The collapse came quickly and unexpectedly.
For weeks on end, Kurdish politicians, soldiers and activists had appeared absolutely determined to fight for an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
Defying fierce opposition from the Iraqi government and the international community alike, the Kurdistan Regional Government on Sept. 25 organized a referendum on independence that received overwhelming support from Kurdish voters. Kurdish leaders refused to back down following the contentious vote, ignoring mounting threats and warnings from Baghdad to cancel its outcome.
But when Iraqi troops and fighters for the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia advanced on the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk last week, the Kurdish stance spectacularly collapsed. It took mere hours for the defense line of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters around the oil-rich city to break. The Kurds lost 40 percent of the areas that they had controlled since 2014 in a matter of days, Al-Monitor reports. On Tuesday, the Kurdish regional government froze the results of the referendum and called on the Iraqi government to agree to an immediate cease-fire.
As great as the Kurdish wish for self-determination may have been, political leaders in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region were just as divided on the “how” and “when” of it. Ultimately, the Kurdish bid for independence collapsed partly due to an egotistical lust for power and a conspiracy. In just seven days, the decades-old, even centuries-old, dream of independence turned into the stuff of nightmares.
Barzani’s last, desperate attempt
When Kurdish fighters liberated Sinjar from the self-described Islamic State two years ago, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani triumphantly appeared before the cameras and ceremoniously announced only the Kurdish flag would fly over the mountainous region from then on. In a plain sign of Barzani’s demise, Iraqi soldiers last week hoisted their red, white and black flag over the Yazidi town.
Barzani is facing fierce criticism over last month’s referendum, including from leaders of the Kurdish Patriotic Union Party (PUK). Critics argue that Barzani, who has been ruling without an official mandate for two years, mainly called the vote to strengthen his own political position. “It was his last, desperate attempt to win back his legitimacy,” a Kurdish politician told The Washington Post.
Gorran, another Kurdish opposition party, on Sunday called for Barzani to step down. “The Kurdistan presidency must be dissolved and a national salvation government be formed to overcome the current situation,” the party’s leadership said in a statement.
A growing divide
The September referendum has aggravated existing tensions among the Kurds, and those divisions appear to have played a role in the fall of Kirkuk.
Faced with the advancing Iraqi troops, some parts of the PUK agreed to withdraw and allow Iraqi soldiers to take important strategic points in and around Kirkuk. Following the capitulation, the general command of the Peshmerga slammed PUK officials for what it called a “major historic betrayal of Kurdistan.”
Turkey is concerned about Iran – and the PKK
The developments in Iraq’s Kurdish region are also a major concern for the Turkish government in Ankara.
Kurdish groups currently control a corridor in Syria and Iraq that extends from the Iranian border almost to the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government are afraid of an insurrection by the country’s own Kurdish minority, as well as the establishment of a hostile Kurdish state on their doorstep.
Therefore, the Turkish government has strongly supported the Iraqi government in Baghdad in its fight against Kurdish independence ― even prior to the referendum. In the days leading up to the vote, Turkey warned that the Kurdish government would “pay a price” for declaring independence.
Turkey’s strategy comes with risks, however. The presence of the Shiite, Iran-aligned Hashd al-Shaabi fighters in northern Iraq has caused a stir in Turkey ― and increased demands for a stronger Turkish military presence there.
The chaos and divisions among Kurds in northern Iraq could also be a fertile breeding ground for Kurdish militant groups like the PKK. The influence of the group, which Turkey classifies as a terrorist group, is growing among younger Kurds in Iraq, especially in areas where the PUK is strong, Al-Monitor notes.
The oil problem
About half of the oil Iraq exports annually comes from the oil fields in Kirkuk. The loss of control of the oil fields is a dramatic financial and political setback for the Kurds, but also presents new challenges for the Iraqi government and neighboring countries.
Up until now, oil traveled from Kirkuk through the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, across the Turkish border, to the harbor town of Ceyhan, Ömer Özkizilcic of the Middle East Foundation (Ortadoğu Vakfı) recently told HuffPost.
Iraq’s oil minister has warned the Kurds not to prevent the flow of oil through its territories, but the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil make direct oil transports between Kirkuk and Turkey a highly charged issue.
Baghdad could consider exporting its oil through Iran. But Turkey’s exclusion from the oil trade would be a political affront, and an economic blow, to Erdogan’s government.
The first signs of failure have already appeared. Last Thursday, only 196,000 barrels of oil flowed from the region around Kirkuk into Turkey instead of the usual 600,000. Several international firms that had made advance payments to the Kurdish government are now worried about their money, Bloomberg reports.
The Kurds are the losers in this conflict about profits and land. But that doesn’t automatically turn their opponents into victors.
This article was initially published on HuffPost Germany and has been translated into English.