Barzani’s miscalculations and the future of Kirkuk

Iranian Diplomacy | Sadegh Maleki: Political threats and opportunities are fluid in essence, but Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government, seems to have forgotten this principle.

Wars and crises sometimes expedite formation of a collective identity. Thanks to the collective war against ISIS, an Iraqi identity that transcended ethnic and religious boundaries was taking shape. Amid this painstaking process, calls for secession were more intolerable than ever for Baghdad. Iran, also fighting against ISIS and extremism beyond its territory, justifiably did not allow for a secessionist movement to move on next to its borders.

The saga has not ended and it may be premature to judge, but based on developments of the recent days, with the return of Kirkuk into the hands of the Iraqi Army, Barzani has miscalculated. The battle against ISIS has boosted morale and solidarity in the Iraqi government and its citizens, and unlike what Erbil thought, helped create a wave of opposition against Barzani.

Holding the Kurdistan independence referendum was strategically flawed. Except for Israel who is struggling to break its strategic deadlock, all countries in the region and beyond were aware of the ramifications of Kurdistan independence on geostrategic equilibrium of the region and thus opposed it. But Barzani’s stubbornness and insistence to hold the referendum has created a risk for both Kurdistan and the region with long-lasting ramifications.

KRG president should have known that creation of a Kurdish state and upsetting the Sykes-Picot order is beyond his ambit. Hitherto, Barzani has only served a tactical role in regional affairs and cannot elevate his status to a strategic level. Just as Saddam Hussein’s ambitions created havoc for Iraq, Barzani’s idealism could bring disaster to not only Kurdistan, but the entire region. Miscalculations leading to the independence referendum took away Kirkuk, the “heart of Kurdistan” in words of Barzani, from KRG rule. Barzani’s insistence on independence of KRG may even take Erbil away from him.

In times of crisis, lack of realistic, multidimensional calculations makes strategic loss inevitable. Not Barzani and not any other political leader should sacrifice collective interests for their idealism. Although corruption and monopoly of power in the Barzani family is the root of many problems in Iraqi Kurdistan, but the political experience of Kurds had portrayed them in a more positive light compared to Iraqi Shias and Sunnis. If Barzani insists on his independence campaign, security and welfare of Kurdistan will fall in jeopardy and give its place to war and crisis. Wisdom of some Kurdish politicians, including the Talabani family, helped Kirkuk turn to its 2014 pre-ISIS attack state and come under the rule of the government of Iraq. Self-restraint and crisis management, plea for the Kurdish community not to leave Kirkuk, and coordination of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) with the Iraqi army in the Kirkuk operation are all decisions by the Iraqi PM Haydar Ebadi that will pay the dividends in the upcoming elections.

Kirkuk and its oil fields are now under the rule of Baghdad, another step to bring order back to Iraq after the ISIS crisis. From a pro-unity perspective, Kirkuk can be both the ‘heart of Kurdistan’ and the ‘head of Iraq’. Kirkuk does belong neither to Kurds, nor to Turkmens or Arabs. Just as Baghdad belongs to all Iraqis, and its Kurdish population is more than that of Erbil, Kirkuk is also the city of all Iraqis. It could be a place to practice tolerance and coexistence of ethnicities and religions.

* This piece was originally published in Iranian Diplomacy’s Persian service. Sadegh Maleki is a former diplomat and current Middle East affairs analyst.