Between Moscow & Tehran: Regions of (in)Security

After Mosul: Russia & the ‘Kurdish Question’ in Iraq

August 8, 2017
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As the three-year campaign to forcefully remove the Islamic State from Iraqi borders appears to have shifted toward Baghdad’s favor, perennial issues tied to Kurdish statehood are expected to reemerge amidst the backdrop of a rapidly changing regional order. In early June 2017, Masoud Barzani - President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - announced that Iraqi Kurdistan’s anticipated independence referendum would be held on September 25 followed by parliamentary elections in November. The referendum is also set to include contested territories seized by the KRG from the Islamic State.

Though the common struggle against the Islamic State temporarily subordinated long-standing disagreements between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous KRG in Erbil, there is little to suggest that territorial, economic, and political disputes will remain dormant. Unresolved conflicts over oil revenue sharing and overlapping territorial claims in resource rich regions such as Kirkuk will continue to exacerbate the already deep-seated, multifaceted struggle for authority between the KRG and the Iraqi central government.

The referendum faces strong opposition from the central government in Baghdad as well as the neighboring states of Iran and Turkey who have expressed concerns that independence could inspire separatist claims from their own Kurdish populations. Opposition to Kurdish independence could further exacerbate tensions between these countries, which have been historically at odds on regional issues. Within this context, Moscow assumes a privileged position due to its relations with not only Erbil and Baghdad but also Tehran and Ankara. For Russia, leading negotiations as a constructive mediator between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central government in Iraq represents the best approach to the issue. Furthermore, resolving Iraq’s ‘Kurdish question’ could shed light on future developments in Syria and provide Moscow with a concrete proposal on the status of Syrian Kurds.

In 1991, the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq during the first Gulf War culminated in the de facto autonomy of the Kurds in northern Iraq. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the KRG gained official recognition as a semi-autonomous region in the 2005 Iraqi constitution. With the rise of the Islamic State, the Kurdish military force, the Peshmerga, played an instrumental role on the battlefield at a time when Iraqi forces retreated from the frontline. In fact, military victories achieved in the campaign against the Islamic State have emboldened the KRG’s calls for statehood, as Erbil has grown increasingly autonomous from the central government. In post-Sadam Iraq, the KRG has capitalized on a dysfunctional, distracted central government by developing its own energy sector, asserting its control over territory gained from the Islamic State, and establishing relations with foreign countries including Russia.

Moscow's Balancing Act

Though Moscow’s engagement with the Iraqi Kurds dates back to the Soviet era, the rise of the Islamic State resulted in Russia’s increasing involvement with the semi-autonomous government in Erbil. In the fall of 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Moscow was providing “weapons to the Kurds through the Iraqi government” to combat the Islamic State. It also was revealed that the Kurds are represented in the intelligence information center in Baghdad alongside Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In addition to the expansion of security relations, Russian companies have been investing in Iraqi Kurdistan’s energy sector.

In February 2017, Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft became the first international oil company to pay up front for KRG crude. Under the February 2017 deal, Rosneft agreed to pay $3 billion USD in loans in exchange for 15-25 million barrels of oil until 2019. Several months later, on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2017, Rosneft signed a long-term contact for the development of infrastructure systems in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Kirkuk. Prior to the meeting, Foreign Minister Lavrov noted Moscow’s willingness to solve the developments in Iraqi Kurdistan “in the way which is acceptable to all key players.”

While establishing strong ties with the KRG, Russia has made an effort to also maintain a relationship with Baghdad. Following the announcement of the referendum, Iraqi vice president and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Russia in late July 2017 to apparently bolster ties between the two countries. While meeting with President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, Maliki called for an increase in Russian involvement in Iraq and the region, emphasizing Baghdad’s intent to further improve its bilateral relationship with Moscow. Maliki underscored the “great potential in terms of cooperation…underpinned by an understanding of the important role Russia plays in the region and in Iraq.” These concerns were echoed in discussions with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during which Maliki suggested that Baghdad’s interests correspond with a Russian presence to balance the influence of external powers “through interaction in energy, military-technical cooperation, and political issues.” If Russia accepts Maliki’s call for greater involvement in Iraq, Moscow must not only balance the regional actors but the influence of internal factions should stability remain the chief end.

Supported by Iraq’s Shi’a population and the Iranian government, Maliki retains a considerable amount of influence in Iraq. It is speculated that Maliki hopes to replace current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Iraq’s upcoming election in 2018. A Maliki victory would be beneficial to both Russia and Iran. But it would also have negative implications for the Kurds who were subject to ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategies during Maliki’s tenure. Under Maliki, relations between Erbil and Baghdad devolved into enmity as the central government attempted to thwart oil exports from Iraq Kurdistan by halting payments of the 17% share of the federal revenue to Kurdistan. Such maneuvers combined with an acute sense of marginalization among the Kurdish population and the Sunni minorities suggests that Maliki’s comeback will be met with rising political tensions. Moreover, without a negotiated solution for Iraqi Kurdistan, the sectarian and ethnic conflict which have long stood as an impediment to peace will continue to preclude stability in the region as external actors seek to benefit from internal strife.

The Future of Iraqi Kurdistan

Though it is expected that an overwhelming majority of the Kurdish population will vote in favor of the referendum, the likely scenario will not lead to an immediate secession from Iraq or an independent Kurdish state. With less than four months to prepare for the vote, Barzani’s decision to hold a referendum in September denotes a concerted effort to leverage Erbil’s bargaining position in future negotiations with Baghdad. Rather than a unilateral declaration of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, Hoshyar Zebari - senior advisor to President Barzani- emphasized that “we are not talking about independence, we are talking about the referendum.” The referendum thus signifies the initial step in enhancing the status of the Kurds by setting the foundation for future negotiations with Baghdad.

The Kurds have proven to be a practical, stable, and reliable partner in a region engulfed by conflict; however, a solution for the long-term status of Iraqi Kurdistan cannot be sustained without negotiations that take into account the potential involvement of regional actors. In lieu of independence, an alternative arrangement that has been touted is a confederal arrangement for Iraq that grants greater autonomy to Iraqi Kurdistan while ensuring Erbil’s status as an equal partner to Baghdad. Regardless of whether Erbil and Baghdad chose the path to full independence or instead opt for a confederal arrangement, the future of Iraq should not emerge as an additional proxy war among the regional and international actors.

At a time when the Trump Administration remains embroiled in scandals at home, the internecine issues between Baghdad and Erbil provide external powers with fertile ground to influence the future of Iraq beyond the auspices of U.S. leadership. Within this context, Moscow assumes a favored position to leverage its expanding ties in the Middle East and to serve as a mediator between Erbil, Baghdad, as well as its regional partners who hold a vested stake in the future of Iraq. By establishing and maintaining productive relations with Erbil, Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus, Russia can facilitate negotiations akin to the Astana process while, at the same time, consolidate its interests in the greater Middle East.

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