Dreams of independent Kurdish state remain elusive as ever
Resumption of control by Baghdad over Kirkuk bolsters Iraqi president's position
A member of Iraqi Shiite group Hashd al-Shaabi stands in front of a crossed-out flag of the Kurdistan region in Kirkuk. Photograph: Bareq al-Samarrai/EPA
Earlier this week, Iraqi troops seized the city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces which, in turn, had controlled it since June 2014 when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the advance of Islamic State forces.
The events in Kirkuk represent the most recent example of the restoration of Baghdad’s control over Iraqi territory following its successful expulsion of Islamic State from the major urban centres that had come under its control three years ago. More than this, however, the retaking of Kirkuk by the Iraqi government has important implications for Kurdish aspirations for independence and for the region more broadly.
The Kurdish quest for independence dates back at least to the end of the first World War and a period which saw the remaking of the modern Middle East at the hands of the then dominant European powers, particularly France and Britain. As the territories of the defeated Ottoman empire were being redistributed, many Kurds believed they would be granted their independence.
Kurdish leaders have always sought to control the town and its oil-rich hinterland and seized the opportunity to do so in 2014
The consolidation of the new republic of Turkey under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, together with British aspirations to maintain control over the oil-rich region around Mosul, led to the signing in 1923 of the treaty of Lausanne, which omitted any reference to a Kurdish state. Iraqi Kurds, who comprise 20 per cent of the population, have been in a state of rebellion against Baghdad ever since.
It was the intervention of the United States in Iraq that revived Kurdish hopes. Following the first Gulf War of 1991, the creation of a “safe haven” led to the emergence of a de facto Kurdish state in the northwest of Iraq. Following the US-led invasion of 2003, which overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein, and in which Kurdish fighters played a key role, an autonomous Kurdish region was recognised by the new government in Baghdad. Kirkuk lay outside the territory controlled by the Kurdish regional government (KRG).
However, Kurdish leaders have always sought to control the town and its oil-rich hinterland and seized the opportunity to do so in 2014. Since then the Kurds have been accused of forcing non-Kurds out of areas under their control. In 2016, Human Rights Watch accused the Kurds of uprooting the inhabitants of 20 towns and villages, ostensibly because they had been controlled by Islamic State. However, this, in turn, followed a policy of “Arabification” begun decades earlier by Saddam Hussein, which saw the expulsion of up to 200,000 Kurdish residents of northern Iraq and the subsequent farming of their land by Arab farmers and their families. In the process, the Kurds were removed from oil-rich areas.
The referendum achieved the unlikely feat of uniting virtually all regional and international actors in opposition to it
The defeat of Kurdish efforts to retain control over Kirkuk follows a controversial referendum on independence which was held on September 25th in the Kurdish autonomous region. More than 92 per cent of Kurds voted for independence. However, the referendum achieved the unlikely feat of uniting virtually all regional and international actors in opposition to it. The Kurdish leadership hoped that the vote would strengthen their hand in their dealings with Baghdad. Instead, they found themselves facing opposition from Turkey, Iran and Baghdad while the European Union denounced the referendum as counter-productive and the US withheld any support for their Kurdish allies in the war against Islamic State.
In addition to this and despite the near-unanimous vote in favour, Iraqi Kurds are far from united. The president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani and his ruling party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) have long been opposed by the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led until his death earlier this month by Jallal Talabani and now led by his son, Bafel.
That rivalry has often been played out in violent terms. Moreover, popular opinion in the Kurdish region is increasingly alienated from the KRG due to widespread corruption. These divisions are reflected in the fact that it is widely reported that forces associated with the PUK facilitated the entry of Iraqi state forces into Kirkuk.
The resumption of control by Baghdad over Kirkuk strengthens the position of Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, coming as it does after his government regained control over territory which had been lost to Islamic State.
It will also be welcomed by the Turkish government, whose policy in the region is driven by an abiding concern to ensure that Kurdish aspirations for statehood are kept in check. Above all, it constitutes a serious blow to Kurdish hopes of consolidating control over territory seized in 2014. The referendum was intended to strengthen Kurdish claims to that territory. Instead, riven with internal rivalry and faced by powerful regional opponents, the Kurds’ long-denied goal of independent statehood remains as elusive as ever.
Vincent Durac is assistant professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD