Dr. Omar Abdulsattar
Advisor, New Iraq Center
The Kurdish issue in Iraq has a local, regional and international dimension beside the Kirkuk issue. Kirkuk is considered as a ticking bomb due to the features it holds such as geography, demographics, historical stations and economic resources. Its importance lies on whomever has a control over this city will have a control over Baghdad. Kurds in the region and in Iraq particularly were subject to a game of war and peace throughout the twentieth century between raising or falling of a Kurdish state here and an uprising there and vise versa. until the international system became unipolar led by the United States after the end of the cold war, a change has been applied as it seems in regard to the Kurdish war and peace game to become a game of stability in an unstable region of the world.
The Security Council resolution NO. 688 of April 5, 1991, asserts Kurds to become the cornerstone and regional equivalent in the democratic changes taking place in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War by linking democracy with federalism. Accordingly, the US-led international coalition in Iraq supported the Kurds with three international coalitions, started with the Kuwait Liberation Alliance 1991, the 2003 Baghdad Conquest Coalition, and the Coalition of 60 states against ISISI in 2014.
Kirkuk went through a historical stations same as the Kurdish issue during the 20th century, passing by 2003 and the constitution of 2005. Then a road map was drawn up under Article 140 to define the political future of the city. Nevertheless, the failure of Baghdad to implement this article caused the disintegration of the Kurdish-Shiite alliance, which the political process was based on since 2003.
Kurdistan has sought the reality of Iraq to be federal just like constitution but unfortunately it failed. It was expected that Kurdistan would either declare its independence after the withdrawal of US 2011, or to go for the resistance as it was practiced in 1990, or to be disintegrate which what Maliki wanted, but also failed. One of the most important reasons that pushed for the Kurdistan referendum, after it took control of the areas of Article 140 of the Constitution is that it felt abandoned. To be surrounded by 15 provinces linked to Baghdad, without becoming an independent region according to Article 119 of the Constitution, makes Kurdistan under constant threat of disintegration. This is what current events had confirmed. Kurdistan by the referendum towards independence, may be dangerous enough locally and regionally, to push Baghdad and neighboring countries, either to accept a unified federal Iraq, as the declared American goal, or to go for a small Confederations consists of the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite.
Although the international support for Abbadi probably aims at giving him a greater chance to win the next election, and to limit the escalation that al-Maliki and the extremists of the Popular Mobilization Forces are making against Barzani. However, Kurdistan has entered a difficult tunnel after the referendum and the possibility of Abbadi’s triumph in the next elections, may lead him to negotiate with Massoud under US sponsorship. In addition, developments in the region may push toward the delay of the elections that may open the door to another scene, not to mention other scenarios after the entry of Kirkuk by Abbadi’s forces and the PMF.
Whatever the possible scenarios might be that may push Baghdad to enter Erbil which perhaps repeats the Kuwait scenario, or push Erbil to resist the occupation of its region, or a joint administration to rule over the disputed areas sponsored by the United States, the behavior of Abbadi would probably determine which course and scenario the conflict is going.
The Referendum Crisis
The underestimation of militias in religion, people, state and constitution over the past 14 years, has pushed Kurdistan toward the referendum, as last treatment is the fire. Meaning the actions of the militias during all these years forces Kurdistan to a reaction that might be not acceptable in different time but this time is the right thing to do. However, if the referendum was a local and regional problem, Iran’s policies were the real problem. These policies what pushed Barzani for the referendum, as it had pushed the Sunni Arabs to demand federation before. As matter of fact, Maliki the ex-prime minister fought the Arab Sunnis at the time of their protests and now he described the referendum as a black day for Iran and general Shiites.
The referendum in Kurdistan has opened the door for a possible Iranian-American confrontation in which Iran may have decided to enter Kirkuk a decision announced by Abbadi. At the same time the United States decided to withdraw the PMFs a decision also announced by Abbadi. Both decisions may indicate the plan to pull Iran’s legs into Kurdistan region in order to cut them off. With the exception of Iran, all the countries that rejected the referendum may have known that Iran is the problem, not the referendum, and the preventing of the aftermaths requires deterrence of Iran’s policies. Otherwise, the consequences of the Kurdistan referendum will be consecutive not only on neighboring countries, but also on other provinces who will be moving towards a referendum.
In addition to the involvement of Iran and the US in the crisis, the referendum has led to a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement with Baghdad due to their fear from the birth of a Kurdish state in their borders. This rapprochement between Turkey and Iran against the Kurds, despite the differences of their agendas, pushed them to adopt a strategy to contain the US agenda also on their borders. The past 14 years have proved that Turkey and Iran are not allied countries. They converge when the US is present, and they conflict when the US is absent.
Furthermore, the US factor as a superpower usually contains the agendas of Turkey and Iran the medium regional powers. In addition, Iran’s agenda in Iraq differs from the Turkish agendas. The international agenda directly affects Iran policies unlike Turkey, which gets affected by the domestic dimension. This may gradually make Iraq more influential than the both countries. Coming back to the referendum, Barzani has successfully opened the door of a new Iraqi Kurdistan era regionally and internationally, at the same time with the Trump strategy against Iran. This what might caused the reaction of Iran to enter Kirkuk in mid-October 2017, supervised by Qassem Soleimani.
The Entry of Baghdad forces to areas of Article 140
Qassem Sulimani, the Commander Chief of Al-Quds forces has failed to prevent Kurdistan Region from going on with the referendum. He tried so during his five days stay before the referendum, moving from one province to another and from a meeting with a Kurdish leader to another. Probably, Soleimani did not fail a regional task after 2003, just as he failed to prevent the Kurdistan Region from the referendum. However, he did not lose hope; he returned after the referendum and insisted on withdrawing the Peshmerga from Kirkuk. At a time when observers expected the Peshmerga to resist any progress toward Kirkuk, Soleimani finally succeeded in splitting the Kurdish parties, or so it seems. He has made a deal with Pavel Talabani and Baghdad to withdraw the Peshmerga quickly and unexpectedly from Kirkuk on the night of 15-10-201.
This withdrawal has led to various violations and the burning of houses and incidents of killing and terrorizing the people and tens of thousands of them fled to Erbil and Sulimaniyah. The withdrawals also included Barzani’s Peshmerga, from all areas of Article 140 along the Mandali Sinjar line. It is not clear where the new lines of contact between Baghdad and Erbil will be, whether the 2016 lines or the 2014 entry lines, or the 2003 lines. This may be the reason for the Elton Bridge’s fighting between the two sides. The reality on the ground tells that the disputed areas have already become hotlines between Baghdad and Erbil on the one hand, and Iran and America on the other.
The Possible scenarios
First: The Camp David scenario
The withdrawal of Pavel Talabani from Kirkuk may have broken the Washington 1998 agreement between Talabani party and the Barzani Party. This will force him to face people of the region and Barzanis party and the Americans, because of some connection of certain groups of the Talabani Party with Iran. This may lead to the targeting of these parties, at the same time; it marked the end of the historic alliance between the Barzani Party and Talabani as well as the emergence of new Kurdish coalitions. in the middle of these events, a call to establish a transitional government by the Movement for Change and the Islamic Group, and Barham Saleh as part of Kurdish movement after Kirkuk Crisis. This is where 32 Kurdish parties refused Baghdad’s conditions for dialogue and started to form a new political body.
These Kurdish repercussions may indicate that Kurdistan has made painful concessions to the right of the dream of its people by withdrawing and not fighting the forces of Baghdad. Same should be applied by Abbadi if he wanted Iraq to settle within the roof of the Constitution. Barzani is ahead and Abbadi should follow, to say no to Iran and to not fight people of same country. Although Abbadi has imposed the rule of the law and the Constitution against the Peshmerga in the areas of Article 140, he should have done the same against the militias in Baghdad. If he done so then same new political body maybe initiated by Shiite political parties out of Iranian affairs and involvement. Supposedly, what we are saying here is correct in addition to that, Barzani and Abbadi are the allies of US; the United States may sponsor a joint administration of the disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad. Similar to what it has done between Sadat and Begin in the Camp David Accord 1978. This could be a regional agreement rather than a local one.
Second: Kuwait scenario
An international coalition against Iranian militias
The withdrawal of the Peshmerga from Kirkuk without fighting under supervision of Sulimani may in one way or another seem similar to the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Mosul in 2014. Both withdrawals open the doors to a new war one against ISIS and this time against the militias maybe. One must points out that the entry of Kirkuk by Baghdad forces have divided the Kurdish leaders and delayed their dream of independence. The danger here is that Iran will be able to move the chaos after Kirkuk to Erbil, the only stabile area in Iraq since 2003. This could pose a serious threat to the US strategy, as well as the loss of a historical ally represented by the Kurds. Moreover, the break-up of Kurdistan may make Turkey, the other ally of the United States, to face a greater danger of federalism or the Kurdish state, and that is Kurdistan will be a prisoner of chaos to ISIS, PMFs, and PKK and all of them are strategic enemies to Turkey.
The behavior of the White House, the US State Department and the international coalition during and after the invasion of Kirkuk reminds us of a similar US behavior with Saddam before the invasion of Kuwait. The US refusal to talk about the Iranian involvement in Kirkuk despite its evidences and its statements of non-interference between the two parties could open the door for a possible American-Iranian clash in the disputed areas. Taking into consideration the timing that goes in line with Trump’s strategy against Iran and its influence in the region. These behaviors may tempt Iran to invade Erbil in which same mistake Saddam did in Kuwait. Such scenario could open the door to an international coalition to be involved.
This might indicate that the fall of Kirkuk will repeat again the fall of Mosul. Tillerson has called for the departure of Iran’s militias from Iraq. This statement as clear as it assert that US knows the involvement of Soleimani and Iran in Kirkuk and thus US will react to the action of Iran. I think what is left for the Kuwait scenario to be repeated again is only Iran’s forces entering Erbil, which will lead to international coalition and a wave of migration again which is the worst scenario to happen.
Third: Scenario of Algeria agreement 1975
The scenario of marching toward Erbil by Baghdad forces may bring us back to the scenario of letting the Kurds down and given up on them in favor of an Iraq away from Iran. Just like what happened in the 1975 agreement, when the US gave up on the Kurds in favor of an Iraq closer to Iran at that time when Iran was an ally with the US. This scenario could be the worst and it blows away the notion that says Kurds are a corner stone in the new Middle East and they are a stability base in the region. As matter of fact nothing is impossible in the political sphere.
Forth: Kurdish resistance scenario
Kurds still seem confident and they started to call for support from the international community. Zalmay Khalilzad and other US diplomats support these calls. Their calls denote that that they will not give up the referendum and they will restore Kirkuk. Moreover, statements by Kusrat Rasul and Sheikh Jaafar the commander of force 70 of the National Union party, in addition to statements by Hoshyar Zebari and Massoud Barzani, who called for the international community to intervene. If we look at the Mandali-Sinjar line gives the impression that the disputed areas may actually be areas of military conflict that sometimes extend towards Kurdistan and sometimes towards the Sunni Arab provinces bordering Kurdistan.
The clashes may develop between Peshmerga and PMFs to go from the scenario of the joint administration to the scenario of resistance. These developments depend on how well will the negotiations go between the two sides that may be resolved by their alliances at the end.