Iraqi-Kurdish conflict: Who will win?

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

Military operation in the north of Iraq is an integral part of Baghdad's strategy to combat Kurdish separatism
13:45, 24 October 2017

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October 16-20, Iraqi army held a lightning-fast military operation against Kurdish separatists in the north of Iraq. At the moment, the Iraqi military controls the northern province of Kirkuk and the eponymous city, as well as the provinces of Nineveh and Diyala. The Iraqi army, with the support of the Shiite group "Hasd al-Shaabi", took the city of Altun Kupri on October 20. Since 2014, these territories have been under the control of the regional government of Kurdistan and Peshmerga, after the Iraqi military retreated from there under the onslaught of ISIS. Now the soldiers of the Kurdish military formation of the Peshmerga retreated to the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan.

These events were preceded by a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, which was conducted by local authorities without agreement with the central government in Baghdad. 93% of the region's population voted to withdraw from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi decided to conduct a military operation after a 48-hour ultimatum to the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masud Barzani. The military operation in the north of Iraq is an integral part of Baghdad's strategy to combat Kurdish separatism.

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With the help of a blitzkrieg in northern Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi demonstrated to the Kurdish elites the ability to effectively defend the territorial integrity of Iraq with the help of military force. Like, the Iraqi army freed Kirkuk from the peshmerga, and tomorrow it will launch an offensive against Erbil, the administrative center of Iraqi Kurdistan. The purpose of the military operation is to intimidate Kurdish politicians, to force them to change their minds to separate from Iraq. The military conflict in the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan will not bring the Kurds anything but human sacrifices, destruction and socio-economic instability. This was already the case during Operation Anfal in 1987-89, which resulted in the death of 182,000 Kurds, and 700,000 were sent to concentration camps. Then the Iraqi military burned 4 thousand out of 5 thousand Kurdish villages. No one in Iraqi Kurdistan is interested in the war with Baghdad on its territory. The region is the most economically developed and prosperous in Iraq. Kurds do not want new persecution. About 100,000 Kurds have already left the territories of northern Iraq liberated by the Iraqi forces. The authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan suspended preparations for the presidential elections and rescheduled them for November 1.

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The position of the Iraqi prime minister in the dialogue with the Kurds was reinforced by Turkey and Iran, despite the existing disagreements in the Middle East. Kurds are a common problem of the authorities of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. At the junction of the borders of all these countries and Syria, there are more than 30 million ethnic Kurds who dream of creating their own state and arrange terrorist attacks and provocations. The authorities of the three countries are interested in preventing the activation of Kurdish separatism. Turkish President Recep Erdogan considers the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan responsible for the bloodshed. While the Iraqi army fought with peshmerga, the Turkish army occupied military bases and airfields in the Syrian province of Idlib, which borders on the autonomous education of Rozhava, also known as the Syrian Kurdistan. Under the sauce of creating a de-escalation zone in Idlib, the Turkish military are preparing to restrain the activity of the Kurdish organization PKK-YPG in the north of Syria, which can interact with Iraqi Kurds. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavosoglu stressed that the Kurdish authorities miscalculated with holding a referendum on independence and instead of consolidating the Kurds and gaining the profit they sowed chaos and doubt.

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Iraqi government managed (through a military operation) to deprive the Kurdish separatists of the major share of the revenues from oil produced in the province of Kirkuk. Kurds lost control over half of the oil and gas fields, from which they sold 300,000 barrels of oil per day. According to Anadolu, daily Kurds exported 800 thousand barrels of oil, earning 4.5-5 million dollars. Oil reserves in the province of Kirkuk are 13 billion barrels (12% of Iraq's reserves).

As a result of the actions of the Iraqi military, the Kurds lost control over the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which allowed oil to be exported to Turkey. This oil pipeline is the largest in Iraq and allows delivering 500-600 thousand barrels of oil per day. Since 2013, Iraqi Kurdistan exports oil to Turkey without notifying the Iraqi parliament. The ruling Kurdish Democratic Party has concluded a contract for the supply of oil from the Turkish company AKP for a period of 50 years. There were agreements on Iraqi Kurdistan’s supply of 4 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey.

By depriving Erbil of substantial sources of income, Baghdad wants to force the Kurdish authorities not to decide on secession in accordance with the results of the referendum. According to Reuters, the volume of oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan was reduced to 200 thousand barrels per day. With the proclamation of the independence of the Kurds, international isolation can be comprehended. After the referendum, neighboring Turkey and Iran blocked the transport connection with the Iraqi Kurdistan. The behavior of Turkey, the main buyer of Kurdish oil, is unpredictable. After the referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to cut off the oil pipelines if the Iraqi Kurdistan gets independence. Turkey is the third largest trade and economic partner of the Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan is a large market for Turkish companies.

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Attempts by the United States, Turkey and Iraq to persuade Kurdish politicians to make concessions resulted in disagreements between the two most influential parties in the region, the "Democratic Party of Kurdistan", President Masud Barzani and the "Patriotic Union of Kurdistan," led by the late ex-President Jalal Talabani (buried October 3 2017). The Talabani family is inclined to implement Baghdad's ultimatum and make concessions, for which the Kurdish "democrats" consider them traitors. The conflict between the clans of Barzani (city of Erbil) and Talabani (Sulaymaniyah) is beneficial to the Iraqi authorities and other opponents of the Kurdish separatists. If the majority of Kurds elect a representative of the Talabani clan for the sake of preserving peace in the region, Iraqi Kurdistan will remain part of Iraq as a subject of the federation.


If nothing changes after the presidential elections in Kurdistan, then the Iraqi army will have to continue the military operation against the Kurds, launch an attack on the cities of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. In this case, interrogation of Turkey and Iran cannot be ruled out. Otherwise, Iraqi Kurdistan will become an unrecognized and isolated state entity. The United States and the EU are likely to take the position of either an observer or an intermediary between the conflicting parties.

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The situation is complicated by Russia's position, which is trying to use Kurdish separatism in commercial interests. After the Peshmerga lost control of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Rosneft oil company announced on October 20 its participation in the infrastructure project for the operation and modernization of the old KARGroup oil pipeline in Iraqi Kurdistan with a capacity of 700 barrels of oil per day. According to Igor Sechin, executive director of Rosneft, the pipeline will be used to deliver oil to its refineries in Germany. Rosneft bought an 80 percent stake in five oil fields on the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iran uses the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil to strengthen its influence in Iraq. Iran has an influence on the Shiite community in Iraq, whose representatives have been in power since the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein's regime. However, a small and victorious war against Kurds in the north of Iraq meets the interests of Iraq's Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. He gained the reputation of a resolute and tough leader who is ready to defend the territorial integrity of Iraq and will try to rally around him an electorate among the Shiites, and possibly among the Sunnis who supported Saddam Hussein's repressive policy toward the Kurds. In 2018, parliamentary and local elections will be held in Iraq, in which the "Party of Islamic Appeal", of which the Prime Minister is a member, will take part.

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