad even further. During this time, the Kurds had taken back a lot of Arab land from ISIS, and hoped to leverage this on the negotiating table in return for support on the referendum.

Areas (in green) were part of the Kurdish referendum | Source: The Guardian

The inclusion of Kirkuk, a historically ethnically diverse and multilingual town about a hundred kilometers south of the Kurdish capital Erbil was, in fact, not surprising. The autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively healthy due to the fact that the Erbil has managed to develop a workable economic ecosystem thanks to the 8,000 million reserves of subterranean oil that rest under the city. This is further complicated with the Kirkuk – Ceyhan oil pipeline, commissioned in the 1970s, and often the venue of squabbles between KOR and Baghdad, with the former treating it as its own strategic asset while Iraqi government maintaining it as part of the federal structure of the country. To cement its own stamp, Baghdad directed its state oil companies to commence repair work on the pipeline in efforts to undermine Erbil.

This ‘oil and borders’ paradigm offered the said referendum a difficult path to success from the onset. It was presented as a gamble to the Kurdish people, the fractures within Kurdish politics and the international community, specifically the US and Iran. The outcomes of the referendum, however, were dismantled at an urgent pace. While Erbil claimed victory, promising a state as a deserved compensation for all the blood lost by its people against ISIS, the international community balked. The US, which tried to dissuade the Kurds from holding the referendum, and failed, backed Iraq’s military operations against the Kurds to re-take the city. The Iraqi military, backed by Iran, and by disassociation, whether by design or gross policy failure, by Washington as well, moved against the Kurdish Peshmerga (the Kurdish guerrilla army, instrumental in defeating ISIS and backed by the West), clearing Kirkuk within 48 hrs without a single bullet being fired. The Kurds, in a largely undisclosed settlement, moved out of a town they had geographically controlled for more than three years, and politically for much longer. Iran’s role in all of this has been critical, and according to a recent report by Crisis Group, Tehran is “deepening and exploiting intra-Kurdish divisions” in an apparent attempt to ensure the PUK would not put up a fight as Iraqi troops advance to construct a discord between the PUK and KDP by handing Barzani a military defeat and instigating a broad backlash within the Kurdish community against him. The Kurds, meanwhile, have been publicly dispensing information online on campaigns to destroy the largely Iranian led Shiite umbrella militia force known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). On Twitter, the Peshmerga announced the destruction of various PMU tanks and other equipment, including US made Humvees allegedly operated by the PMU in the Ain Quias area.

Last week, in London’s upscale St James square, behind closed doors of a Victorian styled former residential complex that once served as the residence to three British prime ministers, an Iraqi delegation explained Iraq’s future challenges. During this 90-minute exchange, the fight against ISIS figured only relatively, with Kirkuk and the standoff with the Kurds taking much of the bandwidth. The Iraqis, while non-committal on the deals that are rumored to have been struck for the Kurds to move out peacefully, had confidence and a twinge of victory in their speech. On questions of Iran’s role, specifically that of Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general who leads the Quds Force, an elite group within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iraqis were coy, and did not out rightly accept or deny Iran’s intermediation in the pull-back observed in Kirkuk (Americans meanwhile have hinted Iran had no negotiation role to play in Kirkuk). However, many analysts are looking at the same as a victory for Iranian influence in the region, and the US, due to strategy or lack of thus, going along with the Iranian design on the issue. In northern Syrian regions such as Qabasin, al-Bab and parts of Idlib, the Turks, Russians and Iranians are now directly negotiating with the likes of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra) which have declared their own proto-states and fiefdoms in the region, territorially similar to the lines of the Islamic State.

Map of northern Syria, around Aleppo | Source: SyriaLive database

The Baghdad — Erbil impasse is not restricted to only the interests and protection of Iraqi sovereignty. Regional heavyweights such as Turkey have made no qualms on launching unilateral military action against an independent Kurdish state, as Ankara continues its anti-terror campaigns against the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group designated as a terror organisation by the United States. However, it is beyond the issue of Kirkuk, violence between the Iraqi military backed by Iranian militias, which is already witnessing boiling point. In towns such as Zummar, in the Nineveh district, northeast of Erbil, clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish and Iranian militias are intensifying even further.

The international community meanwhile has put its weight behind Baghdad. India, in a statement, backed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq, in effect undermining the Kurdish referendum. New Delhi opened its consulate in Erbil last year, on back of efforts to try to locate the 39 Indian construction workers missing from Mosul since 2014. In 2014, during the peak expansion period of ISIS, the Kurdish Democratic Party’s then head of international relations, Heman Harwani, told India’s The Hindu newspaper that the “old Iraq is dead” and that the future perhaps holds a confederation of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states or an out-and-out partition of the country. “We have to move forward now, and see India as an important partner,” Harwani added. However, India needs to balance its relations with both Iraq and Turkey, and perhaps more importantly, any public endorsement of secessionist politics will not bode well with its own domestic challenges and insurgencies.

The Kurds are expected formally to come out as the losing side in their long-standing attempts for independence due to a mixture of lack of support, including from those that backed and armed them against ISIS, and a referendum hurriedly orchestrated devoid of political infrastructure or transparency to give it undivided legitimacy. For the time being, despite an offer by Barzani to Baghdad to “freeze” the referendum process, which was out rightly rejected, the Kurds and Iraqi forces are expected to remain at loggerheads, an outcome of the post-ISIS era that many saw coming, but no powers regionally or internationally politically prepared for.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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