The swift attack on Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and relatively bloodless withdrawal of US-trained Iraqi security forces has further weakened Baghdad’s influence over northern territories. The political vacuum has enabled the Kurds to expand their land claims and leverage Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for concessions on their oil exports. Yet, the role of radical Baathist military officials in the Mosul coup and their links to ISIS also exposes the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to important security and political challenges. The KRG will not only have to secure greater territories and populations from extremist groups on its borders, but also maneuver its nationalist agenda through radicalized Sunni Arab populations that may be even more resistant than Maliki and Shiite groups.
In some ways, the Mosul attack is a coup for the Kurds. It occurred just as the KRG was locked in another battle with Maliki over oil exports and revenues, and as its Turkish energy partner was subjected to international litigation. The ISIS attack shifted media attention, at least temporarily, from an embarrassing situation of a wandering ship unable to offload contentious Kurdish crude to a scenario of KRG strength; assisting refugees, securing borders, and taking Kirkuk in the midst of a serious political crisis.
The attack has also gained the KRG time in its energy gamble with Baghdad. The instability caused by the Mosul attack has prevented the Iraqi government from moving forward with planned repairs on the Iraqi-Turkish Pipeline (ITP) on the Mosul side. This delay technically enables the KRG to continue exporting its crude through the part of the line it has taken over since January 2014. Although Kurdish pipeline exports are still small-scale and subject to international litigation if sold, local and Turkish buyers of trucked Kurdish crude can at least benefit from a rise in international oil prices — now at about $106 per barrel — that followed the Mosul crisis.
The KRG also has benefited from Maliki’s political blunders and the Iraqi military’s weakness. The rapid withdrawal of Iraqi forces has given the Kurdish peshmerga the opportunity to take even more swaths of disputed territories and create a larger buffer zone, including the city of Kirkuk. Kurds across the political spectrum are jubilant and insist that the peshmerga remain in their new positions. Others regard this territorial expansion as a precursor to Kurdish statehood, and one that will include Kirkuk and parts of Ninevah, and their oil fields.
Yet the very nature of the Mosul attack and its political fallout poses important challenges for the KRG. An extended frontline and hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Kurdistan Region increases the risks of instability. While the Kurdish controlled east bank of Mosul remains relatively secure it borders a radicalized Sunni Arab populated west bank now controlled by ISIS, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist military officers, and extremist Islamic groups. These developments have raised concerns of investors and IOCs and if not controlled, could jeopardize future investments, at least in the disputed areas.
Further, although it may seem that Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, cut a deal with Sunni Arab officials and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Maliki, the Kurds are beginning to see a potential nightmare; a border controlled not just by ISIS but Baathist military officers and fueled by a strong populist sentiment. Saddam Hussein’s daughter, Raghdad, applauded the Mosul attack as “victories of my father’s fighters and my uncle Izzat al-Douri.” According to a report in The Voice of Kurdistan (Sawt Kurdistan) and local sources, al-Douri is reported to have visited Mosul governorate headquarters on June 12 after having been in hiding by “a country in the region.” Former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled Iraq in December 2011 and briefly took refuge in the Kurdistan Region before gaining Ankara’s support, also rejoiced after the ISIS takeover of Mosul, referring to it as a revolution of the oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized people in Mosul.
Indeed, the KRG has delicately balanced its relations with Sunni Arab communities thus far and was not directly targeted in the Mosul attack. In fact since 2005 Barzani has developed or strengthened his ties to moderate Sunni Arab leaders, mainly as part of an anti-Maliki alliance and for commercial purposes as demonstrated by his close ties with Mosul Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi. The KRG also has welcomed the Iraqi military officers that fled Mosul into the Kurdistan Region, as well as hundreds of thousands of displaced families from Mosul.
Still, whether these arrangements can translate into hard political agreements between the KRG and Sunni Arab leaders over land and oil is highly questionable, at least in the short term. Despite shared Sunni affiliations Kurds and Iraqi Sunni Arabs have deep political differences and distrust, particularly regarding the Kurdish nationalist agenda. For instance, in addition to criticizing the KRG’s oil policy Sunni Arab communities seek to terminate the de-Baathification law and postpone Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution — both of which are essential Kurdish political claims.
Further, Barzani’s ties to Sunni Arab leaders and Erdogan may stabilize communal relations and enhance business opportunities, but they have to be measured alongside the Kurdistan Region’s other influential neighbor — Iran. While Tehran’s influence extends throughout the Kurdistan Region it is particularly salient in Suleymaniya and among the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran Movement. These groups are not only wary of tying a Kurdish umbilical cord to Ankara, but they have their own commercial, political and security agreements with Tehran that requires support for Baghdad, even tacitly. This influence may also affect how far the Kurds can press ahead with Kirkuk. The PUK governor, Najmaldin Kerim, has not only won overwhelming support in Kirkuk but has successfully balanced Kurdish demands with Baghdad, and Kurdish, Arab and Turcoman communities in the city.
Although the Mosul crisis remains fluid, it has given the KRG a chance to leverage Maliki for an oil export and payment deal. Depending upon Maliki’s staying power and resistance, he may negotiate an agreement, at least short term.
Still, the larger question for the KRG is regional security and political maneuverability. Should an ISIS-Sunni Arab governance structure take hold in Mosul then the KRG will have to choose between negotiating with a weakened Maliki or bargaining with radical Islamists, Baathist military officers and local populations committed to their own Arab nationalist claims.