Gwynne Dyer: Kurdistan’s big chance lies with Peshmerga

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Every disaster creates opportunities for somebody.

If the Kurds of Iraq play their cards right, they could finally end up with the borders they want, fully recognised by a government in Baghdad that has been saved by Kurdish troops.

The Kurds have this opportunity because the large but totally demoralised Iraqi army has fallen apart over the past week. The Sunni Islamist fanatics of ISIS are now less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, and Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is the only military force left in Iraq that could take the offensive against them.

It is very unlikely that the ISIS fighters can take Baghdad. There are probably no more than 5,000 of them in Iraq, and their stunning recent victories were achieved more by frightening the Iraqi army to death than by actual fighting.

Most of those ISIS troops are needed to hold down their recent conquests, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

ISIS couldn’t spare more than a thousand or so of its fighters for a push into Baghdad, which has seven million people, most of them Shias. The Shia militias, which are taking in tens of thousands of volunteers a day, don’t have much in the way of military skills, but they would fight—and street fighting in a big city eats up soldiers’s lives.

Either ISIS will not attack Baghdad, or it will try and fail. However, what remains of the Iraqi army will certainly not be able to take the offensive and drive ISIS out of all the territory that has already been lost.

Short of direct Iranian or American military intervention on the ground, the only force that might be able to do that is Peshmerga.

Peshmerga has advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that were historically part of Kurdistan, most notably the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields, but so far it has not tried to stop the ISIS fighters moving south. “There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs.

But Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIS line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if they were ordered to. The ISIS fighters have significant support from the Sunni population in the area they have overrun, so trying to drive them out of Mosul and Tikrit would cost Peshmerga many casualties, but it’s the only force in Iraq that is even in a position to try.

So the Kurdistan Regional Government must now be considering what price it could charge Baghdad for that service. As an adviser to the KRG told the Washington Post, “The Iraqi government has been holding the Kurds hostage, and it’s not reasonable for them to expect the Kurds to give them any help in this situation without compromising to Kurdish demands.”

What would the Kurds demand in return? What they want most is to recover the territories that were taken from them by the Baathist regime in Baghdad between the 1960s and the later 1980s. Under Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their lands. He then changed the provincial boundaries, and the stolen lands were repopulated with Arab settlers whom he brought in from the south.

Peshmerga troops have taken back control of much of this land in the past week, but nothing will be settled unless Baghdad formally restores the old provincial boundaries. It would also have to accept that a lot of those Arab settlers will be removed to make way for returning Kurdish families.

Such a concession would be politically impossible in normal times, but if Baghdad wants Peshmerga to fight for it, that’s the price it will probably have to pay. And it should bear in mind that the Kurds also have another option. They could just hold those territories by force, and declare independence.

The Baghdad government could do little about it: the advance of the ISIS forces means that it no longer has a common frontier with Kurdistan. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did—Ankara worried about the impact of Kurdistan’s independence on the large Kurdish minority in Turkey—but things have changed there too.

Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. In any case, the Turkish government will have its hands full dealing with the sudden emergence of a hostile Islamic caliphate along its southern border. Kurdish independence would still be a gamble, but the odds are that it could succeed.

One way or the other, Kurdistan is probably going to be a big winner out of this. But it will probably take the lower-risk course of trying to make a deal with Baghdad first.

Comments (5) Add New Comment
I Chandler
"In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did..."

Eric Margolis writes:
"While Washington dithers, its little Kurdish protectorate in northern Iraq is threatening to send its combat-effective ‘pesh merga’ fighters to battle ISIS. But this is making both Turkey, which opposes any Kurdish state, and Iran, with its own Kurdish problem, very uneasy. Iraq used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. Its vast oil reserves are a constant enticement to energy-deprived Turkey."
http://ericmargolis.com/2014/06/the-allmighty-mess-in-iraq/
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cassius
Makes more sense than the nonsense that's coming out of Washington. The U.S. has not looked so weak and befuddled since the fall of Saigon. The Kurds will be the big winners. But the Iraqis have no choice. It's the beginning of the Kurdish nation and another nail in the coffin of the Arab countries in the region. Look for the Kurds to slowly build their state at the expense of the Arabs and quite possibly the Turks and Iranians. How? They'll do what Israel did: ally themselves with the likes of the U.S. and any other power that needs their help, make a deal here and a deal there and bide their time.
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JMW
The only problem is, what could the Iraqis offer that the Kurds want? Control of the oil fields. Got it. Control of the lands Saddam took away from them? Got it.

Official recognition of those facts? What is that worth to the Kurds? With the Sunni territory controlled mostly by ISIS between Shia Iraq and the Kurds, what can Baghdad do if the Kurds declare independence within their ancient borders?

If the KRG are smart, they'll negotiate with the Turks ahead of time. Agree to build a pipeline from the oil fields to the Turkish-Kurdish border. Sign a commercial agreement to sell the oil to Turkey (use Russian pipeline companies, to keep Putin happy). Sign a diplomatic treaty guaranteeing the Turkish-Kurdistan border and guaranteeing neither side supports terrorism in the other's territory, maybe even providing for mutual assistance against terrorism. In short, give Turkey every reason to be happy to have to buy only the oil instead of having to buy all of Kurdistan with Turkish blood as the price. Then, just to give Iran pause, the two sign a mutual defence pact. If Iran invades Kurdistan, then they're facing Turkey. If Iran attacks Turkey, they're facing NATO.

Suddenly the map gets redrawn. That's when KRG can talk to the Iranians and say that they'll make the same deal about borders and terrorism that they did with the Turks. And in the meantime, the Kurds allow the Shi'ites and the Sunnis to play their game out any way they want. Because they have nothing that Kurdistan wants anymore.
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Ilan Hersht
Regardless of provincial borders, Kurds should go the whole distance and try to declare an independent Kurdistan with full UN recognition. Independent Kurdistan could offer citizenship to all Kurds (like Israel) or selectively to those in need of asylum (a likely possibility considering the climates of Iraq & Syria).

The shouldn't get hung up on restoration of border, expulsion of Arab settlers and such. Just get it done. The exact borders and conditions are making perfect the enemy of good, missing the forest for the trees. Pick your cliche. The opportunity is now.

Kurdistan should make military cooperation, reconciliation and economic ties with Turkey a matter of absolute priority. It is absolutely essential and again, the time is now while interest align. Put loyalty to the Kurdish people above loyalty to the Kurdish cause. This means be best friends with Turkey. Hostility would be more bad news for Kurds in Turkey. A friendly Kurdistan could be great news.

Compromise doesn't only run one way. If the Kurdish truly want independence, they need to move now and take whatever options are available right now Turkish support is a necessity.
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Rodin Kurdish girl
Long live Peshmerga...
go to hell maliki and terorists
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