The Kurds in Iraq: Is their pursuit of autonomy a cause of conflict?

by Patrick Truffer. He has been working in the Swiss Army for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

The history of the Kurds can be traced back some two thousand years to various nomadic tribes in the region. However, a common identity has emerged only in the past 100 years. In addition to a common language (with the different dialect groups of Kurmanji, Sorani and Palewani), culture, and religion, this identity was formed in response to oppression by other dominant ethnic groups (Alireza Nader et al., “Regional Implications of an Independent Kurdistan“, RAND Corporation, 2016). The Kurds in Iraq were particularly oppressed under Saddam Hussein, which reached the level of genocide with the al-Anfal campaign between 1986 and 1989. This forced a wedge between the Kurds and the Arabs which in turn led to an intensification of the Iraqi Kurds’ struggle for independence. The flight of the Iraqi Army from the fighters of the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS), which had conquered Mosul in June 2014 and then came within 30 km of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, did little to help build trust between the Kurds and Arab Iraqis. After successfully fighting off IS in Iraq, the Kurds present the bill: On September 25, 2017, there will be a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan and the adjoining disputed territories. An overwhelming vote in favor is expected, while the reactions of the central government in Baghdad and of neighboring states remains uncertain. So what could happen after this vote? Will this perhaps lay the groundwork for further armed conflicts, perhaps even an ethnic civil war?

The roots of Kurdish nationalism
The small Iranian city of Mahabad became an intellectual hotspot of Kurdish nationalism in the first half of the 20th century, which is also indirectly connected with the pursuit of autonomy by today’s Iraqi Kurds. With the Soviet occupation of Northern Iran from 1941, an autonomous Kurdish region was formed in the northwest of Iran, which declared independence as the “Republic of Mahabad” in January 1946 (Hashem Ahmadzadeh and Gareth Stansfield, “The Political, Cultural, and Military Re-Awakening of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iran“, The Middle East Journal 64, no. 1, 2010: 11, 14f). The republic was short-lived: With the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the resurgence of the Iranian central government, Kurdish autonomy efforts in Iran were violently suppressed at the end of 1946, but this short period of independence left a decisive impression on the Kurds of Iraq.

[…] the Republic of Mahabad was the critical moment at which the Kurds realized their freedom is arguably a rosy version of reality. — McDowall, 246.

Among the Iraqi Kurds involved was Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of the current President of Kurdistan Regional Government and long-standing Chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Barzani was one of the Kurdish leaders who had fled to Mahabad with about 1,000 fighters after a failed rebellion in Iraq in October 1945. As one of the four Marshalls of the Mahabad forces, Barzani actively worked to preserve the republic’s independence (David McDowall, “A Modern History of the Kurds“, 3rd ed., I.B.Tauris, 2004, 241). He also founded the KDP in Mahabad in August 1946. The party is now the strongest faction in the single-chamber Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament.

After the Mahabad Republic was crushed by the Iranian Army, Mustafa Barzani fled to Iraq and then to the Soviet Union. In spite of this setback, he remained unswervingly dedicated to Kurdish independence, but turned his focus to the Kurds of Iraq.

The battle for autonomy in Iraq
Mustafa Barzani chalked up one short-lived success when Abd al-Karim Qasim — Iraqi Prime Minister after the 1958 coup d’état — called him back from Soviet exile. Under Mustafa Barzani’s leadership, the Iraqi Kurds were asked to solidify Qasim’s power. In return, the equality of Arabs and Kurds was included in the provisional constitution of the new Iraqi Republic. However, relations between the Kurds and Baghdad quickly deteriorated. The state’s concessions were not enough for the Kurdish nationalists and Qasim was not ready to give the Kurds regional autonomy. To the contrary, driven by paranoia against both Kurdish nationalism and the Pan-Arab movement, Qasim tried to take advantage of tensions among the various Kurdish groups as well as those between Kurdish and Pan-Arab nationalists. This led to the First Iraqi-Kurdish War between 1961 and 1970.

Not only was the failure of the Kurds to gain autonomy one of several causes of conflict between the Kurds and the Arab central government, it also led to tensions within the Kurdish ranks. Barzani was finally able to assert the idea of ​​comprehensive autonomy rights and fight off the poorly equipped government troops. The arbitrary bombing of Kurdish cities by the Iraqi Air Force helped further unite the Iraqi Kurds’ cause and the poor economic situation provided enough unemployed young men ready to fight. Due to the weak central government, the Kurds were able to hold their own until 1970. Finally, the war was ended with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement, which assured the Kurds’ right to political co-determination and comprehensive autonomy rights. Saddam Hussein, who would later become Iraqi president, was the central government’s lead negotiator. The Kurds were able to assert their demands largely because stability and consolidation of power was the government’s primary project at that time (McDowall, 2004, 301-28).

The First Iraqi-Kurdish War  was ended with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement. (Left: Mulla Mustafa Barzani; right: Saddam Hussein).

The First Iraqi-Kurdish War was ended with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement. (Left: Mulla Mustafa Barzani; right: Saddam Hussein).

Oppression and the shaping of the Iraqi Kurd identity
The Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement lasted only four years. There were both political and economic reasons for its collapse and the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War that followed. The centralization of power and the Pan-Arab ideology of the Ba’ath Party were diametrically opposed to any attempts at autonomy. Moreover, the dispute over the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk escalated and the expulsion of 50,000 Kurds of Iranian origin constituted an unacceptable interference in inter-Kurdish affairs (McDowall, 2004, 330-36). In contrast to the First Iraqi-Kurdish War, Mustafa Barzani had miscalculated. The Kurds were both qualitatively and quantitatively confronted with the military superiority of Iraqi forces. At the same time, because Tehran and Baghdad had settled their territorial difference, Iran withdrew its support for the Iraqi Kurds. Under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani, the Peshmerga were decisively defeated by the Iraqi forces in mid-1975 and either forced to flee to Iran or surrender. The Iraqi central government then launched an Arabization campaign, particularly in the Kirkuk region in order to secure its long-term access to the oil fields (George S. Harris, “Ethnic Conflict and the Kurds“, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 433, no. 1, 1977: 121).

We have fought ten years for autonomy, we’ll fight another five for Kirkuk if necessary. — Mulla Mustafa Barzani in 1971, quoted in McDowall, 330.

It was only with the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq War in September 1980 that the Peshmerga again benefited from Iranian support. They reconstituted themselves in northern Iraq under Massoud Barzani as well as Jalal Talabani, founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and, much later, President of Iraq. This resulted in the 1986-1989 al-Anfal campaign in which the Iraqi Army used poison gas against 40 Kurdish villages between February and September 1988. This included the devastating poisoning of the Kurdish city of Halabja, an important center of the Kurdish resistance in the autonomy protests against the central government in Baghdad. This resulted in about 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries (Human Rights Watch, “Known Chemical Attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan, 1987-1988“, Genocide in Iraq – the Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, July 1993). The deportations, executions, and poison gas attacks within the framework of the al-Anfal campaign almost led to a collapse of the Kurdish forces. The Kurds then started to use guerrilla tactics, attacked the Iraqi forces and strategically important installations, but were unable to achieve any territorial gains (Michael G. Lortz, “Willing to Face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces – the Peshmerga – From the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq”, Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations, Paper 1038, The Florida State University, 2005, 54-58).

The Kurds were only able to secure themselves territory during the course of the 1990 Gulf War and the US-imposed no-flight zone in Northern Iraq. Nevertheless, this difficult period had contributed greatly to the formation of a Kurdish identity, created solidarity, and pushed the drive for independence forward (Nader et al., 2016, 18f).

Securing territorial autonomy: The Iraqi Kurdistan Region
After the 1990 Gulf War, the Kurds were able to secure territorial autonomy with the help of the United States. They were able to expand this territory significantly with the complete collapse of the central government starting in 2003. Together with US forces, the Kurds took control of neighboring cities in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk and the surrounding region. This region remains in dispute to this day, because a referendum that had been scheduled for 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk belonged to the Kurds was never held by the central government. The flight of the Iraqi forces from the IS in June 2014 and the assumption of control over the region by Kurdish forces ultimately led the Baghdad government to recognize the facts on the ground. Simultaneously with the recovery of Iraq’s sovereignty and the political boycott of the Sunnis, Kurdish politicians secured important roles in the central government. In the long term, however, this will not prevent Kurdistan’s secession, since with the end of the Sunni boycott, the influence of the Kurds within the central government has been significantly reduced (Nader et al., 2016, 22f).

Post-2003 Iraq and the Disputed Territories.

Post-2003 Iraq and the Disputed Territories.

In addition to whether the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk belong to the Kurds, further relevant, yet unresolved issues include the rights of the Kurds to manage oil production on their territory and the amount of government revenue allocated to Iraqi Kurdistan. These disputes have often led to armed conflicts between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi armed forces. For example, in August 2008, government troops pushed into the disputed town of Diyala and tried to expel the Kurdish forces. It was only US intervention that prevented armed conflict (Nader et al., 34). There were similarly high tensions in 2012 and 2014.

It was only with the joint struggle against the IS and with the replacement of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Haidar Abadi that these clashes took a back seat (Nader et al., 2016, 35f). However, in view of the territorial, political, and economic tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, Iraq’s internal stability is far from certain. The date of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum comes not surprisingly after the successful ouster of the IS from the Kurdish area of influence, while Iraqi forces are still tied down in areas of conflict and the Peshmerga still rearming and training themselves.

Kurdish independence as a matter of time
Statistical investigations of ethnic civil wars indicate that current framework of the Iraqi state is wobbly at best. If states have autonomous territories after the end of ethnic civil wars, there is a high probability (>70%) that a new ethnic civil war will break out. This is often due to the fact that a re-established central government is again calling into question the autonomy rights of ethnic groups that it had previously negotiated in times of weakness. Another reason lies in the desire of ethnic groups to expand their autonomy rights at the expense of the central state’s integrity. Autonomous regions in conflict-stricken countries represent instability which will either move towards greater integration into a centralized state or to the independence of the autonomous region (Patrick Truffer, “Multicultural Failure? Peacebuilding after Ethnic Civil War“, Masters Thesis, Freie Universität Berlin, 2017).

The principal argument for Iraqi unity is that a single Iraq is better able to protect its citizens. But this claim is not supported by experience. When the Islamic State attacked Kurdistan in 2014 – using advanced U.S. weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul – the Iraqi government refused to give Kurdistan its constitutionally mandated share of the federal budget or to provide our soldiers with weapons. — Masoud Barzani, “The Time Has Come for Iraqi Kurdistan to Make Its Choice on Independence“, Washington Post, 28.06.2017.

If the history of the Iraqi Kurds teaches one thing, it is that they cannot rely on the goodwill of an Arab-majority central government: The Kurds have to ensure their own security. Massoud Barzani’s announcement in early June of the referendum scheduled for September 25 was no surprise. The question of the independence of Kurdistan has never really been abandoned even after the end of the Iraq War. In a non-binding referendum, 98.8% of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan and the disputed areas voted for independence in 2005 (Kurdistan Referendum Movement – International Committee, “98 Percent of the People of South Kurdistan Vote for Independence“, KurdishMedia, 08.02.2005). The referendum announced by Barzani was supposed to have been held in 2014, but was put on hold at the time to focus on the fight against IS (Roy Gutman, “Kurds Agree to Postpone Independence Referendum“, The Toronto Star, 05.09.2014).

If the referendum is actually held, an overwhelming majority of votes in favor of independence is expected. According to Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, a former Foreign Minister and Finance Minister in the Iraqi central government, and an uncle to Massoud Barzani, this would not automatically result in a declaration of independence. Rather, a positive outcome of the referendum would strengthen the negotiating position of the autonomous Kurdish government vis-à-vis Baghdad. In particular, under current Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, who, contrary to his predecessor, is interested in equal cooperation with the Kurds, there is perhaps some room for compromise on the points of dispute. Subsequently, a long-term process of separation negotiated with the central government would be likely (Steven A. Cook, “Are Conditions Ripening for Iraqi Kurdish State?“, Council on Foreign Relations, 05.01.2017). This approach was even suggested by Barzani himself in a commentary in the Washington Post. The independence of Kurdistan is to be negotiated with Baghdad and agreed to with neighboring states and the international community:

While the results of the referendum will bind future Kurdistan governments, the timing and modalities of our independence will be subject to negotiation with Baghdad and consultation with our neighbors and the wider international community. — Masoud Barzani, “The Time Has Come for Iraqi Kurdistan to Make Its Choice on Independence“, Washington Post, 28.06.2017.

The reaction of Baghdad and neighboring countries to a successful referendum
The action taken by the autonomous Kurdish government after a successful referendum is crucial for Baghdad’s and its neighbors’ decision how to react. An immediate, unilateral declaration of independence with the inclusion of the disputed areas around Kirkuk would lead to a harsh, negative reaction by Baghdad and the cessation of all payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government. This financial loss cannot be compensated for by Kurdish oil production, especially given the low price of oil. The Kurdistan Regional Government was barely able to cope with previous adjustments and reductions in payments as happened in 2015 (Mohammed A. Salih, “KRG Seeks $5 Billion Lifeline“, Al-Monitor, 23.06.2015; Patrick Osgood, “In Payment Drought, Oil Companies Pare KRG Investment“, Iraq Oil Report, 10.02.2015). However, Baghdad could not do anything with its regular armed forces. The closest would be the outbreak of armed conflicts between the Peshmerga and the Shia militia in the disputed areas, as already happened in 2016 (Ghazwan Hassan and Isabel Coles, “Kurds and Shi’ites Clash in Northern Iraq despite Ceasefire“, Reuters, 25.04.2016).

After a century of trying, it is time to recognize that the forced inclusion of the Kurds in Iraq has not worked for us or for the Iraqis. We ask that the United States and the international community respect the democratic decision of Kurdistan’s people. In the long run, both Iraq and Kurdistan will be better off. — Masoud Barzani, “The Time Has Come for Iraqi Kurdistan to Make Its Choice on Independence“, Washington Post, 28.06.2017.

Even internationally, the Kurdistan Regional Government can hardly count on much support for a unilateral declaration of independence. Such an approach would be perceived by Iraq’s neighbors and the wider international community as being hasty, ill-considered, and even irresponsible and leading to further instability in the region. The reaction will be quite different in the case of a negotiated separation. Turkey could treat an independent stable Kurdistan, which prevents the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to use the territory as a safe haven [1], as a welcome buffer along its southeastern border against the continued instability in Iraq. Since 2007, Ankara has established good relations with Erbil. Turkey is currently the largest investor in the Iraqi Kurdistan. For this reason, an independent Kurdistan might seem lucrative to Turkey from an economic point of view, whether as source of oil or as a new export market (Cook, 2017) [2].

Iran also has political and economic interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, albeit less pronounced [3]. In addition, there are good relations between the Iranian central government and the PUK, not least because the Kurds have their thumbs on the leadership of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan in their region (Nader et al., 2016, 116ff). However, there is fear in the Iranian central government that an independent Kurdistan might inspire the Iranian Kurds to fight for their own autonomy or even independence. These concerns are probably largely unfounded, because the Iranian Kurds are very different from one region to another and Kurdish nationalism there is very weak. Nevertheless, with the independence of Kurdistan, Iran will most likely increase its current repressive regime against its own Kurds. The faster and more abrupt the independence, the more likely indirect, destabilizing measures would be taken against the Iraqi Kurds, such as the abolition of political and economic relations or even the clandestine support of the Shia militia in Iraq against Iraqi Kurds in the disputed areas (Alex Vatanka and Sarkawt Shamsulddin, “Forget ISIS: Shia Militias Are the Real Threat to Kurdistan“, The National Interest, 07.01.2015).

Peshmerga forces stand guard at a checkpoint in northern Iraq.

Peshmerga forces stand guard at a checkpoint in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum on September 25, 2017 will, in all probability, pass. However, this is not the goal itself, but only a starting point for longer-term negotiations on the terms for the separation of the Kurds from Iraq. Both the statements of Kurdish politicians, as well as political and economic considerations regarding the conduct of Baghdad, neighboring countries and the international community point to a long-term, negotiated independence of Kurdistan. Immediate, unilateral declaration of independence is rather unlikely.

The biggest obstacle to a long-term, negotiated independence is the brokering of an agreement on whether the Kirkuk region will be included. Should unilateral facts be created, which is actually the case in the course of the offensive of the IS, the flight of Iraqi forces and the assumption of the security of this territory by the Peshmerga, the escalation of violence in and around the disputed areas is probable. In this context, Kurdish autonomy efforts in Iraq could lay the foundation for new armed conflicts, or even an ethnic civil war.

The history of the Kurds clearly shows that increased efforts for autonomy carries the risk of new armed conflicts, but statistical investigations also show that the Kurds, with the current status quo and the re-emergence of the central government, might face the same fate in the long run.

[1] Since 2009, political parties that support the PKK have been banned in Iraqi Kurdistan, PKK politicians have been arrested and PKK agencies have been closed (Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s KRG Energy Partnership“, Foreign Policy, 29.01.2013).
[2] Turkey’s trade volume with Iraq amounted to about $12 billion in 2014, with $8 billion being traded with Iraqi Kurdistan alone (“Turkish Premier Vows ‘Any Necessary Means’ for Kurdish Security on Erbil Visit“, Rudaw, 21.11.2014).
[3] Iran’s trading volume with Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to about $6 billion in 2014 (“Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan Region Annual Trade Hits $6bn“, Islamic Republic News Agency, 25.02.2015.)

This entry was posted in English, Iraq, Patrick Truffer, Security Policy.

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