Oil Fuels the Kurdistan-ISIS Conflict

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 14

Islamic State parade in Kirkuk (Source: Twitter user @Dawla_NewsMedia)

The realities of today’s politics depend heavily on earlier historical decisions, specifically in the Middle East. Therefore, we cannot understand today’s Iraq unless we go back to the disintegration of the Ottoman empire in the days following World War I. Iraq is the center of conflict in the Middle East because of decisions taken at that time by Western powers such as Great Britain, France and Italy.

Basically, there is no single Iraqi nation that has a common sense of the future. Furthermore, there are two different religious sects of Islam, which do not have a history of good relations, namely the Sunnis and Shiites. In addition to the sectarian and ethnic divisions, there stands the reality of Kurds, who have been fighting for an independent state in northern Iraq.

The post-war decisions made by the big powers of the day had a negative impact on the future of Iraq as it separated Kurdistan into four pieces in neighboring states with significant Kurdish populations, namely Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Thus, as many other nations in the Middle East, today the Kurds are trying to shape their future and overcome the consequences of the historical decisions of Western powers since World War I. According to Duran Kalkan, an executive committee member of the Partiya Karkên Kurdistan (PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the most recent challenge to the Kurdish nation has come from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS – now known simply as the “Islamic State”), which is not only a threat to Kurds but also to the unity of Iraq and neighboring states (Kurdish Question, June 30).

Soon after the ISIS offensive in Iraq began, the idea of Caliphate became an actual fact in the region, though the weaknesses of such a regime in Iraq are easily seen (The Telegraph, July 3). Arab and Kurdish populations in Iraq consist of many tribal groups and none of the tribes want to be ruled by other tribal leaders, which makes ethnicity more important than religion in the region. Thus, neither Kurdistan nor the southern Iraqi Shiites could be part of this project as both groups have significant ethnic and sectarian differences within themselves.

As we see now, Iraq has never been an actual unified state and now looks like it will never have the chance to last long enough to become one. U.S. hesitancy to launch military operations against ISIS might reflect a new understanding of this reality and the perception that the Islamic State project is in fact a Sunni Arab uprising against Shi’a dominance and the government of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki (Rudaw English, June 20).

Although ethnicity and religion are two major political factors underpinning the conflict between ISIS and the Kurds, control of northern Iraq’s oil industry also provides a significant economic reason for the conflict. Clashes between ISIS and Kurdish forces thus focus on two major oil-rich cities-Mosul and Kirkuk.

In the week following ISIS’ victory in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the movement declared it would not fight against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as the Kurdish forces were experienced and well-organized (Rudaw English, June 11). When Iraqi government forces stripped off their uniforms and evacuated disputed Kurdish lands in early June, the Kurdish peshmerga militias moved in and declared their intention to protect these lands from incursions by Sunni militants (Al-Monitor, June 11).

Thus, ISIS is aware of the fact that the Kurds have been successful in their hundred year’s war of freedom, which made the occupation of another important city of oil, Kirkuk problematic for them. ISIS is aware of the Kurds’ determination to manage their own affairs and the importance they place on Kirkuk. For now, it would not seem appropriate for ISIS to divert its energies in fighting with Kurdish forces while still engaged in a struggle with the central government. Furthermore, ISIS already has fought the Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG – People’s Protection Units) in Rojava (northern Syria) without success for almost a year while the PKK has declared that its Kurdish guerrillas were ready to protect all parts of Kurdistan against ISIS (Basnews Kurdish, June 12). These strong stands from Kurds have influenced ISIS’ decision not take any steps to fight the Kurds of Iraq.

Despite these significant challenges to its program, ISIS cannot be considered likely to give up the ideal of occupying the disputed Kurdish lands in Iraq, especially Kirkuk Governorate. In the meantime, the president of the KRG Massoud Barzani delivered a speech declaring that Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution has been finally implemented thanks to the peshmerga’s full control of the disputed lands (Basnews English, June 26; Aswat al-Iraq, June 27). The much-delayed Article 140 calls for a referendum to determine whether the disputed territories in the governorates of Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah al-Din and Ninawa should come under the administration of Baghdad or Erbil. Thus, the ISIS offensive became an opportunity for the KRG to hold the referendum in Kirkuk in the absence of a powerful central Iraqi government.

Though Baghdad maintains that only the Iraqi Oil Marketing Company has the right to sell Iraqi crude, including oil from Kurdistan, KRG President Massoud Barzani has insisted oil revenues from Kirkuk will benefit all the local communities:

Kirkuk oil was exported to Turkey via a pipeline that passed south of Mosul. Now the terrorists control this pipeline and prior to that it had been blown up. If this crude oil is not exported via the pipeline in Kurdistan, it has no other way of being exported. The income from export of this oil will go to all whose budgets were not paid by Baghdad – Kirkuk dwellers, all Kurdish people, even the people of Mosul. This oil is not only for the Kurds. It is for all including the Arabs and Turkmens of Kirkuk. The sale of this oil is our right and the right of all people of this region. Without any type of discrimination, the income from this oil will be distributed between Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and others (VOA, July 2).

Indeed, the oil city of Kirkuk will be a valuable economic contributor for a possible independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Kurds know that if they give up Kirkuk, they will also lose their strong hand for an independent state. The Kirkuk oil is of high quality and is relatively easy to extract. Kirkuk oil also constitutes approximately half of all Iraqi total oil revenues. According to Dr. Najm al-Din Karim, the governor of Kirkuk: “The oil and gas companies are safe because they are being protected by the peshmerga and the police” (Iraqi News, June 13). As we see in this political and economic context, whoever controls the oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul will have a strong position and become more legitimate in the international community.

ISIS now has a 1,050 kilometer border with the KRG in Iraq and at least half of that with Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) (Rudaw English, July 3, 2014). Both ISIS and the Kurds are powerful and need oil to preserve their legitimacy and recognition, which makes it probable that a conflict between them will last for decades if the “Islamic State” survives.

Maksut Kosker is an Erbil-based Kurdish journalist and International Relations professional. He received his B.A. degree from Girne American University with a specialization in International Relations.