The Kurdish Question

JOOST HILTERMANN — There is little that could prevent small local conflicts from escalating into an Arab-Kurdish battle, except a political desire for stability on both sides and a residual US mediating role.


As Maliki’s government in Baghdad struggles to achieve stability and sustainable development, Iraqi Kurdistan has emerged as relatively stable and prosperous, attracting international oil companies to sign major contracts with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). How do Baghdad and Washington view this external engagement with its domestic belligerent? 

The Baghdad government rejects the KRG’s right to set its own independent oil policy, including by bringing international oil companies to exploit the oil and gas resources in the Kurdish region, which remains an integral part of Iraq. The conflict is over the grey areas in the 2005 constitution, which failed to define clearly the federal structure it created for Iraq. Federalism has the potential to strengthen Iraq by accommodating diversity, but conflicting interpretations of the constitution are threatening to tear the country apart. The USG has long held that Iraq should remain unified. To this end, it has said it discourages US oil companies from investing in the Kurdish region, and especially in disputed territories.

Over the last two weeks, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Army soldiers have engaged in a military standoff around the northern city of Kirkuk, clearly illustrating the violent tensions between Baghdad and Erbil. Did the withdrawal of US combat troops and personnel one year ago — and the increased responsibility assumed by Maliki — affect the level and type of conflicts over and in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Tensions along the line of control (the “trigger line”) between Kurdish and federal forces have occurred ever since the Baghdad government regained its footing after the US surge (2007). It is for that reason that the US created the “joint security mechanism” in 2009, bringing the two opponents together in both mobile and stationary units that monitored peace along the “trigger line,” with the US playing a critical coordinating role. With the US troop withdrawal a year ago, this US role of neutral arbiter of local disputes has mostly gone. There is therefore little now that could prevent small local conflicts from escalating into an Arab-Kurdish battle, except a political desire for stability on both sides and a residual US mediating role.

In Foreign Affairs, you write that the Kurds will “defer their dreams of statehood once again…trading Baghdad’s suffocating embrace for a more amenable dependence on Turkey.” Yet some analysts believe such a shift could spark a full-fledged civil war inside Iraq. Is this term an accurate descriptor of such a conflict, and is this assessment valid? 

It is not a Kurdish move toward Turkey that will spark a civil war in Iraq; it’s the inability to agree over the boundary between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq. De jure, it is the 1991 Green Line, pending resolution of the status of the disputed territories; de facto, it is the “trigger line” that runs roughly through the center of the disputed territories. Fact is that there is a lot of oil and gas in the disputed territories, so the location of the border will be of critical importance to both sides: for the Kurds, to make their region as economically strong as possible; for Baghdad, to prevent the Kurds from creating a powerful, energy-rich rival entity on its northern border.

Iraqi military forces are currently facing down Peshmerga militia, but it is illegal for the Iraqi Army to conduct operations against a domestic province. These actions remind Kurds of Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted regime policies. How do Kurdish leaders view Baghdad, and in the current political environment is it more reasonable to suspect both sides to engage on a battlefield rather than Parliament?  

Kurdish leaders use the Saddam trope to delegitimize Maliki internationally, but the fact is that both sides are using military force and other extrajudicial means (for example, the deployment of Kurdish security police in Kirkuk and other disputed territories) to assert control over areas to which they lay claim, and Barzani is just as authoritarian as Maliki. Their political dispute has grown increasingly personal, and so it is hard to see how they will accommodate each other through parliamentary politics. Let’s see what happens in the next Iraqi elections in 2014. I don’t think either side has an interest in a full-scale battle, but fighting could break out because of misperceptions or a miscalculation.

In your article you further note Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan allegedly promised Kurdish President Massoud Barzani that Turkish forces would protect Kurdish territory if Baghdad moved towards an assault. Could Kurdistan thus be seen as a spark for a regional crisis, keeping the concerns posed to each party by a resurgent Iran in mind? 

If it came to that, yes, but I don’t think it will come to that.

In Kirkuk, reports TIME journalist Jay Newton-Small, residents on the “Iraqi side” look to the Kurdish forces as stabilizing and beneficent, providing consistent electricity, sanitation, and security. Could Kurdistan provide an example for Baghdad to follow, or is it folly to compare the relatively homogenous Kurdish regions with the Iraqi provinces? 

The people of Kirkuk, like people anywhere, crave stability and good services. But in my many visits to Kirkuk over the years, including as recently as three months ago, I have found it difficult to find people who openly cross the ethnic line (though politicians can be bought, and often have been). Roughly speaking, most Arabs and many Turkomans oppose Kurdish moves to incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdish region, and they particularly resent the presence of the Kurdish security police in their neighborhoods because it is an ethnic force pushing an ethnically-imbued political agenda, but they happily receive electricity supplied by a Kurdish company located in the Kurdish region. As for Kurdistan (of which Kirkuk is not a part) presenting a model for Iraqi provinces, there is no comparison. Historically, things went very differently in the Kurdish region. Liberated in 1991, it has had two decades to develop, whereas the mismanaged US occupation of Iraq after 2003 led to chaos and disaster; it’s only after 2007, partly thanks to the US surge, that things have started to improve. Development is based on history, mostly not on examples elsewhere (unfortunately, perhaps!).

Kurds view the Baghdad government as oppressive to their goals of statehood, yet many Iraqis harbor equally negative opinions of Kurdish policy. Despite the narrative of Maliki’s suppression of Kurdish liberties, what faults and responsibilities do the Kurds have to solving the crisis with Baghdad? Is it in either side’s interest to resolve — or better, transform — the conflict? 

I am not aware of any narrative of Maliki suppressing Kurdish liberties. Baghdad has no role in the Kurdish region. The only conflict I’m aware of is over the nature of federalism. The Kurds claim that Baghdad’s authoritarian turn is forcing them to act unilaterally to develop their region (based on decades of regime repression, discrimination and neglect). I wonder whether sufficient political capital has been invested in seeking a workable arrangement, for example in the form of a federal hydrocarbons law. Both sides are to blame, but whatever the Kurdish intention – to produce better living standards for the people living in the Kurdish region – the outcome might be the breakup of Iraq, as the Kurds pursue an independent hydrocarbons policy with the help of Turkey. The big question is whether this can take place peacefully.


JOOST HILTERMANN is Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group.

Further Reading

Situation for the Iraqi Kurds: 

Kurdish role in the Iraqi Constitutional Drafting Process:

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