Recent Development: Over the past 24 hours, Iraqi forces backed by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs – a coalition of mostly Shiite militias) took over large parts of the Kirkuk Province. This includes Kirkuk city, as well as several key military installations and oil fields. Sporadic clashes were reported as pro-government forces recaptured these disputed territories, which have been under de facto Kurdish control since 2014. Iraqi forces, however, faced little resistance, as most of the Peshmerga forces withdrew prior to the advance.
Analysis: With the swift capture of Kirkuk city and nearby oil fields, Abadi scores a significant victory over the Kurds. By seizing Kirkuk and the oil fields surrounding it, he has gained invaluable leverage over the Kurds. As importantly, after being criticized by his rivals for his mild response to the independence referendum, Abadi has shown he was ready to move more aggressively to secure Iraq’s interests. This will play a significant role in the looming 2018 elections, while giving some breathing space to the Iraqi leader, who can now sit at the negotiation table without appearing weak.
The rapid Iraqi advance has also shown that the Kurdish leadership was largely divided, further increasing Baghdad’s leverage. Over the course of the day Peshmerga forces aligned with the President Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and those aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) blamed each other for failing to defend Kirkuk. The PUK in particular, has been accused of brokering a deal with Baghdad to withdraw, after several of its members met with Iranian General Qassem Suleimanei who recently visited the party’s stronghold of Sulaymaniyah.
As a result, the ball is largely in Abadi’s court. Prior to the intervention and capture of Kirkuk, the Prime Minister’s relatively fragile position in Baghdad made it impossible for the Iraqi leader to enter negotiations without losing face. Over the past 24 hours, this situation has largely changed, with Abadi emerging as a decisive figure scoring a major victory over the Kurds.
The US administration is now poised to turn its attention toward Baghdad in a bid to solve the current crisis. Washington has quietly supported Abadi’s move, for the sake of preserving its influence over Baghdad. The US administration indeed understands that a failure by Abadi to respond to the Kurdish bid for independence would amount to political suicide, and carry with it the risk of seeing a moderate figure like Abadi replaced by an Iranian-backed leader. This is the scenario Washington has been trying to prevent from the start, initially calling on the Kurds to delay the referendum.With today’s development, Baghdad has gained the upper hand and is now in a better position to make a concession and start a political process. Abadi had offered to let disputed territories be ruled by a joint administration between Erbil and Baghdad, an offer that may still be on the table.
This is, however, far from being a given despite significant amount of American pressure on Abadi to adopt a more conciliatory approach now that he has secured his own position. Emboldened by his success, and by the support of Turkey and Iran, Abadi could decide that the goal isn’t to start negotiations, but rather to force the Kurds to cancel the referendum – a call he has made several times. Even if these statements are purely rhetorical, several Iranian-backed militias may decide that capturing Kirkuk isn’t enough, and act unilaterally, forcing Abadi to follow suit so as not to be sidelined.
On the Kurdish side, the shocking loss of Kirkuk has made it difficult for Barzani to enter negotiations without a concession from Baghdad. The Kurdish leader also faces his own internal elections in November, and cannot be seen as backtracking from a referendum he has initiated despite the regional outcry. Doing so would implicitly validate the PUK’s claim that Barzani was biting more than he can chew when he decided to go ahead with the independence vote and that the ill-timed referendum would soon turn into a disaster. If Abadi offers less than a joint administration of the disputed territories, Barzani may well have to refuse, and opt for a more forceful response to Baghdad. This means that the space for a negotiated agreement is narrow, and once again largely depends on Washington, the only actor seen by both sides as capable of brokering a deal.