Another end to Kurdish independence dreams
How many times will Kurds revolt for independence, thinking that either Britain, France, or especially the United States will support them? How many more times will they fail to draw the lesson that they will eventually inevitably be abandoned?
The retaking of Kirkuk by the Iraqi army on Oct. 16 is a direct result of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani’s bid to secure independence from Iraq through a unilateral referendum on Sept. 25.
After U.S. President Donald Trump said on the same day that Washington was “not going to take sides” between the central Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and the Iraqi Kurdish forces, that was it. His statement implied that Barzani had gone too far, and keeping Iraq in one piece was strategically more important for the U.S. than diving into another “nation building” adventure after Afghanistan. Any attempt to do the latter would have meant confronting not only Turkey and Iran but also all Arab states, which would have speculated that the move was simply another U.S. conspiracy to divide them on behalf of Israel.
Kirkuk is not considered part of the KRG according to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. With its ethnic and religious diversity, the province of Kirkuk has long been a kind of “miniature” of Iraq – and even of the wider Middle East - despite Barzani’s motto that “Kirkuk is the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.”
In 2009 when then Turkish President Abdullah Gül visited Baghdad and met the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the latter proposed a “32-32-32” solution for a special status for Kirkuk. Accordingly, each of the city’s three main ethnic components - Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens - would have a 32 percent share in the city council, while the rest would be reserved for non-Muslim religious minorities.
Talabani always knew that a “secured autonomy” was the most that the Iraqi Kurds could get from the U.S. in return for their collaboration. Gül sympathized with the “32-32-32” formula, but after the Arab Spring and then the Syrian civil war broke out Talabani’s plan was forgotten.
Then, KRG President Barzani moved to seize Kirkuk on June 12, 2014, the day after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized Mosul, as the Iraqi army fled the city and the region. Barzani thought the U.S. would continue to stand by him because he and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) militia (peshmerga) – as well as the peshmerga of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani (who passed away on Oct. 3, 2017) - collaborated with the U.S. occupation forces in 2003 to bring down Saddam Hussein. Barzani also thought his campaign against ISIL in Iraq from 2013 would make him indispensable against the Baghdad government in the eyes of Washington. Meanwhile, a number of U.S. politicians and think tankers were encouraging Kurdish nationalism by saying that the U.S. “would not let them down this time,” in a hidden apology to former failures.
What’s more, “this time” the U.S. was also using another Kurdish nationalist group in the fight against ISIL in Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are the Syrian extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and they are effectively fighting as the U.S.’s ground forces against ISIL because the White House no longer wants U.S. soldiers to engage in the Middle East.
The PKK, which has headquarters in the Kandil Mountains neighboring Turkey and Iran, supposedly under Barzani’s control, has been fighting for over three decades against Turkey and Iran and is aksı designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the EU. The PKK is a political rival of Barzani’s KDP, but he calculated that when it comes to the question of an independent Kurdistan, the PKK would be with him. He was right, and the PKK was ready to mobilize its forces for Kirkuk and for an independent Kurdish state.
But after disapproving signals from the U.S., the peshmerga forces started to disintegrate, leaving Kirkuk to PKK militants. Baghdad was then quick to denounce the PKK presence in Kirkuk as an act of war by KRG forces and intervened to retake the city in one day.
Will this be a lesson for the PKK, which has a strategy to secure autonomy in Syria with the backing of the U.S. as a reward for its fight against ISIL?
Yes and no.
No, because it is deeply invested in this belief. It has acquired a lot of modern weapons from the U.S., despite an outcry from the Turkish government with legitimate concerns that those weapons could end up being used against its own citizens. If it is the same PKK that we have known for the last three decades, it will certainly not volunteer to simply hand back those weapons. And the Americans are not likely to bother once they have achieved the goal of crushing ISIL.
But on the other hand, the PKK has its own strategy and it is more dedicated to this strategy than the Americans are to their own. The PKK is smart enough to know that without Russian and Iranian involvement it is not possible to do anything on Syrian soil. After all, the PKK had its headquarters in Syria right up until 1998, when its leader Abdullah Öcalan was expelled by Damascus under Turkish pressure, with the help of Iran and Egypt. He was then arrested while leaving the Greek Embassy in Kenya the following year. History shows that the PKK can easily change sides from Washington to Moscow to Damascus in its bid to secure autonomy.
But for now all these are just assumptions. The reality is that following Trump’s statement yet another dream for Kurdish independence in Iraq is likely to have come to an end.