Baghdad 's seizure of Kirkuk and swathes of northern Iraq has left the Kurds defeated, divided and displaced.
The Iraqi Kurdish people – and their supporters around the world – are still reeling from last week’s dramatic change of fortunes. Their dream of independence and secession from Iraq ended not with a bang but a whimper as federal forces and pro-Iranian Shia militias snatched the disputed city of Kirkuk from the Kurds in less than a day, just over a week ago. The speed with which the bubble of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan was burst has left the Kurdish leadership in disarray, and their supporters in shock.
But this should not have been a surprise. No matter how ascendant, powerful and confident the Iraqi Kurdish leadership appeared to be, there was only one way any push for independence could have ended – in complete and abject failure. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had massively overestimated their regional alliances, while underestimating the need for domestic alliances, and the absolute necessity of a wider regional Kurdish push for independence. Those miscalculations cost them almost everything they had gained since 2014.
Domestic Iraqi-Kurdish rivalries
The idea of an independent Kurdistan is a source of much disagreement and steeped in linguistic, cultural and tribal differences. While regionally Kurds have faced prosecution racism and discrimination, at other times they have also instigated violence and acts of terrorism claiming thousands of innocent civilian lives.
With the exception of terrorist organisations such as the PKK most Kurdish groups operate within the borders of their adopted countries. For example, the main Iraqi-Kurdish political parties are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Gorran Movement. The latest saga has shown how divided these parties are, often on tribal lines, in particular when the PUK, aligned with Iran and opposed to Barzani, left Kirkuk in an act of political machination as Baghdad moved in.
In most developed democracies, it is uncommon for foreign powers to influence parties as significantly as the influence exerted against Iraqi-Kurdish political groups. For instance, the KDP's leader and KRG President Masoud Barzani was commonly seen as a Turkish ally, having invited Turkish troops onto Iraqi soil in the northern town of Bashiqa. And its extensive trade ties make the KRG Turkey’s third-largest export market. Meanwhile, both the PUK and its offshoot the Gorran Movement have historically close ties to Iran.
Barzani’s alliance with Turkey, however, was taken for granted after he made moves towards an independence referendum, thereby threatening the stability of Turkey by enhancing the propaganda efforts of the PKK, who have killed tens of thousands of civilians in Turkey since the 1980s. Turkey’s needs were ignored by Barzani, who assumed that the United States would stand in for Turkey should Ankara decide that it would no longer work with the KRG president. Again, Barzani miscalculated.
A fractious and disunited ‘Greater Kurdistan’
The fissures between rival Kurdish groups were ultimately exploited by Iran – with Turkish acquiescence – by driving a wedge between the Peshmerga units loyal to the KDP and the pro-Iran PUK. The PUK Peshmerga units abandoned their posts, and often handed over entire positions and bases over to the advancing federal forces and their allied Shia militias from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashd al Shaabi in Arabic.
These divisions exist within the KRG and cut across all levels of society, but they also exist across borders. For example, the KDP has had a historic rivalry with the PKK, and their Syrian and Iranian affiliates. There are also divisions between Kurmanci-speaking Kurds, and Sorani-speaking Kurds, with a plethora of dialects that are not mutually intelligible, striking a further blow to the myth of a united Kurdish polity and population.
While many Kurds romanticise about what it would be like to live in a greater Kurdistan, no Kurdish group has been able to offer a comprehensive vision of what such a state would look like, beyond appealing to Western audiences with talk of gender equality, human rights and, of course, democracy. Yet reality shows that Kurdish leaders are prone to undemocratic practices, with almost all Kurdish parties and movements being ruled by one man until he is overthrown or dies. Take Barzani for an example, who has remained president despite his term ending in 2015.
The absence of such a wider regional push for independence, or even the faintest idea of what such a push would look like, means that any localised effort will be surrounded by hostile states, mostly if not completely landlocked, and prone to suffocation. The fact that Barzani took Turkey for granted even though the oil the KRG was exporting from the now-lost Kirkuk through the Turkish Yumurtalik port is evidence enough that an independent Kurdistan cannot exist without the acquiescence of regional powers.
Lack of domestic alliances
Perhaps due to a sense of hubris following their acquisition of territory in 2014 after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of Daesh (also known as ISIS) advances, the KRG also refused to really engage with domestic actors.
The KRG’s strategy should not have focused on a clearly doomed independence bid, but on locking in their territorial gains, including oil-rich Kirkuk, the so-called “Kurdish Jerusalem.” They could only have done this by being as inclusive as possible to both Arab and Turkmen populations that are prevalent throughout northern, central and western Iraq.
Instead, international human rights organisations reported on several occasions that Kurdish security forces of Northern Iraq were expelling Arabs and Turkmen from Kirkuk, Makhmour and other areas. The KRG never viewed these ethnic groups as partners in a shared destiny, but as competitors for lebensraum in what they fantasised was an ethnically homogenous Kurdish geography.
Had they involved these groups in the process of distancing from the repressive and sectarian rule of Baghdad, which is under the sway of Iran, then the KRG would have found valuable allies who lived in a geographical area that would have acted as a buffer zone between Baghdad- and Erbil-held territories. Instead, and when the assault on Kirkuk happened, they found themselves alone and beaten.
Until the Kurdish political actors address these factors, and reorient their strategic outlook to match, the dream of an independent Kurdistan will forever remain in the realm of the imagination.
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