The Kurds may have lost 40 per cent of the territory they previously controlled over the last two days as they withdraw from areas long disputed with Baghdad. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are pulling back from a great swathe of land in northern Iraq stretching from Syria in the west to Iran in the east.
It is becoming clear that the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both agreed at a meeting on Sunday that they had no choice but to withdraw from Kirkuk and other disputed territories. They knew that they were too weak to fight the Iraqi security forces and they had no allies to whom they could appeal for help. Kurdish leaders are now blaming each other for the debacle, which will go down as one of the great disasters in Kurdish history.
The political geography of northern Iraq is be transformed, much to the disadvantage of the Kurds. Kurdish military units have retreated from the Sinjar region close to the Syrian border which is home to the Yazidis who were massacred and enslaved by Isis when they advanced in August 2014. A paramilitary force made up of Yazidis but owing allegiance to Baghdad has taken over. At the other end of the dividing line between Kurd and non-Kurd, Peshmerga have left the towns of Khanaqin, Jaloula and Mandali close to the Iranian border north east of Baghdad. These are all places where the Kurdish parties had exerted themselves to firmly establish their rule in the last few years and are now lost, probably forever.
Peshmerga have also abandoned the last two oilfields they held near Kirkuk city, thus ceding all the gains the Kurds have made territorially since the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Possession of the Kirkuk oilfields had been considered essential if the Iraqi Kurds were ever going to achieve economic independence.
Celebrations are widespread in Baghdad at what is seen as a second great victory for Iraq and the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi this year. The first success was the capture of Mosul after a nine-month siege in July and the second is the unexpectedly easy defeat of the Kurds this week in the wake of their self-destructive referendum on independence on 25 September.
“What I fear now is triumphalism in Baghdad where there is talk about enforcing central government authority everywhere in Iraq,” said one Kurdish commentator who did not want his name published. This might mean Baghdad putting heavy political and military pressure on the three Kurdish provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government and which now look vulnerable.
The Iraqi President Fuad Masum, himself a Kurd, has called for dialogue between the central government and the Kurdish leaders to resolve the crisis sparked by the referendum. Mr Abadi referred to the referendum as “finished and a thing of the past” but also called for dialogue “under the constitution”, which would rule out Kurdish independence. There is no doubt that the balance of power has swung dramatically towards Baghdad and away from the Kurdish capital Irbil.
Mr Barzani and his KDP party sought on Monday to blame the PUK Peshmerga for the unopposed advance of the Iraqi security forces, accusing them of betraying the Kurds by reaching a separate deal with Baghdad. But Kurdish sources have told The Independent that both KDP and PUK had agreed that they were too weak to fight for Kirkuk, though orders did not reach all Peshmerga commanders in time. A hospital in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah says that it has received the bodies of 25 dead fighters and treated 44 wounded. Overall, casualties on both sides have been slight which is evidence that a deal on withdrawal had been struck before the Iraqi government advance. KDP Peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar on Monday and from the positions they held in Kirkuk province in what was evidently a prearranged retreat.
Mr Barzani himself is blaming “unilateral decisions taken by Kurdish politicians”, an accusation that presumably does not include himself though his ill-judged decision to hold a referendum brought on a confrontation with Baghdad in which the Kurds held much the weaker hand. The referendum was opposed by all international and regional powers with the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia, neither of whom was in a position to be of any practical help to the Kurds. Mr Barzani also chose to challenge Mr Abadi just after his armed forces had won a big victory in Mosul and he was unlikely to back down.
The US opposed the referendum and has kept its distance from the crisis. President Trump could not have sounded more disengaged saying: “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” and adding that “we’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know, and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq.”
Responsibility for the disaster will be debated by Iraqi Kurds for decades to come, but in practice it was the result of Mr Barzani overplaying his hand and divisions between Kurdish parties which meant that they did not have a military option against Baghdad. Thanks to the referendum, the Iraqi Kurds have not only will they have failed to win independence, but will find the autonomy they previously took for granted under threat as Baghdad tightens its control on the Kurdish provinces.
Many Kurds will see the hand of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as manipulating the Baghdad government and the Kurdish parties to produce the present outcome. Iran will be pleased that the Baghdad government has been strengthened and Mr Barzani, who is traditionally close to the US, has been weakened, but there is no need for conspiracy theories to explain what happened. Essentially, Mr Barzani started a confrontation which he could not win.