Such a conflagration might turn a bad situation into a dreadful one. Much like the loss of Kirkuk, the PYD’s remarkable gains in Syria—most recently its capture of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS—could lead to a second Kirkuk, a prospect that could further inflame Kurdish rage.
For the broader region and the international community, Kirkuk beckons several new developments.
It certifies the rise of Iran’s role as a primus inter pares (first among equals) among regional actors. Since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and ISIS butchered its way in, Tehran has been steadily increasing its influence in Mesopotamia. According to one estimate on the National Interest in September 2016, Iran controls a significant portion of the PMU’s one hundred thousand fighters. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the famed commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, is cultivating Iran’s ties with Iraqi politicians and PMU-affiliated militias. In the aftermath of Kirkuk, Iran will be the region’s king for the foreseeable future.
For Turkey, Iran’s regional “frenemy,” Kirkuk offers a temporary reprieve from its own problems. Since 2015, Ankara’s fight against the PKK has been escalating, much to the displeasure of its own restive Kurdish population. The prospect of the KRG’s independence from Iraq worried Turkish leaders that their own Kurdish citizens might too make similar demands.
Kirkuk has improved Turkey’s regional prospects for the time being. Now, Ankara is signaling its readiness to discuss outstanding problems with Baghdad—especially halting the KRG’s oil exports. With Kirkuk once again in federal control, Turkey might even withdraw its forces from the Bashiqa military base near Mosul. It is not unthinkable that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will completely bury the hatchet with the Assad regime in Syria and undermine the PYD.
In the long run, however, Kirkuk will likely undermine Turkey’s influence with the KRG without a measurable improvement in its relations with the federal government of Iraq. For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan patiently cultivated good ties with the KDP and Barzani. As the shock of Kirkuk kicks in among Iraqi Kurds, Turkey will likely lose its extensive “soft” power in Iraqi Kurdistan.
As for Iraq outside the KRG, Kirkuk brings good and bad tidings. On the one hand, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will fortify his position vis-à-vis other political actors on the national stage—including his predecessor and rival Vice President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. After leaving the prime ministry in 2014 for his failure against ISIS, many observers believed that Maliki was awaiting his grand comeback against Abadi. Kirkuk makes that prospect highly unlikely. Having won Mosul as well as Kirkuk, Abadi’s chances of keeping his post in next year’s federal elections is more or less a foregone conclusion.
But as Kurdish reporter Fazel Hawramy pointed out on Al-Monitor, while Abadi has gained strength relative to other Iraqi actors, he is not the only one. Both the PMU as well as the Iraqi army have proved their mettle in anti-ISIS operations and the battle of Kirkuk. If “able Abadi” also faces an ISIS-like crisis in the near future (possibly from Iraq’s more powerful neighbors), his position may become more precarious.
Implications for the United States
Kirkuk was a strange mix of deliverance and embarrassment for Washington. After it occupied Iraq in 2003, Washington built a special relationship with the Middle Eastern country. U.S. political and military muscle gave the Kurds “buy in” and created a steady (though uneasy) partnership between Baghdad and Erbil. Even after the rise of ISIS, the United States convinced the two sides to cooperate against the extremist menace and managed to hold off Barzani’s desire to assert independence. Although Kurdish disappointment with U.S. opposition to their independence can only worsen after Kirkuk, counterintuitively, Baghdad’s recapture of the oil-rich province also helped the United States to maintain its long-term influence in Iraq.
Still, it’s hard to see how the defeat of one U.S. ally (Kurds) by another U.S. ally (Iraqis) using American weapons can be a good thing. Adding parody to insult and injury was Senator John McCain’s October 16 statement. The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee warned the Iraqi government of “severe consequences” if “American equipment [is] misused in this way”—several hours after the battle of Kirkuk was over.
Bitter Dreams are Made of These
In lieu of a conclusion, I should mention that I have yet to hear from the polite but self-assured Iraqi Kurdish official I had met back in July. Something tells me I won’t for a while.