Iraq's Kurds missed an historic opportunity for success

Iraq's Kurds missed an historic opportunity for success
Comment: Iraq’s Kurds overestimated the effectiveness of the Peshmerga, and missed an historic opportunity to protect their interests from Iran by allying with the Sunni Arabs, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
6 min read
20 Oct, 2017
'The Kurds could have formed a strong alliance with one of Iraq's largest communities' [AFP]
Much of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and its supporters are still reeling from the collapse of the Peshmerga in Kirkuk on Monday. 

Not only did the Kurdistan Regional Government under President Masoud Barzani fail to keep the Peshmerga as a fighting unit together and under a unified command structure loyal to the would-be independent government, but it also failed to hold onto any of the territories that it had gained after the Iraqi army's implosion in the face of the Islamic State group's onslaught in 2014.

With the Kurds now pushed back to their pre-2014 positions, and a triumphant Iraqi government stamping its Iranian-backed authority across most of the country, it is time for the Kurds to reflect on what they could have done better.

In a country as unstable as Iraq, it is likely that the Kurds' time will come again, though it will be in their interests to learn from the catastrophe they have endured over the past week, which led to the reversal of their gains.

This will require some soul-searching, and acknowledgment of the systemic flaws in the idea of an independent Kurdish state that exists in only one geographic area of the claimed "Kurdish homeland".

The myth of Kurdish military effectiveness

One of the first flaws that the Kurds will have to address is the myth that they are highly capable military operators.

Western media outlets and pundits have been busy lauding Kurdish military effectiveness since IS burst onto the scene, with American generals praising Kurds in Iraq and Syria as some of the most effective fighting forces on the ground against IS extremists.

When push came to shove against the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga simply melted away

This has served to not only exaggerate the efficacy of the Peshmerga and other Kurdish units in the eyes of their competitors, but it has also led to an over-inflated sense of self-confidence in the Kurds themselves.

The Kurds had taken tangible steps to acquiring their long-held aspiration of a state, including capturing Kirkuk with extensive US support after the Iraqi military dropped their arms and fled IS. Exuberant with having finally taken "the Kurdish Jerusalem", they mistook these steps as the final hurdle before true statehood.

Read more: Abadi's capture of Kirkuk might just save Iraq

They could not have been more wrong.

While they certainly held their ground – and even took ground – against IS, the pivotal role that US airpower played in those successes has been downplayed by the Kurds themselves, as well as the Pentagon, who were keen on supporting the image of a powerful and effective Peshmerga.

When push came to shove against the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga simply melted away. 

In the early days of the assault on Mosul last year, I recall talking to policymakers in London who were bemused by Kurdish insistence that they were not receiving enough close air support from the US-led coalition. As one person told me: "What do they expect us to do? Flatten the entire area so they can casually walk across it without a fight and claim they defeated IS?"

To be fair, and considering the way the battle for Mosul was fought and the mass destruction of the city, that was probably exactly what the Peshmerga - and the Iraqi army who they were allied with at the time - expected from the coalition.

However, overwhelming coalition airpower unleashed on a small terrorist force holed up in a city does not mean the Peshmerga effectively engaged, fought and defeated IS, no matter what slogans Kurdish analysts may tell us about the Kurds fighting IS "on behalf of the free world".

There can now be no doubt that part of the reason the Peshmerga were so quickly defeated, is because its ranks were split between Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and its rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who abandoned their posts following a deal the PUK made with Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Qassem Soleimani.

This illustrates that the Peshmerga is vulnerable to partisan divides, making it not fit for purpose when it comes to protecting a nation state, as the Kurds desire.

The Sunni Arab factor

The Kurds also missed an opportunity to make a strong alliance with one of Iraq's largest communities, also victims of Iranian meddling. The Sunni Arabs, who have faced more than a decade of marginalisation, disenfranchisement and violence under the new regime installed by the United States in 2003 and blessed by Iran, would have been natural allies to the Kurds in the modern Iraqi climate.

While most Sunni Arabs do not support Kurdish secessionism, they share bonds of religion and even often kinship, with many Arab and Kurdish families intermarrying.

The Kurds' overconfidence led to them to underestimate the level of support that they would need from regional backers

While Iraq belongs to all Iraqis whatever their ethnicity, the KRG must also be praised for taking in thousands of Sunni Arab refugees who fled sectarian violence at the hands of the Iraqi government, and Iranian proxies such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

They could have easily closed their doors to their fellow Iraqis in need, but they largely accepted them.

However, providing protection from the PMF while ethnically cleansing Makhmour of Sunni Arabs not only undermined mutual trust, but sent a message that these Arabs were only ever seen as refugees, and not partners in a shared future. Had the KRG - alongside Turkey - supported the Sunni Arabs more, they would have secured their interests better as they would have had a largely Sunni Arab dominated buffer zone standing between Kurdish-held territory and an Iran-influenced Baghdad.

The Sunni Arabs would have been more than happy to enter into this kind of alliance, as it would have also afforded them protection from the worst of the Shia-dominated capital's predations.

Instead, the Kurds' overconfidence led to them to underestimate the level of support that they would need from regional backers - especially Ankara - and domestic actors, such as the Sunnis, whose various tribes and parties could have been courted. 

Read more: Kirkuk has already exposed Trump's incoherent Iran strategy

By believing that they could "go it alone" on independence without other Kurdish dominated areas in Syria, Iran and Turkey being ready to join them, the KRG made a catastrophic miscalculation that alienated them from all their current and potential allies, leaving them at the mercy of Baghdad and its chief benefactor, Iran. 

It is time Iraq's Kurds understood that they cannot simply strike out on their own without the region – especially the Kurds themselves – being ready for an independent Kurdistan.

In the meantime, they are better off building alliances with those who have similar interests, and using these alliances to balance against powers that seek to strip them of what gains they had.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.