The Iraqi Army and allied Popular Mobilisation Units’ lightening and relatively bloodless offensive to retake Kirkuk and other disputed areas is being widely interpreted as a shot in the arm for the embattled Iraqi state. It comes on the heels of Iraq’s recapture from Daesh of Hawija, the last major Iraqi urban centre under the control of the militant group.
The offensive against Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk was a direct response to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s “illegal” independence referendum as Kurdish leaders had been warned repeatedly of the risk of military intervention if they pressed ahead with their plans.
Now that Kurdish expansionism has been cut down to size in Iraq it is important to take stock of the broader repercussions of the Kirkuk offensive. Foremost, the dramatic assertion of Iraqi sovereignty should be a wake-up call for Iraqi Kurdish leaders who have once again disappointed their people by over-promising and under-delivering.
More broadly, Iraq’s bold move against KRG secessionists will encourage a regional push-back against Kurdish irredentism, not least in neighbouring Syria where Kurdish-led forces, backed up by Western air power, have just wrested control of Raqqa from Daesh.
At the strategic level, the Kirkuk offensive is viewed as a victory for Iran, in view of the Islamic Republic’s controlling stake over the Shia-led militias which constitute the backbone of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). By extension, this makes a mockery of the Trump administration’s anti-Iran strategy which calls for the region-wide containment of Iranian influence.
Another Kurdish miscalculation
Iraq’s recapture of Kirkuk is a major blow to Kurdish nationalists across the region who had invested so much hope in the political and strategic potential of the KRG. KRG President Massoud Barzani’s spectacular political miscalculation means he has followed in the footsteps of his legendary father Mullah Mustafa Barzani in building up Kurdish national aspirations only to see the dream of independence disintegrate in the face of harsh regional realities.
By retaking Kirkuk and its prized oil fields, the Iraqi government has effectively shattered the Kurds’ dream of independence. The one positive outcome that may follow from this move is the weakening of the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party’s stranglehold over politics and economy in the regional capital Erbil.
The Barzani clan has held sway over Erbil since September 1996 when Massoud Barzani solicited support from Saddam Hussein to oust the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from the regional capital. The retaking of Erbil by 30,000 Iraqi troops led by Saddam’s elite Republican Guard marked the climax of the Kurdish civil war of the 1990s.
Despite signing a formal peace treaty in late 1998, KDP and PUK relations continue to be characterised by tension and pervasive mistrust. On the surface the two sides appear to have amicably carved up separate fiefdoms – with the KDP controlling Erbil whilst the PUK is based in Sulaymaniyah – but behind the scenes they are locked into bitter disputes over the administration of the KRG.
Moreover, the two sides are allied to rival regional powers. Historically the PUK has been supported by Iran whilst the KDP has been drawn into Turkey’s orbit since the 1990s. The KDP-PUK rivalry appears to have played a role in the hasty retreat of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk with reports suggesting the PUK – or sections of it – had cut a secret deal with Baghdad.
The lightening Iraqi offensive has above all exposed the profound fragility of the KRG. The Kurdish zone in Iraq appears peaceful and functional on the surface, but at deeper levels it lacks the resources and human capital to sustain genuine regional autonomy, let alone independence.
Once the shock of Kirkuk’s loss is fully absorbed, growing public discontent may finally force Massoud Barzani to either step aside, or failing that, to allow for greater democracy in the KRG zone. But for now Barzani remains defiant and instead of taking responsibility for holding an referendum which Baghdad deems “illegal”, he is determined to blame the ensuing disaster on the rival PUK.
The Iranian connection
There is an ongoing debate as to the extent of the Iranian influence over Iraq’s decision to retake Kirkuk. For now at least the Americans appear to be downplaying the connection, not least because the US tacitly supports the assertion of Iraqi sovereignty.
Disagreements about the extent of Iranian influence notwithstanding, what is beyond dispute is that the Kirkuk offensive would not have been so crushingly successful without the participation of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU).
It is worthwhile to remember that in June 2014 Iraq’s American-trained army collapsed in the face of the Daesh onslaught due to leadership deficit and poor morale. By contrast, the ideologically-driven PMU stood their ground and fought, thus earning a degree of national legitimacy.
In this context, the assertion of Iraqi sovereignty holds both peril and promise for the Americans. On the one hand, the lightening offensive bolsters the position of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who is close to Washington. However, on the other hand the offensive has strengthened the position of the Iranian-aligned PMU.
Kurdish analysts are correct to highlight the deep contradictions in US policy, even though in keeping with KDP propaganda these analysts tend to exaggerate the Iranian role in the recapture of Kirkuk. This deep contradiction brings the gap in American rhetoric and capability – vis-à-vis Iranian regional influence – into sharp relief. In Iraq at least, the US appears impotent in the face of Iran’s strategic depth.
As Iraq prepares for all-important parliamentary elections in May 2018, all eyes will be on Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi as to his next move following the liberation of disputed areas. Defying low expectations when he took office in August 2014, Al-Abadi has weathered two enormous storms, namely the bogus Daesh “caliphate” and the graver threat of Kurdish secessionism. However, his luck may run out if he succumbs to US pressure and moves against the PMU in earnest.