It won’t be easy. The Kurdish region is sandwiched between the Iraqi state, Turkey and Iran. All three states oppose Kurdish independence. The Kurdish military is a factionalized slew of paramilitary groups with mostly light weapons.
For the Kurds, Baghdad may very well be the capital of a foreign country. This is why the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is annoyed that arms shipments to the Peshmerga go through Baghdad. No surprise, the Iraqi government keeps the heaviest weapons for itself.
President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani wants to push forward his long sought after independence referendum and leave the federal Iraqi entity for good. Barzani didn’t get along well with Nouri Al Maliki, the former prime minister of Iraq — and the feeling was mutual.
In a bid to keep Barzani’s separatist ambitions in check, Maliki stationed Iraqi army units on the border of the Kurdish region and threatened to order them to move against the KRG, but only after Baghdad took delivery of 36 F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters.
That didn’t happen. Maliki is now out of power. Iraq has begun to receive its F-16s and is flying them — with several Kurdish pilots — in ground-attack missions against “Islamic State“. Further, many of the Iraqi army units stationed on the Kurdish border dissolved when “Islamic State” swept across the region.
This gave the KRG a historic opportunity to take control of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Oil-rich and ethnically diverse, the city is of great significance to Kurdish culture and nationalism, whose Kurdish-majority population was uprooted and supplanted by Arab and Turkmen settlers during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Kirkuk is a serious flashpoint. It could be the source of conflict between Erbil and Baghdad following a Kurdish declaration of independence, and possibly even between Erbil and Iranian-backed Shia militias who may intervene under the pretext that Turkmen in Kirkuk are being forced to live under Kurdish rule. Kirkuk’s Lebanon-like ethnic balance has also been altered by the large influx of displaced Arabs from elsewhere in Iraq.
Turkey has long opposed Kurdish autonomy. And while it has cordial relations with Erbil (and good business ties) it would not be very receptive to an independent Kurdish state on its frontier. Furthermore, Turkey too has in the past raised concerns about the status of the Turkmen minority in Kirkuk, stating that it might intervene militarily if the KRG ever declared independence with Kirkuk under the pretext of “protecting” the Turkmen.
Erbil has stressed that if a referendum results in independence, then the new state will not threaten its neighbors. Both Iran and Turkey have their reservations about an independent Iraqi Kurdistan because they fear their own, at times, restive Kurdish populations will try to emulate the Iraqi Kurds success at attaining independence.
As mentioned above, the fact that the Peshmerga is technically a paramilitary force within a federal state that already has a standing army, most of its weapons are fairly light. But there are some noteworthy exceptions.
When the Americans and the British invaded Iraq in 2003, Iraq’s Kurds were overjoyed to see the dismantlement of the old regime and the old army. They immediately seized that opportunity to capture many old Soviet-made T-55 and T-62 tanks from the Iraq army, which the Kurds still retain to the present. Similarly, when the Iraqi army collapsed in summer 2014, the Peshmerga took whatever equipment they could find to prevent it from falling into the hands of “Islamic State”.
However, many of these old Soviet tanks are highly outdated and unreliable, and many inoperable due to lack of spare parts. Iraqi-Kurdistan has no air force, and possesses only a limited number of effective anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. It barely has the resources and weapons to defend itself, let alone pose much of a threat to its neighbors.
Still, Iraq’s Kurds are in a much stronger position to declare independence today than they were 10 years ago. Such a declaration would have immediate ramifications. For one, Erbil could buy weapons from abroad without legal constraints. And it could also purchase heavy weapons to bolster a standing army.
It’s debatable whether control over Kirkuk’s oil would enable the Kurds to purchase an air force. Erbil will likely want to convey to its neighbors that if it does declare independence, then it expects to have the territorial confines of its state recognized and respected. That means its military purchases would reflect a state that is not posturing, but merely demonstrating that it could defend itself against an invasion.
In 2012, the KRG government tried to sidestep Baghdad by importing heavy weaponry directly. That alleged purchase included anti-air and anti-tank weapons from an unspecified source. If true, it would have been congruent with a defensive posture on the part of Erbil given Maliki’s own aggressive posturing. One suspects any armaments Erbil purchases, when and if it becomes the capital of an independent Kurdish nation, will be dictated by similar circumstances.
Then there is the persistent issue of incursions. Armed Kurdish groups who have fought both Iran and Turkey have used Iraqi-Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains from which to operate against those states. The Turkish air force is once again bombing the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Iran has also infiltrated those mountains to target members of a group similar to the PKK (and often thought of as the “Iranian-wing” of the PKK) the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK).
Both countries may try to pressure Erbil to take a more robust policy to oust both groups from those mountains. Which would be an extremely tough undertaking given the fact that the mountains are ideal for militants using defensive guerrilla tactics.
Upon the onset of the latest Turkish campaign against the PKK, it was evident how delicate of a balancing act Barzani has to play. That is, telling the PKK to leave but not taking any measures against them, while also condemning the Turkish government for killing civilians in bombing raids. The KRG has its own problems with the PKK who have challenged its sovereignty in the Sinjar region.
Indeed, an independent Kurdish state could likely defend itself. But dealing with these other problems is another matter entirely.
Paul Iddon is a contributor to Offiziere.ch.