As an eight-month battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is coming to an end in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, a parallel battle to defeat its fighters in the Syrian town of Raqqa is gathering force. But further battles await: downstream along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zour, in the vast desert that spans the Iraq–Syria border, and in a large chunk of territory west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. To members of the US-led coalition and to Western audiences, this has been a necessary military campaign, directed at a jihadist group whose brutal methods and ambition to carry out attacks in western capitals pose an intolerable threat.
To local people, the picture is decidedly different. ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.
When ISIS conquered Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab areas three years ago, it faced off with Kurdish forces along a frontline that ran through the middle of what one might call the borderlands between Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital, and Kurdish Iraq, which is governed from Erbil in the north. Kurdish leaders claim that significant parts of these so-called disputed territories are “Kurdistani,” by which they mean that even if the local population is not majority-Kurdish, it nevertheless should be incorporated into the Kurdish region—and thus into a desired future Kurdish state. Many local Arabs, on the other hand, insist that these areas are inalienably Iraqi and must remain under Baghdad’s authority.
The problem of the disputed territories was recognized in the post-2003 Iraqi constitution, which laid out a plan for resolving their status. That never came to pass. Then, ISIS’s arrival provided Kurdish leaders with what they thought was an opportunity to settle the matter in their favor, having gained considerable territory in the fight against the jihadist group. But this has only inflamed tensions further.
Kurdish leaders rightly see ISIS as the result of an ideological marriage between Arab chauvinists and Islamist radicals, both equally intolerant of the ethnic and religious “other,” with the religious strand currently dominant. But many Kurds fail to appreciate that among Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq, ISIS also draws on anger over Kurdish actions in the disputed territories, especially around Mosul and in Kirkuk. With the central government weak, many of these local Arabs appear to accept the protection of just about any political group that will keep the Kurds away, even if that group is ISIS.
It is important to remember that ISIS began in Iraq and that the majority of its leadership and followers are Iraqi (even if it was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian); it has been able to attract foreign elements mainly because of its willingness to fight the Syrian regime and its pledge to establish a caliphate. ISIS’s military defeat may take care of the foreign component, but surviving Iraqi followers, deeply enmeshed in the local population through family and tribal ties, will pose a long-term challenge, including in the disputed territories.
These territories have a richly diverse population that, in addition to Arabs and Kurds, also includes Turkmen, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, and even smaller groups. The region also happens to be rich in oil. It stretches from the Iranian border in the south to the Syrian border in the north, skirting the Kurdish mountains. This used to be a strategic trade route, protected by garrison towns that Ottoman rulers settled with soldiers and artisans from Central Asia, who came to be referred to as Turkmen. At its center sit the province and city of Kirkuk. The regime of Saddam Hussein targeted these areas for demographic engineering: it forced or otherwise induced many local Kurds to move to the Kurdish region, and it settled Arabs from other parts of Iraq in Kirkuk and around the oil fields. The US invasion reversed this. The Kurdish parties and associated militias took control of large parts of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, and started providing incentives for displaced Kurds to return; they settled other Kurds in these areas as well, and drove out Arab residents brought by the previous regime. Ever since, there have been high tensions but a fragile peace. That may soon be ending.
Three recent events foreshadow the battle to come. The first was the announcement in early June by Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, that he intends to stage a referendum on Kurdish independence on September 25. This would not be the first such exercise; an earlier one took place twelve years ago. And just like that one, this referendum will have mainly symbolic value—the UN mission in Iraq has refused any part in it because it has no backing from the Iraqi government. But the announcement also had a dimension so inflammatory it could ignite civil war: Barzani made clear that the referendum should be held not just within the boundaries of the Kurdish region, but also in those parts of the disputed territories with Kurdish—but not exclusively Kurdish—populations currently under Kurdish militia control. In other words, this is an undisguised unilateral attempt to annex these areas to what he hopes will become an independent Kurdish state. As one of his advisors told me at the outset of the Mosul campaign last year, “War has its own logic, but we should try to shape it.”
The second event was the decision by Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, to make the Kurdish region’s flag an official symbol of the province. The Kurdish parties’ local headquarters had long hoisted the flag there; non-Kurds, who have come to grudgingly accept Kurdish domination, put up with it. But in March, the governor, a Kurd, decided to put a motion before the provincial council to permit the flag to be flown from government buildings alongside the Iraqi one. Since the Kurdish parties hold a majority on the council, a boycott by Arab and Turkmen council members amounted to little more than a token show of dissent. And so the flag was raised on several government buildings, and predictably angry protests broke out. Even some Kurdish politicians called it an unnecessary provocation.
Opponents argued that the flag incident showed Barzani’s intent to annex Kirkuk, and warned that this would start a civil war. Karim argued that flying the flag would appease Kurdish nationalists and prevent them from attempting to annex Kirkuk to the Kurdish region. However, the most persuasive analysis I heard was that Karim meant to precipitate a small crisis in order to get Baghdad to focus on the Kurds’ demands for independence. If this was his motive, he succeeded, but at the cost of greater turmoil in Kirkuk.
The third event was the push to the Iraq-Syria border by Iran-backed Shia militias, part of the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi (“Popular Mobilization”), in late May. The Hashd were established in 2014 to counter the ISIS onslaught in Iraq, but are in fact a reincarnation of irregular armed groups that first stepped into the security vacuum created when the US Coalition Provisional Authority dismantled the Iraqi army in 2003. Their purpose then was to protect Shia Islamist parties, which came to power soon after. The collapse of the Shia-dominated army in Mosul and elsewhere in June 2014 gave the militias renewed legitimacy: their task was now to protect the country from ISIS.
These militias’ arrival at the Syrian border, an area with no Shia population, was without precedent and appeared to be part of an effort inspired by Iran to connect the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields, intertwine the two countries’ political fates, and possibly create a continuous land route between Iran and Lebanon. Their military feat means that if Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods (“Jerusalem”) force, wanted to travel from Tehran to Beirut, he could now do so by car, driving through territory that, while not necessarily hospitable, is controlled by either Iranian proxies or allies, or by groups with which he could strike a tactical deal (all the while snapping selfies, as he often does).
The militias’ advance also means that these primarily Sunni Arab areas of Iraq are now controlled by forces that report to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which takes a dim view of Kurdish claims to Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Hashd commanders have expressed confidence that their presence in the disputed territories and their official status as state agents will ensure that these areas remain under Iraqi control. Already they have pushed back against the presence of Kurdish fighters in several places, occasionally deploying local Sunni fighters as their auxiliaries.
From conversations with scores of officials and civilians in Kirkuk and other disputed territories over the past fifteen years, I know that most local Arabs and Turkmen will never accept secession from Iraq under Kurdish rule. Many would prefer that Kirkuk become a stand-alone region whose population would benefit directly from its oil wealth rather than seeing revenues vanish into Baghdad’s or Erbil’s coffers—both capitals notorious for deeply-entrenched corruption.
Opponents of Barzani’s Kurdish referendum can be expected to respond in several ways between now and September: their political representatives will appeal to Iraq’s supreme court to declare the exercise illegal in the disputed territories, areas that remain formally under Baghdad’s jurisdiction; they will also ask the central government to try to prevent the referendum from taking place. If these efforts fail, many Arabs and Turkmen are likely to boycott the vote, and some may resort to violence. A local politician told me when I visited Kirkuk at the end of May, “We will never give Kirkuk to the Kurds, and will fight for it if we must.”
Despite the Kurds’ position of strength in the campaign against ISIS, they may find their aspirations for independence frustrated once again. The odds against success—both internal and external—remain formidable. Barzani may be the president of the Kurdish region, but he has twice overstayed his legal term and is seen by his Kurdish opponents as leader of only part of the region, namely that which is controlled by his Kurdistan Democratic Party. In Suleimaniya province, Barzani and his KDP have no traction; it is run jointly through an uneasy relationship between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (previously led by the former president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, now incapacitated), which holds military power, and a reform-minded group called Gorran that split off from the PUK and which has majority political support.
Unaffiliated activists agreed that Barzani is so unpopular in Suleimaniya that while many Kurds there support the notion of independence, they would reject it under Barzani’s leadership. Importantly, Shorsh Haji, a Gorran official, said that Barzani has to include Kirkuk in the referendum, lest he be seen as forfeiting the Kurds’ claim to it, but that practically he cannot include it because Baghdad won’t allow it. In the end, he said, the Kurds cannot impose a solution for Kirkuk and other disputed territories; the matter can be resolved only through negotiations with Baghdad.
Baghdad may currently be weak, but it has powerful allies that also want to prevent Kurdish independence. Iran is dead-set against it, and has already declared its opposition to the referendum. Turkey also opposes Kurdish independence but is content to let Iran undermine it through threats and intimidation, at which it has proven particularly adept in the past. Iran is also using Shia militias to force Sunni Arabs to seek shelter in Kirkuk, thereby affecting the ethnic balance. Both Iran (which supports the PUK) and Turkey (which backs the KDP) are experts at exploiting intra-Kurdish divisions, and will conspire against a drive for Kurdish independence that could only further incite their own Kurdish populations.
For all his provocation, Karim, the Kirkuk governor, is also on record as opposing, at least for now, Kirkuk’s accession to the Kurdish region. He told me that he supports a stand-alone region for an interim period, to be followed by a separate referendum that he expects will be favored, not only by Kurdish inhabitants, but also by considerable numbers of Arabs and Turkmen. The reason they would do so, he said, is that they would by then have seen the economic and security benefits of Kurdish rule. This is a questionable argument. Kirkuk has been under Kurdish rule almost since the US army supported it in 2003, and non-Kurds seem to feel that this situation does not benefit them. Security tends to be good for Kurdish residents; non-Kurds who criticize the Kurdish parties experience harassment and intimidation. Two Arab council members have been assassinated in the past four years—their political allies say by the Kurds; the Kurds say by ISIS. (The Kurdish parties, which are in charge of local government, security, intelligence, and the police, have yet to produce evidence pointing to the murderers.)
The complaints go further. To ensure compliance, the Kurdish parties in Kirkuk extend favors to non-Kurdish politicians; every transaction is quid pro quo, and the Kurds can set the terms. Longtime Arab residents of Kirkuk who own property and hold a public-sector job are subject to deportation from the province if they are found to have ID indicating they once resided elsewhere. They, and internally displaced persons, can prevent forced migration if they go to one of the Kurdish parties—not the local government—and declare their political loyalty (to be proven, say, at the time of the referendum) in exchange for a much-prized ID card allowing them to stay. None of this resembles the brutal tactics of the former regime, but Saddam’s enforcers also used these types of inducements in order to change Kirkuk’s demographic (for example by forcing Turkmen to declare themselves to be Arabs on their ID cards lest they be treated as Kurds) before they resorted to outright violence.
It might be fair to ask whether Arabs and Kurds can continue to live together within the same borders. The Kurds’ experience with gassing and mass killings by the Saddam regime in the 1980s and Baghdad’s democratic failings since 2003 have convinced many that it is. This is true especially for the Barzani wing of the Kurdish national movement and was best expressed to me last September by Barzani’s nephew, Sirwan Barzani, who has been commander of Kurdish forces south of Mosul: “We need to partition this country. What’s the benefit of this famous union of Iraq? There hasn’t been a single day in the last hundred years when civilians weren’t killed. It’s a bad marriage….The boundaries of the Kurdish region are very clear. After we have our independence referendum, those who don’t want to stay here can go to [the side of] the terrorists.”
Already there have been instances of the Kurds themselves uprooting local populations to consolidate their power. In their battles against ISIS, Kurdish forces have destroyed Arab villages in order to ensure the local population, displaced elsewhere in Iraq, will not soon hazard a return. (See reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.) The small Arab town of Multaqa in Kirkuk province was leveled in March 2015 by a Kurdish force led by a zealous commander, ostensibly out of military necessity in the fight against ISIS. The fighting is over, but its residents have not been permitted to return because of the town’s proximity to the frontline; it is also situated near the main Kirkuk oil field, however, which the Kurds control and claim as part of Kurdistan.
One can see why Kurdish leaders would want to keep potentially hostile Arabs away from a strategic asset such as oil, especially since they tend to view Arabs as potential ISIS sympathizers. Yet a population has been forcibly removed from its lands. Can one expect them to relinquish their legitimate claims to their property, or not to seek revenge when political fortunes turn?
To prevent such a retributive cycle, a new Kurdish policy is needed. But this will require the leadership to understand the problem of Arab radicalism somewhat differently. Kurdish leaders’ analysis of ISIS contains a fundamental flaw. They correctly see the group as essentially Iraqi, contrary to much Western thinking, which gives outsize emphasis to the foreign fighters in its ranks. As Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani put it to me, “What is Daesh? Daesh is the result of wrong policies.” To him, Iraq offers an abject lesson of how losers can become dangerous if the victors fail to treat them with respect and dignity. “As a result,” he said, “Daesh was established in this country. It is an Iraqi organization.” But the Kurds fail to see how their own actions have also led some in the local Arab population to support ISIS.
A better approach would be for Kurdish leaders to relinquish areas outside the Kurdish region they have taken from ISIS and start negotiations with Baghdad, with the UN’s help, over the disputed territories on a district-by-district basis (an effort the UN tried to initiate nine years ago). The negotiations should include the all-important question of oil: who owns it, who obtains the revenues. These are complicated matters, but not unresolvable. The Kurds have the advantage, and they can use their allies in Washington and other western capitals to ensure that negotiations take place and produce a compromise that secures their core interests. Finally, President Masoud Barzani should postpone the independence referendum until these matters are settled, or at least until he has managed to resolve the Kurds’ own internal discord.
The Trump administration has demonstrated scant interest in what happens in Iraq and Syria after ISIS has been defeated on the battlefield. The US administration reportedly told Kurdish leaders earlier this year that it opposes holding the referendum at this time, in view of the continuing fight against ISIS and Iraqi elections next year. But Barzani’s determination to go forward, and the growing tensions among local populations in Kirkuk, around Mosul, and in other parts of the disputed territories won’t go away. Consider the words of Lt.-General Vincent Stewart, head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency who discussed the question of Kurdish independence during a Senate testimony in May:
Resolving the Kirkuk oil field, the revenues associated with the oil fields, resolving the ownership of the city of Kirkuk will be significant political challenges for the Iraqi government. Failure to address those challenges, coming up with a political solution, will ultimately result in conflict among all of the parties to resolve this and going back to what could devolve into civil strife in Iraq….Kurdish independence is on a trajectory where it is probably not if but when. And it will complicate the situation unless there’s an agreement in Baghdad, an agreement that all of the parties can live with.
The Kurds don’t need to stage a referendum to confirm what they already know: that they wish to have their own country. Far more urgent is to settle with Baghdad the unavoidable question of what the boundary will be between the Kurdish entity—whatever its formal status—and the rest of Iraq, and how the natural resources in the disputed territories should be shared or divided. By pressing for a referendum at all costs before reaching an agreement with Baghdad, the Kurds risk losing their current territorial gains—and their position of strength. For they may be challenged not only by a resurgent ISIS, whose remnants have already disappeared into the population and remain a potent force, feeding on deep Arab resentment over Kurdish land and oil grabs, but also by a central government that enjoys the support of neighboring states on the Kurdish question and is emboldened by its forces’ victory in Mosul.
Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East & North Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group and the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja. (April, 2017)