Steven Cook: I was wrong about Kirkuk

Neither Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani, nor the United States, nor regional specialists appear to have anticipated the Iraqi government’s sudden military move to take over the disputed city of Kirkuk and the oil-rich areas around it.

Noted regional specialist Steven Cook published a makeshift mea culpa on how he now expects events to pan out in Iraq following the referendum, in areas of the country controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Cook is the Eni Enrico Matteo senior fellow for the New York-based Middle East and Africa studies at the Council for Foreign Relations.

In the piece, which gives insight into the calculations Barzani himself may have been making at the time of the referendum, he also talks about how Turkey’s behaviour defied his expectations:

I contended that the Turks could accept an independent KRG, which was incorrect. I also argued that if Ankara were to oppose the route their ally Barzani pursued — he has developed good ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party over the last decade — the Turks would have few options to prevent the referendum or any effort on the part of the Kurds to put its results into operation. This was closer to the mark. As the date of the referendum drew close, Erdogan’s rhetoric grew tougher, and after the results of the vote were announced, he threatened to close the border, cut off trade (including in oil) and even invade. None of those things happened, though Turkey did participate in an air embargo of the KRG, which halted all commercial air traffic into and out of the region’s two civilian international airports.

Cook also expressed surprise that the United States was not more active in preventing its two allies from engaging in small-scale conflict, that Washington did not intervene outright in favour of Barzani, and that the Iraqi government had the courage and capability to make such a move.

I was certain that (Iraqi Prime Minister) Abadi would not, and actually could not, pursue the course of military confrontation, and I was convinced that his threats were posturing before a negotiation.

The results of the Sept. 25 referendum showed 92 percent of KRG residents in favour of seceding together with several areas of Iraq under de facto KRG control, including Kirkuk, an oil-rich province bordering the KRG. The results from Kirkuk itself, however, have not been released separately.

The reasons for the retreat of the KRG-controlled peshmerga forces in the face of the lightning Iraqi advance are still disputed, with different factions blaming one another. However, it seems most likely that KRG authorities, like Steven Cook, simply did not take Baghdad’s warnings seriously.

Many Iraqi Kurds are angry as they consider Kirkuk part of Kurdish lands, saying Kurds make up a plurality, if not a majority, in the province.

Turkish politicians of all stripes, however, have asked for the province to be given a special status within Iraq recognising the needs of the significant Turkmen population.