This September, voters in the territories controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from the central government in Baghdad. In response, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran have conducted joint military exercises around the KRG in an unprecedented show of solidarity between three historic rivals. Now, the Iraqi Army and paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) appear to have taken the disputed city of Kirkuk from the KRG. All of this brings up an old argument, most recently popularized by former Vice President Joe Biden, that Iraq is actually three countries now – split between Kurdish, Shi’a, and Sunni populations – and that it should be allowed to break apart. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with former Ambassador to Iraq and Cipher Brief Expert, James Jeffrey, about how the forces keeping Iraq together are more powerful than those pushing it apart, and what role the U.S. should play.
TCB: Looking at the Iraqi military incursion into the previously Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, what are your first thoughts as to how this happened?
Jeffrey: It happened because [KRG Prime Minister Masoud] Barzani made an existential mistake. He thought that the U.S. and Turkey would support not only his march towards independence, but also taking the Kirkuk area, which is a demographically diverse area with tens of billions of dollars of hydrocarbon extraction infrastructure belonging to the Iraqi people, as well as billions of barrels of oil reserves. That didn’t happen.
Secondly, in so doing, Barzani blew up a big chunk of the still-forming U.S. government counter-Iran strategy that was announced last Friday. Because we need a unified Iraq in which the Kurds are big players in support of our objectives against the Iranians. Now, the Kurds have isolated themselves terribly.
You can still fix this as long as there isn’t major shooting and so forth in Kirkuk, which I haven’t seen yet, as long as the U.S. takes the position of pushing for the Kurds to go back to where they were before ISIS blew up the scene and allowed KRG forces to take disputed areas like Kirkuk. The U.S. should also reemphasize and solidify its commitment that the Iraqi Army and these PMUs [Popular Mobilization Units] should not enter into those territories.
Third, the U.S. should work with Baghdad, Erbil, and Ankara on an equitable solution to the oil exports from northern and southern Iraq, and the distribution of oil earnings. The U.S. has done this several times with some success and it’s a solvable problem, but it requires Turkey, [the main KRG oil export partner] and the U.S. is a major player in this because the oil earnings are deposited in the New York City Federal Reserve. This issue, oil, is the key practical dispute between Baghdad and Erbil.
In addition, by solidifying U.S. support for a unified Iraq, this gets us implicitly to what I’ve long argued is an important objective: Even if we can’t remain in the rest of Iraq, we will maintain a military presence in the north.
TCB: Do you see any movement yet from the Trump Administration towards this?
Jeffrey: I think the Trump Administration is thinking about this. Without getting into the personalities involved, policy towards Syria and Iraq is now run by people in State and DoD who think that the only issue is fighting jihadis, because it’s easy and fun and we’re winning. Iran is too hard, but we can rely on the Russians to deal with Iran in Syria, and we can rely on [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al] Abadi to deal with the Iranians in Iraq. This is a recipe for absolute disaster.
The U.S. Administration will go through the knee jerk reactions to try to deal with this specific problem, which is typically “everybody talk, stop shooting.” But putting together even my very limited Diplomacy 101 policy action plan that I mentioned above: to leverage the Fed to bring both sides to the table, use our relations with Turkey to bring them into the negotiations, and reassure the local actors of our commitment to a unified Iraq, at least implicitly with a troop presence.
Even this kind of baby step diplomacy would require some idea of what we want to do in Syria and Iraq against the real threat in Syria and Iraq, which is Iran. That doesn’t exist right now. They’re talking about stuff like integrating air defense systems in the Gulf, which is just a throwaway technical policy.
We have an opportunity to play a beneficial role here, but I don’t know if the Trump Administration will grab it.
TCB: Going back to the old question of whether Iraq can stay united at all, how does this crisis inform that debate?
Jeffrey: Iraq staying unified is always hard, but Iraq breaking up has always been harder. Essentially, ISIS attempted to break off a piece of Iraq into a Sunni Arabstan, and look what happened to that. This current crisis is an attempt to break off Kurdistan, look what’s happened to that. Centripetal forces – those that keep things together – tend to be stronger than centrifugal forces in Iraq.
First, in the Diplomacy 101 policy suggestions I gave before, maintaining a unified Iraq has the charm of being the best thing to do in this crisis, it is our traditional position in Iraq, and it is our typical position everywhere, except for Kosovo and South Sudan. But second, not saying that we support a unified Iraq, or leaving the door open and trying to get cute and creative at this point in a situation as dicey as this is on the ground and as dicey as it is with team Trump in Washington, is simply something that I wouldn’t endorse.
Stay with the basics, bread and butter. Emphasize unity, say we know that it’s hard but the alternative is even worse.
TCB: It seems like there was actually a split within the KRG in this crisis between the governing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – PUK Peshmarga in Kirkuk may have actually made a deal with advancing Iraqi forces. Given that, what is Barzani thinking now? How can the Kurds step back from this and recover?
Jeffrey: They’ll recover because, once again, most of these trajectories in Iraq, like Iraq staying unified and the KDP and PUK patching over their differences, usually continue in the expected direction because the forces keeping people together are more powerful than the forces pushing for Iraqi disintegration.
At least around Kirkuk, the areas that were taken by the Kurds were almost all the oilfields, and this was part of the scheme to create out a new Kuwait out of Kurdistan. That idea is very closely associated with the KDP and Masoud Barzani himself. The PUK never got their fair share of that deal, they never got their fair share of the huge amount of money sloshing around. Barzani made all the deals, including export deals with the Turks, so the PUK is not wedded to dying for those fields.