Chaos in Iraq: Are the Kurds Truly Set to Win? / by Winston Harris

TODAY’S MESOP ANALYSIS : By Small Wars Journal

August 28, 2014 – The recent offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is pushing Iraq to the brink. Violence rages throughout the north, the government in Baghdad is in a delicate transition from longtime leader Nouri al-Maliki to Haidar al-Abadi, and the United States has resumed military operations. While Iraq’s Kurds have also found themselves embroiled in the fight against ISIL, they potentially stand to gain from this chaos. The governance vacuum created by sectarian violence has provided the Kurds with a seemingly golden opportunity to declare independence. But are the Kurds ready for independence?

It is true that now appears to be the best possible opportunity for the Iraqi Kurds to declare their independence. On 03 July 2014, Massoud Barzani, the Prime Minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), called on the Kurdish parliament to prepare the way for an independence referendum.[i] The Kurds control Kirkuk, a city they view as “their Jerusalem,[ii]” and possess both massive strategic oil reserves and a capable military force known as the peshmerga. The Kurds maintain a stable government capable of providing basic services, and have established a positive relationship with historic adversary Turkey.

The conflict with ISIL has exposed some weaknesses, but pledges of foreign military aid have the potential to further strengthen the Kurds. With such a seemingly strong position, is there a possibility that a declaration of independence could destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan? A combination of internal political and military divisions exacerbated by external threats could derail Iraqi Kurdish independence into a protracted conflict. 

History of Inter-Kurdish Violence

Unity has never been a strong suit for the Iraqi Kurds. Since Jalal Talabani’s split from the Barzani family-dominated Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1975 to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Iraqi Kurds have been divided into two primary camps. In the decades following, the PUK and KDP would be locked in a power struggled for control over the Iraqi Kurdish population.

The history of conflict between Jalal Talabani and the Barzani family predates the formation of the PUK, when Talabani openly challenged Mustafah Barzani’s leadership of the KDP. In the midst of the First Kurdish War (1961-1970), Barzani and his peshmerga expelled Talabani and his allies to Iran; in response forces loyal to Talabani assisted the Iraqi Army against Barzani’s peshmerga prior to Kurdish reconciliation at the end of the conflict. In 1978, the first true clash between the KDP and PUK occurred, when KDP forces attacked 800 PUK fighters along the Iraqi-Turkish border.[iii] However, the worst inter-Kurdish violence was yet to come.

Following the 1992 Kurdish Parliamentary Election, Massoud Barzani’s KDP and the PUK agreed to a 50-50 power-sharing agreement. However, economic strains combined with competing ambitions for political power resulted in the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War (1994-1998.) The conflict quickly drew in outside combatants, with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Iranian-backed Badr Brigades supporting the PUK. Meanwhile, Turkey and Ba’athist Iraq aligned with the KDP.[iv]

The conflict was ultimately resolved by the Washington Accords in 1998. The plan was to create a peaceful, unified Iraqi Kurdistan, but in reality it remained divided into two de facto governments. The KDP controlled the northwestern Kurmanji-speaking provinces of Dohuk and Erbil, and PUK dominated the southeastern Sorani-speaking province of Sulaimaniyah. It was not until the lead up to the 2003 US-led intervention in Iraq, that the PUK and KDP attempted to unite into a single bloc.

The Present Status of the Iraqi Kurds

Following the overthrow of the Baathist Regime, the Iraqi Kurds appeared to have achieved unity via the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KDP and PUK agreed to a strategic relationship to form unity governments and campaign for office together on the Kurdistani List. Massoud Barzani of the KDP held the presidency of the KRG, while the PUK held the Iraqi Presidency. This power-sharing agreement appeared to satisfy KDP-PUK divisions; however, upon further analysis, the KDP-PUK unity is only skin deep.

Within their respective centers of gravity, the KDP and PUK maintain their own parallel “governments.” The two parties administer distinct government services, possess separate foreign ministries, and control different media outlets. Moreover, the PUK and KDP possess their own security apparatuses, controlling separate peshmergas, police forces, and intelligence services. From newspaper to militias, these entities are loyal to their political party first, and to the KRG second.[v] This is hardly a recipe for long-term unity.

Moreover, the political status quo itself is under threat in the KRG. During the 2013 KRG Parliamentary Elections, the Gorran Change Movement (which splintered from the PUK in 2009[vi]) surpassed the PUK to finish second, after the KDP.[vii] This placed immense pressure on the strategic relationship between the PUK and the KDP. From the KDP perspective, why should it continue to equally share power with an underperforming partner? The PUK saw the election as a temporary setback and insist the KDP should not endanger the permanent strategic relationship.[viii]

After nearly 10 months of political bargaining, which included flirtations between the KDP and Gorran to form a new strategic relationship, a new KRG cabinet was formed with the office of Prime Minister given to the KDP and the PUK controlling the Deputy Prime Minister position. However, the PUK sought control over one of the four critical ministries: Peshmerga Affairs, Interior, Natural Resources, and Finance & the Economy, but received none.[ix] Instead, Natural Resources and the Interior Ministries went to the KDP, while Gorran gained Peshmerga Affairs and the Finance & Economy ministries.[x]

Following the disastrous 2013 KRG Parliamentary Elections, the PUK improved its showing during the Iraqi Provincial Elections on 30 April 2014. The PUK finished second in the election including a strong showing in Kirkuk, securing 21 seats to the KDP’s 25. Gorran fell to a distant third, gaining only nine seats.[xi]  Despite the strong showing, the PUK was accused of widespread voter fraud.[xii]  While the PUK may still be weak, its collapse is not imminent.

Independence and Violence: The Nightmare Scenario 

Despite a strong showing in the April 2014 Iraqi Parliamentary Elections, the future of the PUK remains uncertain. Eventually, someone other than Jalal Talabani will become the assume the role of the PUK’s official leader. How will a party that has been led by and served the political ambitions of one man for nearly 40 years adjust to a future without him? If the political popularity of the PUK were to decline to the point that the strategic KDP-PUK alliance collapsed, what new alliances might the PUK elites seek to retain their influence?

Without Talabani, the PUK will experience a period of upheaval as it searches for new leadership. Even with a clear transition plan, the person chosen to replace Talabani will lack his influence and legitimacy. This will lead to political infighting and paralysis, which will damage the PUK’s standing in the public. There is already a precedent for this with the PUK.

In the 2013 KRG Parliamentary Elections, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Talabani’s wife, led the PUK, but lacked the legitimacy of Talabani. Subsequently, factions within the PUK threaten to break away en route to the party’s disastrous finish.[xiii] More recently, the PUK was unable to decide on a consensus candidate to succeed Talabani as the President of Iraq.[xiv] This increases the likelihood that the PUK could further splinter in a post-Talabani era. This might also provoke the PUK to seek new alliances to restore their influence.

The PKK and the PUK aligned during the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, and have maintained friendly ties since. Conversely, the KDP and PKK fought each other during the civil war and continue to compete with one another for influence throughout Greater Kurdistan. KDP security forces allegedly cracked down on pro-PKK elements in Iraq. While in Syria, Barzani and the PKK have backed competing political factions.[xv] Would the PKK align with the PUK to remove the KDP from power? Could the PKK resist an opportunity to gain control over a sovereign, independent Kurdish state?

The PKK already maintains over 4,000 fighters in Iraq’s northeastern Qandil Mountains.[xvi] Over 10,000 refugees from the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, many supportive of the PKK, reside in the Makhmour Camp near Erbil.[xvii] This means that in the event of a conflict, the PKK already has seasoned militants and thousands of potential reserve fighters already positioned within the KRG. In addition to the fighters in Iraq, the PKK maintains regional affiliates from which it can draw additional support.

In the east, the PKK’s Iranian affiliate, Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), possesses between 600 and 3,000 militants. These fighters are based alongside the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, as well as throughout Iranian Kurdistan.[xviii] West of Iraqi Kurdistan, The PKK-aligned Democratic Union Party (PYD) achieved de facto control over Syrian Kurdistan, and is hostile to Barzani and his allies.[xix] The PYD controls a militia consisting of 10,000 to 15,000 fighters.[xx]

The addition of the PKK and its regional affiliates would complicate a possible civil war between the KDP and PUK. However, third-party participants in such a conflict are unlikely to be limited to Kurdish groups. A civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan would almost certainly lead to Turkish intervention. Not only would the Turks seek to maintain their influence in Iraqi Kurdistan by supporting their KDP allies, but Turkey would be loath to allow its traditional PKK foes to achieve greater political influence or dominance in Southern Kurdistan.

Similarly, in the event of a Kurdish civil war, Baghdad is unlikely to remain idle. Baghdad and its Iranian allies are opposed to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. A civil war could provide Baghdad an opportunity, possibly with Iranian support, to restore Iraq’s territorial integrity or at least regain influence. 

Finally, the specter of ISIL interference in a Kurdish civil war remains a realistic possibility in the present political environment. ISIL already clashes with the peshmerga along Iraqi’s Sunni Arab-Kurdish divide, and maintains an active front against Kurdish militias in Syria. If there is conflict among the Iraqi Kurds, ISIL will seek to exploit it.

Is the Nightmare Scenario Likely?

While such a nightmare scenario may sound extreme, it has happened before – during the Kurdish civil war of the 1990s. Still, there is no guarantee that if the Iraqi Kurds declare their independence a second civil war will breakout. Since 2003 and the establishment of the autonomous KRG, the Iraqi Kurds have achieved considerable progress. Relative to much of the Middle East, Iraqi Kurdistan is stable. With the development of its oil industry and subsequent trade agreements with Turkey and international businesses, the economic scarcity that partially provoked the first civil war is absent.

For the PUK to risk a second civil war, it would have to be at risk of permanent political marginalization. Kurdish leaders for the KDP and PUK state the strategic alliance is strong, and Barzani decreed that “the period of Kurds killing Kurds is over.[xxi]”  Moreover the Kurds have had ten years of unity governance. This has led to a fledging sense of Iraqi Kurdish nationalism that transcends political affiliation. Despite the divides between the Iraqi political parties, Professor Michael Gunter assesses that “Iraqi Kurdish nationalism has become the most highly developed form of Kurdish nationalism among the entire Kurdish people.[xxii]”  This sense of nationalism would likely be further cemented by the external threat posed to an independent Kurdistan by the ISIL and Baghdad.

Additionally, it is questionable whether the PKK and its allies would be willing, or even able, to intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan. Following over three decades of fighting, the PKK called for a ceasefire with Turkey in March 2013. In exchange for a withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkey and an end to hostilities, the Turkish Kurds gained increased cultural rights and greater local autonomy. It is doubtful the PKK would be willing to risk these gains in an attempt to gain control over Iraqi Kurdistan, in which there is no guarantee they would succeed. Conversely, without a threat of PKK involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey would have no incentive to be involved.

The PJAK is limited in its capabilities, compared to their Turkish and Syrian counterparts. They are also presently in a state of conflict with Iran, so it is unlikely that they would have the capability to expand their operations into Iraqi Kurdistan.  The PYD is already engaged in conflict against Sunni extremists in Syria and maintains an uneasy relationship with the Syrian government. Given the constant threats they face in Syria, it is doubtful the PYD would risk armed intervention in Iraq.

While it is certain that Baghdad would oppose an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, it is unlikely they would intervene militarily. Given that Baghdad has already ceded de facto control of its northern Sunni Arab belt to the ISIL, it is doubtful Baghdad has the capacity to project power into Kurdistan. Similarly, while Iran would likely condemn an independent Kurdistan, Iranian resources are stretched thin by other events in the Middle East. Therefore, Iranian intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan would be limited at best.

A second Iraqi Kurdish civil war is unlikely in the immediate aftermath of a declaration of independence. This does not mean an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be immune to civil conflict. After all, it was two years after the Kurds achieved autonomy in 1992 that the first civil war emerged. If peace depends on a shaky balance of power via a strategic agreement, and the KDP and PUK maintain their own shadow governments and security forces, then the risk of a new civil war in the years following independence is real.


If the Kurds fail to reconcile with Baghdad and carry through with a potential independence referendum in Fall 2014, the result will almost certainly be independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. While the current political situation is such that it is unlikely independence would directly lead to violence, the conditions that could result in a second civil war remain. So long as the KDP and PUK maintain their own distinct governance and security institutions, the specter of the strategic relationship breaking down and the two parties returning to violence remains a realistic scenario. 

There are steps that the Kurds and the international community can undertake to reduce the threat of a resource scarcity provoking a conflict between the Kurdish political elites. Conversely, if a Kurdish declaration of independence is met with widespread sanctions, the risk of conflict will increase. Secondly, there is a need for further security sector reform. Long term stability is not possible if the Kurds maintain competing security institutions. The rival peshmergas must be united into a single, national military loyal to the state above all else. Third, the PUK and KDP must dissolve their rival, “shadow government” institutions. It is natural for the two parties to have their own ideas and foreign policies, but the continued presence of party-run institutions outside of official government institutions will breed instability. Finally, official government institutions must be further strengthened. Kurdish governance institutions must be strong enough that not only will free and fair elections take place, but that the opposition will be confident that it can compete fairly in future elections.

An independent Kurdistan will dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. For a region already embroiled in conflict and unrest, civil conflict within a new Kurdish state would only further enflame regional tensions. A conflict between the Iraqi Kurds is not guaranteed. But if peace is only maintained via a delicate strategic agreement between two political parties, each with their own rival political institutions and militias, then a return to violence remains a realistic threat.  It is only by uniting as a single state, transcending political parties, that the Kurds will be set to win from the present chaos in Iraq.

End Notes

[i] Whitcomb, Alexander and Ahmed, Raed Asad. “Massoud Barzani asks Kurdistan parliament to proceed with independence vote.” 03 July 2014.

[ii] “Iraqi Kurds say future of the ‘Kurdish Jerusalem,” in their hands.” AFP 24 June 2014.

[iii] Van Bruinessen, Martin. “Major Kurdish Organizations in Iraqi.” MER141 Volume 16. July/August 1986. And “Iraqi Kurdistan Profile: A chronology of key events.” BBC News Updated 01 July 2014.

[iv] Gunter, Michael M. “Turkey and Iran Face off in Kurdistan.” The Middle East Quarterly March 1998. Pp. 33-40.

[v] “Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears.” International Crisis Group Crisis Group Middle East Report N 103. 28 March 2011. Pg. 14

[vi] Romano, David. “The Gorran Movement – A Change in the Iraqi Kurdish Political Landscape.”Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 13 02 April 2010.

[vii] Wing, Joel. “Complete 2013 Kurdistan Regional Government Election Results.”Musings on Iraq 09 October 2013.

[viii] Ahmed, Hevidar. “PUK Reluctant to Abolish ‘Strategic Agreement’ with KDP.” 02 June 2014.

[ix] Orhan, Oytun and Duman, Bilgay. “Observation of the KRG: Final Situation in Forming Government.” Daily Sabah 07 May 2014.

[x] “The Eight [sic] Cabinet.” The Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in Austria

[xi] IHEC announces official Iraqi parliamentary election results, Kurds get 19% of the Iraqi Parliament seats.” 19 May 2014.

[xii] “PUK Makes Comeback In Kurdish Provincial Elections But With Charges Of Fraud.” Musings on Iraq 28 May 2014.

[xiii] Wing, Joel. “Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Faces the Abyss.” Musings on Iraq 15 October 2013.

[xiv] Salih, Mohammed. “Kurds decide on a new Iraqi president.” Al Jazeera 24 July 2014.

[xv] “KDP closes 8 pro-PKK offices in Iraqi Kurdistan Region.” Ekurd.Net 20 May 2014. And “”Barzani’s KDP is seeking more power in Syrian Kurdistan: PKK.” EKurd.Net 28 May 2014. And Wladimir van Wilgenburg. “Rival Kurdish parties KDP, PKK battle for power in Syrian Kurdistan.” Al-Monitor 29 May 2014.

[xvi] Markey, Patrick and Coles, Isabel. “Insight: Hopes, suspicious over peace in Kurdish rebel hideout.” Reuters 27 March 2013.

[xvii] “UNHCR head signals readiness to help return of refugees in Makhmour camp.” Sunday’s Zaman12 March 2013.   Krajeski, Jenna. “Between Turkey and Iraq: The Kurds of the Makhmour Refugee Camp.” Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting 29 August 2012.

[xviii] “Iran, Turkey share intel on PKK, PJAK.” UPI 30 July 2010. Pironti, Alexandra Di Stefano. “Iranian repression of Kurds Behind Rise of Militant PJAK.” Rudaw.Net 23 January 2014.

[xix] “At Turkey’s doorstep, rift between PYD and Barzani deepens.” Sunday’s Zaman 10 November 2013.

[xx] “Syria crisis: Guide to armed and political opposition.” BBC 13 December 2013.

[xxi] Natali, Denise. “PKK Challenges Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Al-Monitor 10 May 2013.

[xxii] Wing, Joel. “Explaining Kurdish Nationalism Interview with Tenn Tech Univ Prof Michael Gunter.” Musings on Iraq 14 July 2014.