ISIS In Iraq: A Kurdish Opportunity

While media attention has focused on the recent escalation in turmoil in Iraq, less attention has been given to the drastic geopolitical realignment reflected by this crisis. In particular, this fighting has opened a tremendous opportunity for the expansion of influence by Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraq Map

Regional Map

First, some background: On June 5, taking advantage of a transition in general Iraqi politics, Turkey signed a signed a 50-year energy accord with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Not only does the trade fly in the face of the Iraqi government’s demands—which insists upon a complete cessation of all illegal Kurdish trade and threaten UN action—but it also reflects the latest manifestation of a huge shift in Turkish preferences. Traditionally, Turkey has maintained shaky relations with Iraqi Kurdistan due to fears of encouraging Kurdish nationalism within their own borders by the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). However, shifting regional alliance structures and Turkey’s perceived need to extend its influence as a regional power has led Erdogan’s government to defy Iraqi demands and ensure access to critical Kurdish energy resources.

Since international trade agreements have been traditionally relegated to sovereign authority, the KRG’s oil accord directly undercuts Iraqi sovereign influence. Kurdistan defends its sovereign-like behavior by pointing to its status as a semi-autonomous region; a region within a sovereign country yet exercising and maintaining some uniquely sovereign characteristics. In Kurdistan’s case, these unique characteristics include their separate military force, the Peshmerga, as well as their independent diplomatic and economic relationships with international actors. While few tangible characteristics may separate the KRG from a de-facto state, Kurdistan’s government manages to abide by the international norm of state sovereignty by effectively pretending that they are simply a subunit of the Iraqi government, thus allowing the rest of the international community to plausibly comply with the charade.

As such, in classic form, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani denounced the possibility that the oil accord with Turkey undermined Iraqi sovereignty in any way. As Barzani reaffirmed, ““We don’t have any intention of dividing Iraq, and this agreement is not part of such an agenda either.”

Until the recent militant violence, the oil dispute was at a standstill. Despite Arbil’s stated non-independentist intentions, many sovereign states without direct interest in Kurdish oil exports remained wary at the potential damage to the sovereignty norm and the effect such a trade relationship would have on undercutting the central Iraqi state. As such, the Kurds and Turks had trouble finding buyers willing to risk the wrath of the large state players.  The invasion by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into northern Iraq, however, totally changed the geopolitical landscape.[i]

When on June 10, the ISIS turned its attention back to Iraq with an invasion of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, international attention was completely distracted from the Kurdish oil dispute. The Iraqi military resistance crumbled before the ISIS militant threat, fleeing south and leaving behind military weapons and equipment worth millions of dollars. The ISIS, with its stated intention of forging an Islamic Caliphate, continued to expand, turning its attention both eastward, towards territory controlled by the KRG and southwards, towards Baghdad and the heart of the fragile Iraqi state.

With the Iraqi military defecting and compromised, the KRG Peshmerga forces filled the security vacuum, fending off the ISIS and diverting ISIS attention south towards the less-organized Iraqi governmental forces. In the process of ‘protecting’ Kurdish territories, the Peshmerga forces took over control of oil-rich Kirkuk and the surrounding region. The Kurds and KRG claim ownership over Kirkuk as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, a claim disputed by the central government. Moreover, the Peshmerga takeover also places the economically significant oil exports firmly under KRG control, thus strengthening their hand in their dispute with the central government. Moreover, by providing security where the Iraqi military failed, the KRG should also expect to benefit in terms of popular support, a critical factor when one considers the mixed Kurdish/Arab ethnic character of Kirkuk and the surrounding provinces. As Kurdistan continues to solidify its “protectorate” over Kirkuk, the likelihood of the KRG relinquishing control over the disputed region becomes increasingly slim (short of international intervention). However, with both the international community as well as the Iraqi government itself depending on the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to continue to repel ISIS advances towards Kirkuk, KRG entrenchment in this valuable province seems to be a near-certainty. As Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar reports, “The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga. No Iraq army remains in Kirkuk now.”

One significant outcome of the ISIS takeover of Mosul was the capture of the Turkish consular staff. The ISIS Islamic militants have looked down upon the Turkish government’s support for moderate rebel factions fighting in Syria both against the Assad regime as well as the ISIS militants. However, the ISIS has already declared that the Turkish hostages are safe and will be returned to Turkey, likely through Iraqi Kurdistan. Such disorganized behavior often reflects communication failures within a militant organization, as tactical moves by field commanders are overturned by strategic decisions by the organization’s leadership.[ii] Nonetheless, the incident demonstrates the strength of Turkish ties with the KRG, who have acted as intermediaries on Turkey’s behalf.

In the heat of the hostage crisis, Turkey threatened to conduct airstrikes against the Iraqi militants if the ISIS did not release their kidnapped nationals. While the threat of Turkish intervention has blown over with the ongoing negotiations, other international powers have become more closely involved in the Iraq conflict.

In particular, the United States and Iran have both condemned ISIS behavior and have offered military support to the besieged Iraq government. While initial reports seemed to indicate the possibility of a U.S. ground operation, Washington has since clarified its position and limited military options to air support. Iran, on the other hand, has deployed its elite Revolutionary Guard forces to aid the al-Maliki government in Iraq and has considered sending many more soldiers.

Iran has a number of motives for supporting counter-insurgent activity in Iraq. First, Iran has enjoyed a relatively close relationship with the currently Shia-dominated Iraqi government. The Sunni ISIS forces bear little love for the Shi’ite Islamic Republic, and have been fighting Iranian proxies in Syria for years. Iran does not want the ISIS to spread through Iraq. Second, in some ways reminiscent of the Kurdish move to protect Kirkuk, Iranian ‘protection’ and the deployment of armed forces puts Iran in a position to exert considerable leverage on a surviving al-Maliki government.

The Iranian support also serves as a huge public relations feat, as a confused international community watches the United States coordinate with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (who U.S. has sanctioned, by the way) in order to effectively combine airstrikes with ground operations. The Iranian military support, while furthering their own interests, also serves as a credible demonstration that the Iranian regime is willing to work with the West, at least when their interests align. This helps establish credibility and create a positive-sum environment that will make an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program more attainable.

Iran’s involvement on behalf of the Shi’ite government reflects the level to which sectarian divides still dictate Iraq’s geopolitical landscape. Prominent Shi’ite clerics have encouraged militia forces to aid the Iraqi government against the advancing Sunni ISIS, while some Sunni clerics have encouraged their followers to take arms in support of the ISIS, whom they see as liberators against a corrupt and oppressive Shi’ite regime. Iran would like to mobilize their northern militant proxy, Hezbollah, against the insurgent ISIS, but any Hezbollah action remains highly unlikely. As Hezbollah has developed beyond an insurgent group into a political organization, it has increasingly needed to balance its regional and ideological interests against its immediate organizational interests. Any Hezbollah support would result in tremendous levels of retaliation from Sunni actors within Lebanon.

However, it is also wrong to view the conflict purely through a sectarian lens. Influential (Sunni) Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha of the Awakening Council has mobilized his factions in support of Iraq’s central government. The key takeaway, then, is not the religious divide, but rather the extraordinarily fractionalized context in which this fighting takes place.

The extreme fractionalization highlights the decentralized nature of power in the current Iraqi state, and the violence continues to exacerbate this localized power dynamic. This fracturing of the central Iraqi state serves to further advance Kurdish positioning, whose stable political structure seems all the more unified in contrast to the whirling turmoil beyond Kurdistan’s borders. While the KRG remains a functional and operational societal force, al-Maliki’s central government simply does not.

For example, when al-Maliki tried to garner control and unify the country through an emergency powers resolution, the vote failed due to a lack of a quorum—that is, the Prime Minister could not even get enough members of parliament to show up for a vote! Only 128 of the 325 MPs attended the vote, and the absence of the Kurdish legislators was particularly conspicuous. The ongoing instability furthers Kurdish interests, and the Kurds do not want to hand absolute power that may jeopardize their recent gains in Kirkuk.

While the horrendous sectarian fighting will continue, al-Maliki will shore up a coalition to knock back the ISIS, or at least push them underground. The result will be the latest in the endless series of violence tearing at the seams of the nominally sovereign Iraq. In stark contrast to their sovereign parent state, the KRG will continue to develop as an independent actor on the international stage, forging more trade agreements, continuing to ensure its own security and stability, and widening its circle of diplomatic acceptance.

Even states such Russia, who have traditionally taken a hard-line position on the inviolability on the sovereign state, will not oppose Kurdish steps towards sovereignty too stridently. First, Kurdish control over the Kirkuk oil fields should ensure a more steady flow of Iraqi oil to the international community and should help maintain important price stability. Rumors have even circulated that the Russian Rosneft company has already offered to buy Kurdish oil despite Baghdad’s injunction.

Second, the international community will continue to rely heavily on a strong Kurdistan to help reestablish stability in greater Iraq. One of the chief reasons why countries value sovereignty so highly is because of its very ability to promote stability and mitigate conflict—stability in itself is an end goal. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect that states will be willing to accept to Kurdistan’s vocal denials and overlook its steady  march towards absolute sovereignty. Thus, while the current fighting in Iraq is unquestionably a national misfortune and international tragedy,  the conflict actually facilitates the de-facto process of Kurdistan’s inevitable transformation from a semi-autonomous republic to a full-fledged sovereign state.

[i] The ISIS is a Sunni militant group with ties to an al-Qaeda origin. ISIS has received extensive military training and experience during the course of the Syrian Civil War, and has become an increasingly active participant in the ongoing sectarian fighting throughout Syria.

[ii] Similar organizational inconsistencies can be found in the Taliban’s approach to NGO workers.


Map image taken from National Geographic 


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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