Staying Together is Hard — But Splitting is Harder

By James Jeffrey

Ambassador James F. Jeffrey joined the Wilson Center in December 2020 as Chair of the Middle East Program. Ambassador Jeffrey served as the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS until November 8, 2020. He is a senior American diplomat with experience in political, security, and energy issues in the Middle East, Turkey, Germany, and the Balkans.

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?

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