Just as the dust is slowly settling on a nine-month long campaign to drive the Islamic State (IS) out of Iraq, the troubled country is lurching toward another war. According to the latest reports, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have taken control of the main military airbase in the disputed city of Kirkuk in the north of the country. The airport and surrounding areas were until yesterday manned by Kurdish forces. The ISF have also taken control of a vital oil field. The move comes amid escalated tension between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil over a controversial Independence referendum. Ironically, both sides have been trained and equipped by the United States.
The referendum over Kurdish Independence from Iraq held on September 25th was unilaterally and extra legally called by the dominant party in Northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The referendum was held both in the official provinces in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, but more problematically also in disputed areas. These areas have historically been claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil. In any event, 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for Independence from Iraq. Baghdad responded by asking the KRG to annul the results, a demand which was immediately rejected.
Following the vote, nationalist fervor in Kurdish areas reached fever pitch, as Baghdad’s assertions over the illegal vote became more and more stern. The past week has seen volatile rallying by both sides over their respective flags. Baghdad also implemented measures designed to isolate the region, by banning all international flights in and out of Kurdistan, and calling for a halt in crude oil sales from the region. The looming clash will most likely be centered in the long-contested city of Kirkuk.
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which was ratified in 2005 following the US-led invasion of the country and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, mandates a three-step process for determining the status of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. Firstly, the area would have to be “normalized”, following which a census would be held. Post these steps, a referendum would be conducted to decide if citizens of Kirkuk and the adjacent areas would prefer to accede to Iraqi union under Baghdad or join the autonomous region of Kurdistan under Erbil. Due to political turbulence, sectarian conflict and economic troubles, this referendum has yet to materialize.
More recently, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized control of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil rich areas in 2014, following the collapse of the Iraqi Army during the initial phases of the IS assault. By capturing Kirkuk and the nearby oil fields, the Kurds prevented IS from controlling a major revenue source. The brutality of the caliphate, and prospective state failure forced Baghdad and Erbil to work together to rout out the Jihadist threat. Now that IS, has been driven out of Iraq, Baghdad desires a return to the pre-2014 status quo i.e. joint administration of the region. Erbil has thus far refused to surrender any of the gains made in 2014.
A Game of Dominoes
In the case of civil war breaking out between Baghdad and Erbil, the conflict would have major implications in a region already dealing with a resurgent Al Qaeda, a wounded IS and a severe refugee crisis. If fighting does break out, Turkey and Iran would both enter the fray. Both nations vigorously oppose any notion of a Kurdish nation state on their borders. Iran and Turkey also house sizeable numbers of Kurdish citizens, any conflict will escalate the chances of internal strife in their own domain. Moreover, Tehran holds considerable sway over the Shia majority government in Baghdad, and Iranian militias have been at the forefront of the fight against IS.
In this event, the Kurds will likely appeal for aid from their main ally, the US. In Washington, right wing think tanks have already started pushing the Trump administration to use the Kurds as a bulwark against the “Iranian backed government of Iraq.” If the Trump administration does heed Erbil’s call, then Washington’s position in the region will likely become even more entrenched. Kurdistan does not have an air force, and will have to rely on US airpower to repel any major advances by the Iraqi government. Such an expansion in US – Kurdish ties will most likely irk Ankara, and thereby push Turkey into a deeper alliance with Iran and Russia. Relations between Ankara and Washington are already frosty, following Turkey’s decision to suspend processing new visa applications from the US.
With regards to Kirkuk itself, recent history indicates that the Iraqi Security Forces will likely enter the city easily, but will eventually be bogged down by a likely urban insurgency. Bellicose statements and inflamed rhetoric by any of the involved parties, will likely reduce chances of compromise and peace and produce more victimization on all sides. The human cost of such a war will likely be huge, lessening the chances of democracy and instead leading to less security and more radicalization in the future.
Gautham Ashok holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London.