Kurds, Arabs and Turks
The United States left many problems behind when it withdrew from Iraq. Leaving the disputed territory of Kirkuk to Iraqis was especially problematic. Since the withdrawal, the country has been facing serious challenges.
The regional balance disrupted by the Arab spring, on the one hand, and the pressure of potential domestic problems, on the other, have brought the central government and Kurds to the brink of a serious conflict.
If the crisis between the Nouri al-Maliki administration and Kurds is not successfully managed, Iraq could easily fall victim to a bloody civil war like neighboring Syria. Although the tension is generally considered to be between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad, the situation is more complicated than it seems.
With its natural resources, geopolitical significance, history, psychological aspects and ethnic/sectarian diversity of its inhabitants, Kirkuk, the central site of the dispute, is likely to trigger a bloody civil war with unclear boundaries and sides.
Interestingly, Kirkuk not only has the capacity to trigger the ethnic divide, but could also unite Shiite and Sunni Arabs against Kurds. The Kirkuk problem will also provide KRG leader Masoud Barzani and al-Maliki with the necessary pretext to maintain their authoritarian behavior. Both leaders will easily suspend freedoms by using the “permanent war” argument. Moreover, the Kirkuk problem as a “national” issue will affect not only Iraq, but also the relations between the Arabs of the whole region. This will show which group is more dominant in the competition for asserting ethnic and sectarian identities.
Finally, such a conflict will lead to a new and very long proxy war in the region. Whereas the internal actors of this proxy war will be Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs – either Sunni or Shiite – the interested external actors will be Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Iran knows what it wants. Therefore, it is likely to be the ultimate beneficiary of such a war, mainly because it will have more influence in Iraq and prepare the ground for the making of an authoritarian regime out of the U.S.’s success story in Kurdistan. It will also be able to spread the fire in Syria to the whole region.
It will be no surprise if Turkey ends up being the most confused actor in such a scenario in which Kurds and Turkmens, half of them Shiite, will be facing Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. On the other hand, the chronic security problem in Kurdistan will have two important outcomes: First, selling oil through Turkey will remain a dream for a long time to come, because no one will want to invest in an unstable region. Second, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will become more active and politically and logistically more powerful as Barzani will hide behind the pretext of war to justify his inactivity in the face of the PKK.