August 5, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Kurds and the Iraq Crisis: Opportunities and Challenges

• Iraq’s Kurds have been the chief beneficiaries of the crisis caused by the Islamic State (IS)’s successful offensive, gaining additional territory, control over resources, and the potential for outright independence

• The Kurds have long sparred with Baghdad over their insistence on control of Kurdish oil reserves, and are a potent obstacle to the efforts of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to secure a third term as prime minister

• IS attempts to encroach on Kurdish-controlled territory open a new front for the regional and inter-communal crisis in Iraq, threatening Iraqi minorities, and complicating the US response.


Current Event and Effects

Before the Iraq crisis accelerated with the Islamic State (IS)’s capture of Mosul and other locations in June 2014, Iraq’s five million Kurds controlled a legally constituted autonomous region run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) encompassing Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Irbil provinces. The KRG has its own elected president, Masoud Barzani, and parliament, as well as its own security forces called the peshmerga. The Kurds have long sought to affiliate the oil-rich province of Kirkuk into the KRG-controlled region, and the folding of the central government’s US-trained Iraq Security Forces in northern Iraq gave the Kurds the opportunity to seize that territory.

The peshmerga’s capture of Kirkuk stirred latent Kurdish hopes for independence. It affords KRG control over the source of a quarter of Iraq’s total daily oil production and exports. The opening of a second pipeline to Turkey early in 2014 gives the Kurds the ability to export their oil through Turkey directly, rather than through the Baghdad-controlled national oil grid. In July, KRG exported several oil shipments to Turkey, which were carried by tanker to markets in Israel and the US. Baghdad sought unsuccessfully to block the sales, arguing that it is the exclusive marketer and exporter of all Iraqi oil. The independent oil revenues address a major financial challenge for KRG: as of January 2014, the central government had largely ceased remitting to the KRG its agreed 17% share of national oil revenues.

Apparently feeling confident the Kurds could control their economic future, President Barzani asked the KRG parliament in June to prepare a referendum on independence. It remains unclear whether it is a near-term possibility or part of a KRG effort to pressure the central government for greater autonomy and its share of the national oil wealth. Whether KRG follows through on its push for independence could depend on the reaction of its neighbors, particularly Turkey and Iran. Turkey had long been the staunchest regional opponent of Iraqi Kurdish independence, fearing that such an outcome would ignite Kurdish separatism inside Turkey itself. However, Turkey has in recent years become the largest investor in KRG and is far more amenable to Iraqi Kurdish independence than at any time previously. Iran, on the other hand, which also has a sizeable Kurdish population, demonstrated continued strong resistance to Iraqi Kurdish independence in July by closing its border with Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds at Odds with al-Maliki

 The dispute with Baghdad, primarily over oil revenues, led KRG to assert its opposition to a third term for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and Kurds are now emerging as key players in Iraq’s political arena. Parliament elected a new speaker, Salim al-Jabburi, a Sunni, and a new President, Fuad Masoum, in July. Masoum is a stalwart of one of the main Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The key post of Prime Minister is, by agreement, to be held by a Shi’a Muslim, but opposition to al-Maliki’s third term by Kurdish factions, the Sunni Muslim bloc, and several Shi’a parties appears likely to deny al-Maliki a third term. The constitution requires Iraq’s president to tap the candidate of the largest political bloc in the parliament as prime minister, with the opportunity to form a government within 30 days. Masoum’s constitutional role, coupled with Kurdish control of 62 out of the 328 seats in parliament, gives the Kurds significant influence over al-Maliki’s fate.

IS Clouds the KRG’s Future

Immediately after IS’s seizure of Mosul in June, Kurdish leaders spoke optimistically about the future of Iraq’s Kurds. Peshmerga positions have faced IS, but the extremist Sunni organization did not immediately seem to threaten any Kurdish units. That situation changed in early August with IS offensives in Iraq’s northeast, in the cities of Sinjar, Zumar, and Wana, and the battle to seize the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest. Peshmerga forces holding these locations fared poorly due to a lack of ammunition and reinforcements. However, KRG says it is planning a counter-offensive and will likely receive help from a US-KRG Joint Operations Center (JOC) in Irbil, established in July.  (Another US JOC and ISF was stood up in Baghdad.) Moreover, the Maliki government, in an unprecedented measure, sent combat air support to back Kurdish forces in pushing back the IS offensive.

The IS moves in Kurdish territory has complicated the Iraq crisis for the US, which maintains a “one Iraq” policy in which all assistance goes through the central government, and not separately to KRG. IS pressure on the KRG-controlled areas has triggered a request for US arms (tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and associated gear) to be sold to KRG separately, and not through Baghdad. The Obama Administration has neither ruled out nor supported the KRG request, to date. The IS offensive has also caused ethnic and religious minority populations, such as the Yazidis, to flee Sinjar and Zumar to avoid IS atrocities, exacerbating the refugee and displaced persons crisis in Iraq and further burdening Kurdish humanitarian relief capabilities.


KRG’s peshmerga is sufficiently cohesive and motivated to prevent further major IS gains in KRG-controlled territory. The Kurds are likely to benefit from substantial US assistance because the Obama Administration has far fewer reservations about helping them than it does about helping the sectarian al-Maliki regime. The US has a history of working with the Iraqi Kurds, dating back to the period after the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi Kurds are likely to side with anti-al-Maliki Shi’a factions, as well as moderate Sunnis, to select a new prime minister. However, even the replacement of al-Maliki would not necessarily resolve deep differences between Baghdad and KRG over its oil exports, control over Kirkuk, and related issues. The deteriorating strength of the central government and its forces will contribute to the gradual de-facto separation of KRG from Iraq, although it is likely the Kurds will step back from any formal declaration of independence for the indefinite future.

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