One of the most iconic – not to mention most widely distributed – photos to have come out of war-torn Syria in the last few years have been those of gun-toting female Kurdish fighters from YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), looking either into or beyond the camera with a practiced nonchalance on their faces. Across the border in an equally war-torn Iraq, similar photos of female Kurdish Peshmerga fighters come out at regular intervals. Most of these pictures are circulated by western media outfits, which assure that they are circulated far and wide. A certain narrative was pushed. In fact, one can be pardoned for thinking that it is these pro-United States female fighters who stopped Islamic State in their tracks, and ultimately defeated them. The truth, as this correspondent is in a position to state, is way off the mark.
Kurds have fascinated the West to no end. After all what’s not to like about a selfproclaimed group is that while it brandishes its socialism and secularism for the liberal elites in the West, it’s always ready to do the bidding of the United States when called. Such is its charm that it can be safely said that no other group in the post-WWII world has been so deeply embedded with the United States, and yet been so successful in making anti-Imperialist First World Leftists weak in their knees. That is before this “referendum” came to the fore.
Several estimates suggest that the Kurdish population is around 14.5 million in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, about 5 to 6 million in Iraq and less than 2 million in Syria, making it a total of close to 28 million Kurds in what Kurds themselves refer to as “Kurdistan” and adjacent regions.
For the casual observers, Kurds would look like a homogeneous group. Nothing can be farther from the truth. In reality, Kurds are divided deeply along not only linguistic lines but political lines as well. The result is an alphabet soup of various groups in the fray. Three major parties dominate the politics of the Kurdistan Regional Government. These are the centreright Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP led by strongman Massoud Barzani of Barzani clan, the centre-left Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK of Bafel Talabani, son of ex-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and comparatively newly formed, progressive, anti-corruption, anti-sectarian Party for Change or Gorran led by Omar Said Ali. All of them – especially the first two – have private militias jointly known as Peshmerga. However, these Peshmerga fighters seldom join ranks: the exception being fight against the expanding Islamic State in the last few years.
Kurdish population is around 14.5 million in turKey, 6 million in iran, about 5-6 million in iraq and about 2 million in syria
Prior to fighting Islamic State, the Peshmerga of both the parties have the history of fighting a rather bloody civil war. Needless to say Talabani and Barzani clan have no love lost, and have controlled different parts of Kurdistan Autonomous Region from their fiefdoms of As Sulaymaniyah and Erbil respectively. However, in the past few years, while Talabani dithered, Barzani consolidated his hold on the regional government. His reign was marked by corruption and nepotism typical of the region.
What fuelled this rise was the fact that Kurdistan Autonomous Region was a de facto state. Passing through its capital, Erbil, it was difficult to find one Iraqi flag, while Kurdish flags adorned all the buildings. And that is not all. In the last few years, Kurds started selling their oil directly to outside parties, bypassing Baghdad. This was violation of autonomy, but Kurds were emboldened. Turkey and Israel were major buyers, and while Iraq has no relationship with Israel, its repeated request to Turkey to stop dealing directly with the Kurds fell on deaf ears of Turkish leader Recep Erdogan. With the United States on Kurds’ back, there was pretty little Baghdad could have done.
KirKuK oil fields were producing upside of 800,000 barrels a day of petroleum before islamic state decided to march towards it in 2014
“Ever since the US invaded Syria, the US and Israel have supported the semiautonomous Kurdistan, with Israel purchasing $3.84 billion worth of oil from them, a move that could have geopolitical and economic ramifications for both parties. Perhaps no other group of people in modern times has been as romanticised in the western conscience as the Kurds. Consistently portrayed as “freedom fighters” who are eternally struggling for a land denied to them, the Kurds have been frequently utilised throughout history by other countries and empires as an arrow and have never themselves been the bow,” says noted journalist and Middle East expert Sarah Abdallah.
Then comes the Islamic State. As Salafi hordes swept across west and north-west Iraq, Kurds found a new role to play. The West was looking for a dependable partner on the ground that could supplement its aerial attacks, and found a willing partner in Kurdish Peshmerga. The western press followed in tow and a rather sanitised, heroic version of their role started to come out of this machine. Suddenly Kurdish Peshmerga – especially their female fighters – were being projected as the last force standing between the Salafi hordes and the free world. Truth was a tad muddier than that.
Local journalists and witnesses maintain that prior to Islamic State’s attack of Yazidi villages, Peshmerga had gone and disarmed them, assuring them that they will save the religious minorities if Islamic State makes an advance. However, when Islamic State did make an advance, Peshmerga fled for their life. What followed was the massacre and sexual slavery of Yazidis. The story did not find any taker in the western press. It was only when Kurdish – and western – oil interests on the other side of the Sinjar Mountains, on the way to the regional capital of Erbil, was threatened that the West and Peshmerga snapped into action.
Peshmerga did manage to win back several areas from the Islamic State. However, many of these areas were populated by Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis and Turkomans, and Kurds never allowed those cleansed by Islamic State to come back to the land, and houses. The idea was to capture as much oil fields as possible. The crown jewel of the captured territories was to be the oil fields in and around the city of Kirkuk.
“The actual presence of Daesh was never a huge threat in itself on the ground. It was only a threat created by the media. We go back and forth and we return to the media – that caused the main crisis. The main issue is they overhyped what Daesh was and they created this huge monster, this boogieman that no one can defeat. They refused to report the Iraqi side’s victory or the Syrian side’s victory. We have seen Syria defeating Daesh on many fronts since 2014, yet the media refused to talk about these victories and they kept on allowing Daesh to grow in the media,” says Ali Musawi, a journalist who has been covering Iraq from the ground for the last four years.
The Kirkuk oil fields were producing upside of 800,000 barrels a day of petroleum even before Islamic State decided to march towards it in 2014. Kurds thought that they had an opportunity to capture it either permanently, or use it as a bargaining chip to blackmail Baghdad in any future talks regarding Kurdish independence.
There was just one problem. Kirkuk was not Kurdish. While the city had substantial numbers of Kurds, the majority of the citydwellers were either Shia or Sunni Turkomans, or Shia or Sunni Arabs. In spite of no love lost between them, they were united on one issue: not to let the city go into Kurdish hands. While KRG captured the city, the Kurds remained divided. The capture was KDP’s idea. But it had not taken either PUK or Gorran into confidence. Both the parties were opposed not only to this capture, but also any knee-jerk referendum for independence that Barzani was planning.
There were other divisions as well. There is a lot of disagreement over a possible Kurdish autonomy in Syria as well as Iraqi Kurds’ relations with the Turkish government. Both these issues have pitted Iraqi KDP and its Syrian version KDP-S, against the Turkish Kurdish militant group PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the PYD.
The Iran-based PAK Kurds, whose fighters are these days located in Kirkuk city, and some other sectors around Hawija where Kurds were trying to wrest the control of the city from Islamic State; had told sources that they had advised for a transnational Kurdish state stretching from Iran to Turkey via Iraq and Syria.
The differences came to the fore on the eve of the referendum. The first to openly revolt was PUK. PUK controls As Sulaymaniyah and surrounding areas, which are closer to Iran and they were afraid that any misadventure by KDP would lead to Iran punishing PUK supporters first because of their physical closeness to Iranian border. PUK promptly asked all the Iranian Kurds PAK fighters to leave their stronghold and move to KDP’s strongholds instead in order to placate Iran. Gorran Movement was no different. A backchannel was opened between PUK and Gorran on one side and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iranian Qods Forces chief Qasim Solemani on the other side.
talabani familyled puK controls as sulaymaniyah and surrounding areas, which are geographically closer to the iran border in the east
While Barzani went on with his referendum, a plan was hatched behind his back. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraqi Security Forces – who were now free after defeating Islamic State – to march towards Kirkuk. Qasim Solemani led the Iraqi PMU militia popularly known as Hashd al-Shaabi. In a coordinated move, Peshmerga linked to PUK withdrew leaving KDP-aligned fighters on their opponents’ mercy. They promptly ran away giving the city, its airport, its oil fields and people in the hands of Baghdad.
The momentum did not stop there. Iraqi Security Forces and PMU also captured several other areas in the provinces of Ninveh and Anbar from Kurds. When the dust settled, not only did the Kurds have less area under their control than they had in 2014, they had now lesser area under them than in 2009. In a swift move, ISF and PMU also captured the entire Iraq-Syria border, rendering any dream of a transnational Kurdish state null and void.
On the diplomatic front, Turkey – KRG’s biggest trader and benefactor – was curtly told by Baghdad to stop dealing with Kurds directly when it came to oil trade. Sources maintain that Erdogan has agreed on principle, partly because he was angry with Barzani’s steps towards the direction of referendum and partly because he has no option now.
The whole operation has boosted the image of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as well as PMU and its main benefactor Iran. Such was the heartburn in Washington DC that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his bearing for several days. He went on to warn Iran to withdraw its militia, not knowing that PMU was cent per cent Iraqi in its configuration.
“Trump-style ignorance and faux pas are spreading, with Tillerson making missteps on Iraq. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for consultations, called on Iranian militias in Iraq to ‘go home’. There is one problem. There are no Iranian militias in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs are drawn from Iraqi Shiites and are very, very, Iraqi. As Iraqi as Cockneys are British. So this is like Tillerson giving a speech calling on Cockneys in Britain to ‘go home’,” quipped noted analyst Juan Cole.
The crushing of Kurdish dream in Iraq also effectively means that their dream of a state carved out of Syria has also gone for a toss. Especially since Iraqi Security Forces and PMU now control the entire stretch of Iraq-Syria border, severing the physical ties between the two entities.
capture of several oil fields, and the control on crossborder trade in the Kar, has strengthened the financial situation of baghdad
Damascus also softened its stance somehow when Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem declared that “This topic [limited Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria] is open to negotiation and discussion and when we are done eliminating Daesh (ISIS) we can sit with our Kurdish counterparts and reach an understanding on a formula for the future.” While this offer had gone unanswered from the Kurdish side for over two months, a reply came moments after the recapture of Kirkuk in Iraq.
“The Kurdish movement in Syria is only calling for a federalisation of the Syrian Arab Republic, and is not looking for a partition of the country or an independent Syrian Kurdistan,” said the recently elected co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Shahoz Hassan in an interview with Sputnik Turkiye.
“We are open for a dialogue with the central government. We do not want the partition of Syria, do not harbour plans of separating from the country and do not want to set up an independent Kurdistan. Such rumours are not true,” Hassan added in good measure.
As far as Iraq was concerned, more bad news was in the offing for Kurds. As soon as Prime Minister Abadi realised that he is in control now, he started to tighten the screw further. In a move that further undermined the economic independence of the KRG, Abadi forced all the banks operating inside the Kurdish Autonomous Region – Iraqi as well as foreign – to start working under the supervision of the Iraqi central government. In the added measure, telecommunication companies active in the region were also asked to bring themselves under Baghdad’s rule. Both the entities complied without so much as a whimper.
In real terms, these steps have pushed any dream of an independent Kurdish state to the
backburner. In fact, in terms of facts on the ground, Kurds in Iraq are today in way weaker position than they were on the eve of the knee-jerk referendum. Masoud Barzani has resigned leaving a vacuum. Behind the scene deliberations are being done to fill up this vacuum. It appears at this time that both Iran as well as America will agree to see a mix of all three factions in power, till a free and fair election fills up the void.
Capture of all the additional oil fields, and the control on cross-border trade in the Kurdish Autonomous Region, has strengthened the financial situation of Baghdad. Baghdad was hard-pressed following the capture of gas and oil fields in Anbar and Central Iraq by Islamic State. Kurdish encroachment of Kirkuk region oil fields further eroded its revenue base. Around mid-2016, it was on the verge of collapse. That situation will improve mightily now. It will also boost the image and stature of Prime Minister Haider alAbadi in the coming elections, where voters will see him as an independent minded Prime Minister who is willing to take risks, and deliver.
It has also boosted the image of PMU and Iran, who are now seen as a major regional player who can project their power at a distance. Under the circumstances, the only faction that seems to have lost it all is the Kurds.