Home > Conflict & Security, Editorial, Middle East, Politics > If There Was War Between the Iraqi Kurds and their Neighbours

If There Was War Between the Iraqi Kurds and their Neighbours

Bombing in Kirkuk

Bombing in Kirkuk

As an exercise, I want to review a situation in which the Kurds of Iraq push for de facto independence and expansion and look at how violent confrontation between them and the rest of Iraq could well unfold. Essentially, I’m curious to see how the worst case scenario of relations between the Arabs and Kurds of Iraq may be. I don’t believe that open conflict is the most likely scenario but I still think it important to review so that it can at least serve as a lesson, and perhaps as a caution.

First, some background.


Tensions in northern Iraq are on the rise and there’s risk of violent confrontation between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has been trading sharp words with the Kurdish Regional Government and an incident in the late Summer almost drew to violence between the Kurdish fighters, the ‘peshmerga’, and the Iraqi Army.

Briefly, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has wanted greater autonomy from the central Iraqi government, possibly leading to factual even if no formal independence. The central government has wanted to pull the region into deeper integration with the country as a whole, limiting at least some of its independence.

The KRG has maintained its formally recognized borders constituting approximately the old no-fly zone over northern Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein. However it has informally expanded by taking key political offices in neighbouring regions or cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk. The KRG wishes to integrate at least Kirkuk, an oil rich region, into its formal borders. The central government has resisted this and has not met a constitutionally mandated date for a local referendum on this issue, while the KRG pushes harder on the issue and stuffs Kirkuk with its fighters. This situation has incensed emotions and very much frayed relations.

The KRG has shown further evidence of its preparation for potential violent confrontation by recently purchasing a significant shipment of small arms and ammunition from Bulgaria. They did this without informing the central government and claim that they have constitutional freedom to pursue armament as a regional government.

The government of Prime Minister al-Maliki has at the same time been bringing on side tribal leaders to form what some are calling a new militia by the name of the Support Councils. Such new tribal alliances can serve as a fighting force, especially in Mosul where the majority are Arabs and only a quarter of the population is Kurdish.

The KRG has seen little violence since the ousting of Saddam Hussein and has been relatively stable. The most probably source of violent conflict for the region is if tension between the central government and the KRG triggers actual fighting between them. It seems the KRG is preparing for this possibility, and is also using its armed and veteran fighters, the ‘peshmerga’, as a bargaining chip in current and future negotiations with the rest of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Iran are eyeing the situation in the KRG with concern, worried that their homegrown Kurdish independence movements, mainly based out of Northern Iraq, will also explode into open conflict.

While the US military presence persists in the country, and the US has an explicit mandate to maintain Iraq’s internal security, it seems the two opposing blocs are in the process of consolidating their holdings, though there is certainly still the risk of full blown violence.

It seems likely that the US will mostly depart Iraq in the near future. The current security agreement between the two countries, yet to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament and already signed off by Prime Minister al-Maliki and his cabinet, states a withdrawal date of 1 January, 2011. Also, the agreement seems to state that the explicit US mandate of defending Iraq’s internal security will expire on 1 January, 2012.

If open and formal violence was to erupt between the central government and the KRG, it’s most likely to happen when there is least possibility of intervention from the US though things may still get out of hand if the Kurds decide to expand their holdings when they believe they can still depend on some immediate US protection.

For the sake of this scenario, I’m going to assume that the KRG makes a move to expand its power and possibly territory, mainly gaining effective independence from Iraq after US withdrawal from the country. In this case, the chances of spiraling violence are high. What would happen then?


Most likely Sunni and Shia Arabs will unify against the Kurds (it will be very bad for them if they don’t). The central government of Iraq will activate existing and newly developed militias, including the powerful SIIC militia and possible tribal Support Councils, as well as the army.

Iran and Turkey will probably close their borders to the KRG as will Iraq, cutting off almost all land supplies that feed the Kurdish economy, and people. Turkey and Iran will press for Syria to close its borders and will also ask it to ban all civilian flights through its airspace into the KRG. The KRG, landlocked and fully blockaded via land and air will find itself in a tough spot.

Iran will probably quietly fortify its position in Iranian Kurdistan, west of the country and bordering Iraq. It will however not cross over into Iraq. Iran will want to keep smuggling across the border to a minimum and stop the flow of goods and fighters. It may even plant new mines on the border. The border is already heavily mined, these a source of great tragedy for Iranian Kurds who today smuggle many goods into the KRG.

Iran will let Turkey take the lead so that it’s not threatened by Western powers for acts of aggression. Turkey will coordinate with Iran and Iraq, sharing intelligence and consolidating a collective strategy.

The US will be in a thorny situation since any attempts to help the Kurds will mean opposing its NATO ally.

The Kurds will probably be blockaded then shelled by Turkey, and the Qandil mountain installations of Kurdish fighters will be shelled by Iran. Turkish air raids could become common as well as Turkish special forces maneuvers, possibly as joint ventures with the central Iraqi government. The Kurds will definitely lose Mosul since they constitute a minority of the population and the Arabs there are well organized. They’ll also probably lose Kirkuk and will be pushed back to the previous KRG zone of influence that corresponds with the old no-fly zone.

The US may work feverishly and succeed in preventing Turkey and Iraq from pushing further than the no-fly zone, which these attacking parties may well agree to and step back from taking any more territory. Turkey and Iraq, I believe, will mainly accept this because they won’t be able to hold this land. It will likely be pyrrhic to fight armed and veteran peshmerga in their mountain homes. Historically, trying to hold mountainous Kurdish territory against fighters has almost always led to failure. Also, Afghanistan and Iraq itself are valuable lessons in the difficulty of holding on to a land in the face of partisan resistance even if you have a technically superior military force.

If Turkey feels it has a green light from the international community then it can conduct full and very brutal air strikes and provide unmitigated support of a possible Iraqi push while coordinating its ground units with the central government’s units, and at first denying the joint ground assault.

The central government of Iraq will be faced with a difficult decision in Kirkuk. It may want to assault the oil fields before the city itself so that the peshmerga doesn’t have time to damage or destroy them. The pipelines may be blasted at points but that’s easier to repair. The Kurds are intelligent fighters and will have fortified their positions around the oil fields so this will be a difficult objective for the Iraqi government to attain.

The central government will need to consider how the outside world (really mainly the West) will perceive them making a surprise or broadcast attack to secure the oil fields. Both sides will seek to cut off the opposition’s supply lines to Kirkuk. The Kurds have stuffed that city with their fighters though and it can turn into some very bloody fighting there. The Kurds may decide to raze parts of the city if they think it inevitable that they will lose then fight from the rubble before trying to flee or retreat if at all possible. The fight for Kirkuk could turn into something awful, considering the emotions attached to it as well as the wealth that comes from it. It would be a great actual and symbolic victory for either side.

In the medium to long term, those attacking the KRG will likely rely on a blockade and ‘sanctions’ to weaken the core of the very well-defended Kurdish region. In this regard, we may see a concerted regional effort to break the KRG. Since the anti-Kurdish coalition will probably feel it’s not acceptable for them to outright exterminate or push out the Kurds with weapons they’ll resort to ‘sanctions’ and blockades, essentially starving people and the economy in order to at least contain the Kurds and weaken or break their military capacity.

Terrorist activity will likely be common by both the central Iraqi government and the KRG, with both denying involvement and stating that independent organizations are to blame, and that they have no control of what they will call partisans or freedom fighters. The terrorist activity will be used to create havoc behind the front lines, prevent a concentration of enemy military force by forcing them to partially break off units for police action, to disrupt supply lines, to bring economies to their knees, and to terrorize civilians into fleeing a region in order to change facts on the ground.

The Kurds will be in a losing position unless they have outside assistance. The US will be pressed to intervene at least politically.

This is the worst case scenario as I see it. Certainly to be avoided, and should be in the back of the central government and the KRG’s minds when making decisions that could spark violence.


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