Skip to main content

Iraq trouble gives Kurdistan its big chance

Erbil will likely seize this opportunity to gain back territory loss to Saddam Hussein in the 1960s and 1980s

Every disaster creates opportunities for somebody. If the Kurds of Iraq play their cards right, they could finally end up with the borders they want, fully recognised by a government in Baghdad that has been saved by Kurdish troops.

The Kurds have this opportunity because the large but totally demoralised Iraqi army has fallen apart over the past week. The Sunni Islamist fanatics of ISIL are now less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, and Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, may be the only military force left in Iraq that could take the offensive against them.

It is very unlikely that the ISIL fighters can take Baghdad. There are probably no more than 5,000 of them in the country, and their stunning recent victories were achieved more by frightening the Iraqi army to death than by actual fighting. Most of those ISIL troops are needed to hold down their recent conquests, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

ISIL couldn’t spare more than a thousand or so of its fighters for a push into Baghdad, which has seven million people, many of them Shias. The Shia militias, which some estimate could be gaining tens of thousands of volunteers a day, don’t have much in the way of military skills, but they would fight – and street fighting in a big city eats up lives.

Either ISIL will not attack Baghdad, or it will try and fail. However, what remains of the Iraqi army will not be able to take the offensive and drive ISIL out of all the territory that has already been lost. Short of direct Iranian or American military intervention on the ground, the only force that might be able to do that is the Peshmerga.

Peshmerga - the official name for the armed forces of the Iraqi Kurdistans regional government - has advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that have historically been claimed by the Kurds. Most notably the Kurds have taken control of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields, although so far Kurdish forces have not tried to stop the ISIL fighters moving south. “There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

But Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIL line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if they were ordered to. The ISIL fighters have significant support from sections of the Sunni population in the area they have overrun, so trying to drive them out of Mosul and Tikrit would cost Peshmerga many casualties - but it’s the only force in Iraq that is even in a position to try.

So the Kurdistan Regional Government must now be considering what price it could charge Baghdad for that service. As an adviser to the KRG told the Washington Post: “The Iraqi government has been holding the Kurds hostage, and it’s not reasonable for them to expect the Kurds to give them any help in this situation without compromising to Kurdish demands.”

In return for their support, the Kurds are likely to aks for what they want most - the recovery of territories taken from them by the Baathist regime in Baghdad between the 1960s and the later 1980s. Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundred of thousands driven from their lands. Hussein then changed the provincial boundaries, and repopulated the stolen lands with  Arab settlers whom he brought in from the south.

Peshmerga troops have taken back control of much of this land in the past week, but nothing will be settled unless Baghdad formally restores the old provincial boundaries. It would also have to accept that a lot of those Arab settlers will be removed to make way for returning Kurdish families.

Such a concession would be politically impossible in normal times, but if Baghdad wants the Peshmerga to fight for it, that’s the price it will probably have to pay. Baghdad should also bear in mind that the Kurds have yet another option. They could just hold those territories by force, and declare independence.

The Baghdad government could do little about this as the advance of ISIL forces means that it no longer has a common frontier with Kurdistan. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did, with Ankara fearful about the impact on its own Kurdish minority, but things have changed there too.

Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. In any case, the Turkish government will have its hands full dealing with the sudden emergence of a hostile Islamic caliphate along its southern border. So while Kurdish independence would still be a gamble, the odds are that it could succeed.

One way or the other, Kurdistan is probably going to be a big winner out of the latest crisis. But it will probably try the lower-risk road of making a deal with Baghdad first.

- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo Credit: Peshmerga soldiers have taken control of ethnically mixed Kirkuk (AFP) 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.