An Independent Kurdistan Would Begin With a Clash
Looming referendum risks igniting border flashpoints
Iraqi Kurdistan’s upcoming independence referendum on Sept. 25, 2017 will determine, among other things, the borders of an emerging Kurdish state in that region. With this determination would likely come border conflicts for an independent state squeezed between several volatile flashpoints.
Presently, the borders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region are not clear-cut. Baghdad and Erbil both lay claim to “disputed territories.” Under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, a referendum should conclusively resolve the status of these territories. Yet Iraq never implemented this article and has stalled on doing so for a decade.
Now Erbil says the referendum will allow inhabitants of these territories — including the Yezidi homeland of Sinjar and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — to decide the future status of their homelands.
“Whatever the people of Kirkuk decide within the referendum, that decision should be respected,” Kurdish Pres. Masoud Barzani told Reuters.
Kirkuk is a city of vast importance to Kurdish nationalists and one which will prove essential, due to its strategic location and vast resources, to the success of a Kurdish state. Saddam Hussein subjected Kirkuk to a program of Arabization, ethnically cleansing the region’s Kurds in a bid to firmly assert his control over it.
One source of instability near Kirkuk is the city of Hawija, which remains occupied by Islamic State. Peshmerga commander Kemal Kirkuki did not mince words when he described the perennial threats emanating from Hawija.
“You know ISIS did not come from the sky,” Kemal said. “They are Sunnis, many who attack our front are from Hawija. They worked for Saddam Hussein in the past, then for Al Qaeda and now they work for ISIS. If tomorrow another gruesome group comes to the region they will work for them too.”
Other Peshmerga commanders in Kirkuk fear that the Shiite-majority Hashd Al Shaabi paramilitaries are building up their forces south of Kirkuk to fight the Kurds there once Islamic State is gone.
Other areas, such as Sinjar in Nineveh province and the ethnically-mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu, situated 55 miles south of Kirkuk, would give a Kurdish state strategic depth against potential threats to its major cities.
“These areas were liberated by the blood of 11,500 martyrs and wounded from the Peshmerga,” Barzani said, referring to parts of Nineveh his forces captured from Islamic State. “It is not possible after all these sacrifices to return them to direct federal control.”
More Kurdish blood may indeed spill to protect these regions from a variety of threats.
“A Kurdish state will definitely face security threats,” Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, told War Is Boring. “One of the things that the Islamic State played upon in northern Iraq is Arab resentment against Kurdish expansion into the disputed territories.”
“This is something that Iraqi politicians like [former prime minister] Nouri Al Maliki have played upon as well. ISIS can continue to play that card into the future in places like Tuz Khurmatu, the Khanaqin district, and especially Kirkuk,” he added.
Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, dubbed Tuz Khurmatu “a very specific environment” where “we do not have to guess what the future looks like — we’ve seen the future take shape since 2015, which is that every few years you get a major clash.”
Peshmerga soldiers assume a wedge formation with Italian advisers during an exercise. U.S. Army photo
In April 2016, local clashes between Turkmen and Kurds in Tuz Khurmatu saw the Peshmerga rush in tanks from the north to reinforce the local Kurds, and the Hashd Al Shaabi reinforce the town’s majority Shiite Turkmen population from the south.
Only meditation between the two sides prevented these local clashes from rapidly escalating into a full-blown confrontation.
Despite these “political deals” Wing said, “the resentment is still there.”
Hashd Al Shaabi, he explained, “have publicly stated that they are against Kurdish independence and the Kurds annexing the disputed areas.”
“The Hashd moving into the Sinjar district has also been a sore point for [Barzani’s] Kurdistan Democratic Party,” Wing added. “The Kurds are also not backing down from this potential issue as Kurdish papers have negative stories about the Hashd all the time in Tuz, and Kurdish officials constantly attack the Hashd for being in Sinjar.”
Hashd paramilitaries advanced into parts of Sinjar in May 2017 to clear out some residual Islamic State fighters. They have since taken control of these areas, much to the consternation of Erbil.
Knights believes that Tuz Khurmatu will prove a major exception, rather than a general rule, when it comes to the volatility of a Kurdish state’s national frontiers.
“Everywhere else is less explosive than Tuz,” he told War Is Boring. “Even Kirkuk is not an open confrontation environment, the real risk there is tit-for-tat assassinations and riots.”
“Bits of Jalawla, Saadiyah and Lower Sinjar are places the Peshmerga would ideally return to, but in all likelihood they are lost if the federal government and Hashd garrison them sufficiently,” he elaborated.
In conclusion, Knights anticipates “major clashes in Tuz” alongside “occasional flash points between Taza Khurmatu and Saadiyah, and negotiations over southern Sinjar.”
“I don’t see major clashes in most places.”