Comment: By Martin Belchev
ISIS’s military operation in Iraq is now well into its fourth year, and the successes of the militants from June 2014 when they captured key regional urban hubs such as Mosul and Fallujah seem impossible to repeat.
In fact, the previously unorganised and poorly disciplined Iraqi Army has not only emerged reformed, but it has also managed to push back the militants to Mosul.
Yet it is not the Iraqi army nor the Coalition’s involvement that has managed to spark the impetus for a push against ISIS. It is the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that in the yearly days of the conflict seemed to be the only military force able to stall ISIS’s advance. Even though, as 2014 statistics point out, around 35,000 Peshmerga were integrated within the Iraqi army’s command and control structure, the majority of Kurdish forces have remained under the direct control of President Barzani and the Kurdish Autonomous region. The looming defeat of ISIS in Iraq raises the question about the future of political settlement and the possibility of an independent Kurdistan.
Seeking to capitalize on the current situation, President Barzani has called for a referendum regarding the pursuit of further political independence from Baghdad. Barzani himself has defended the move, pointing out that the referendum seeks to accomplish further decentralisation of Iraq and has proposed that Iraq be split administratively in order to prevent a future eruption of sectarian violence.
In fact, Mr Barzani had pushed for a referendum as early as 2014, when the Peshmerga took control of territories formally under the control of the Iraqi military. Furthermore, the withholding of public funding from the central authorities had further convinced Kurdish leaders that a referendum may legitimize their goal of achieving greater political independence for the Kurds.
It can thus be easily seen how the Peshmerga’s military successes against the militants have served as a source of patriotic fervour amongst Kurdish policy-makers. The uncertain position of Assad’s regime, the counteroffensive against ISIS, the lack of cohesive opposition forces in Syria and the failure of the Iraqi government to create a strong coalition rendered Kurdish forces the West’s main ally on the ground.
The Peshmerga forces received significant contributions from NATO, with America providing $900 million in financial and material aid in the April of 2016. The failure of the Iraqi military to mount an effective resistance and press ISIS militants made the rationality behind the provision of aid for the Peshmerga even more convincing.
Yet, the referendum on the future of Kurdistan has been delayed several times, and recently the Shi’ite ruling coalition has criticized Mr. Barzani’s plan, arguing that such a move will further serve to exacerbate Iraq’s internal divisions. The previous delays in the conduction of the referendum are understandable. In 2014 for example, it was imperative that the Kurdish forces were able to consolidate their gains and further develop their capabilities in case they need to defend themselves. Later on, political uncertainty over the USA’s foreign policy goals, caused by changes in the administration, caused the Kurdish President to once more delay the referendum. Indeed, while the US has been a significant contributor to the Kurdish forces, US policy-makers have avoided committing to a position of support for the Kurdish State. At a meeting in April in Italy, the G7 group, including the US, univocally argued for the territorial integrity of Iraq thus casting doubt on the feasibility of an independent Kurdistan.
The question is whether Barzani’s objective was realistic to begin with, given the complex geopolitical situation. While the political vacuum left by the Iraqi Army and ISIS has indeed given impetus to the Kurds, external actors have undermined the usefulness of these gains. Turkish concern that an independent Kurdistan will initiate a conflict in its predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces have served to legitimize Mr. Erdogan’s foreign policy. What is more, Turkey’s claim that the YPG militia operating in Syria is a wing of the Kurdish Workers Party has further served to undermine Kurdish interests in the regions.
Commentators argue that Turkey’s incursion into Northern Syria has been aimed at reducing the fighting effectiveness of the YPG rather than ISIS. Finally, during the latest Turkish referendum, which saw the strengthening of Presidential executive power, the security concerns caused by PKK was one of the main arguments utilized by advocates of Mr. Erdogan. Ironically, Kurdish gains have been instrumental in convincing more conservative members of the Turkish public that such a constitutional reform was needed. President Erdogan, on the other hand, has not been reluctant to explicitly state his intentions of using his new executive competencies to finally resolve the separatist Kurdish movement in East Turkey.
On the other hand, America’s lack of appetite for Kurdish independence can be explained through its stance on Iraq and the way the administration sees the regime of Assad. In this regards, it is crucial to point out that the US government is eager to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, and administrative divisions of Iraq will strengthen the case put forward by the Shi’ite ruling coalition and lead to further sectarian violence. Furthermore, as the recent US strike on Sharyat Airbase shows, the Trump administration is eager to reassert itself as a key actor in the region. The Assad regime has dismissed the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, instead insisting that Syrian territorial integrity must be preserved. Finally, while the Russian Federation has initiated the provision of support for YPG forces and reached an agreement with the Kurdish Forces to operate from a base in Arfin, it has fallen short of declaring for Kurdish autonomy.
Finally, while Iran has recognised the role of the Kurdish forces in defeating Sunni militants and ISIS, and has repeatedly voiced its desire to maintain close relations with Kurdish leaders, it still opposes the idea of an independent Kurdistan. A crucial reason behind this stance is that a breakdown of Iraq and further uncertainty in the region can undermine Iran’s own political stability. In fact, the country has sought to rebrand itself as a part of the anti-terrorist coalition, alongside Russia and Syria. The latter has allowed for Iranian policy-makers to essentially exert considerable regional influence. A breakdown of Iraq might thus be seen as damaging to its ability to reshape the regional agenda.
In conclusion it can be said that the complexity of regional geopolitics is casting doubt on the ability of Kurdistan to achieve independence, and thus Barzani’s referendum is unlikely to deliver significant results. Turkey’s outright hostility to the idea, US unwillingness to provide political support for the project and the fact that the Iraqi army has managed to seize the initiative means that external support for Kurdish independence is currently insufficient. In this regard, Julie George points out that the presence of strong and influential external assistance is absolutely crucial for the success of separatist movements, and even though the US has been supportive of the Kurdish military efforts, it has refused to legitimize Barzani’s objectives. However, Russia’s recent steps in warming relations with the Kurds may prove to be a useful tool if Barzani is to try to negotiate further powers from the Iraqi Government, yet he must not forget that Russia is pursuing its own policy objectives in the region, which might not necessarily include independence for Kurdistan.