The Future of Disputed Territories: MERI Forum 2014 | S1:P4


Session 1: The future of the disputed territories
Date: 04/11/2014

Part 1: Intervention of Mohammed Ihsan (King’s College)
Part 2: Intervention of Hassan Toran (Turkmen Front Coalition)
Part 3: Intervention of Marwan Ali (UNAMI)
Part 4: Intervention of Gareth Stansfield (Exeter University)
Part 5: Questions & Answers Session


Transcription of Gareth Stansfield (Professor of Middle East Politics, Exeter University)

I would like to express my thanks to Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen and the organising committee for inviting me to speak at what is a fantastic inaugural event for a much needed think-tank in the Kurdistan Region and there can be few subjects as important as understanding the future of the disputed territories. My own background with Kurdistan goes back to 1996, a very different place and a very different time, and it is one that is useful to reflect upon.

Changes in Kurdistan over the last 18 years have been remarkable and I am sure the changes over the next 18 or 20 years will be more so. In that timeframe, we would expect obviously something to happen in the disputed territories and in the Kurdistan Region, to go forward, and so it is a very pertinent subject to be focusing upon today.

I am going to focus upon the very recent past, the period of June 2014 onwards and then reflect upon the theoretical and practical considerations that have been forwarded by different articles in the constitution, by UNAMI for the resolution of the disputed territories, and some of the problems that now, or the same of the changes that now come forward by the rise of ISIS, and what that means. We have heard many things over the last months and different ways describing the situations that Iraq, Kurdistan and the disputed territories are now in; usually before and after Mosul type of discussion is a very apt place to start.

If we consider the disputed territories before Mosul, April, May into June, 2014, the situation was not only unresolved, it seems to me that it was almost forgotten. The situation of the disputed territories, of the people of the disputed territories, and of the status of Kirkuk had largely been put to one side. This seems, for an outsider watching this, as Erbil and Baghdad struggled only over questions such as oil, the budget and the status of Erbil in Iraq. So, it was lastly unresolved. There was of course Baghdad-Erbil standoff. If we remember back to May and April 2014, the rhetoric between those two capitals was intense and non-stop. At times, watching from London, it seemed to me and others in that sort of position that Erbil and Baghdad could quite easily go to war in the disputed territories, let alone resolve the problem of them.

The KRG and the different Kurdish parties had established a de-facto control of key parts of the disputed territories that seems to be very clear. But the territories themselves have been caught in a geo-political trap between Baghdad and Erbil; not quite a political football, but not far from it either. Just to remind everybody where we are, this is a very useful map for referring to it later showing the Kurdistan region as it was approbated in the constitution of 2005 and the disputed territories. Later on, we will show a map that raises the question, not of what to do with the disputed territories, but what exactly are the disputed territories in today’s Iraq.

I will move to the during Mosul phase, and for me this is the rise of ISIS in Mosul, the swift attack that captured the city in June, through the attack on Kurdistan in August. This was a crazy time, not that long ago but a crazy time in Iraq and Kurdistan as everybody looked south from Erbil trying to figure out what Caliph Abu Bakr, as it was known then, would do, trying to understand the response of Maliki in Baghdad, and looking to see how the Kurds are going to consolidate their hold of those parts of the disputed territories they took. The disputed territories became a theatre of war. Again the question of resolution was not there, how could it be? We witnessed the genocide of the minorities, of the Yazidis, of the pushing out of the Christians, of targeting a whole range of peoples in these areas.

The Peshmerga, thankfully, were pushed into key parts of the disputed territories especially around Kirkuk, otherwise, I think, it would have been all too easy for ISIS forces as they were to steamroll it to the east and to the north. But it changed matters hugely for the Kurdistan Region. Rather than having this desperate area of the disputed territories where Peshmerga have been deployed here and there, the security forces were projecting their power, there was now a line, there was now a boundary, 1050 km boundary that desperately needed to be defended. In this setting I would say, I would argue that KRG leadership was overconfident and they had good reason to be. The vaunted forces of the Iraqi security forces of Maliki had been shown to be weak, desperate, chaotic and unable to defend even against a few thousand ISIS fighters. How could they then fight Peshmerga if Kurdistan was to succeed?

There was not really a view of the threat that ISIS posed to the Kurdistan Region itself, or the fact that ISIS could have far more durability and longevity than as shown to have. For ISIS itself, I think it remained fearful of a northern threat, a threat that could come from the Kurds if they decided to push against them at this key moment of weakness for them as they extended their hold in the north, and I think, they were watching for political signals of a rapprochement between Baghdad and Erbil that would place them in a very difficult position or even a coming-together of Kurds with key Sunni Arab tribes which would be a call for war as we saw. So this is the frontline as of 21st of July, I am sure it has changed a bit since then. I did have this map with permission of the Peshmerga Ministry, before I am arrested, and it is quite a while I have been using it, it shows a very different line of what it was constitutionally agreed upon in 2005. Interestingly, it cuts right through the disputed territories.

So, now when we start to talk about them certainly from a Kurdish perspective, and I guess from Baghdad as well, it is not WHERE the disputed territories are, it is WHAT the disputed territories are? What is Kirkuk today? It is not the Kirkuk that was been discussed previously, it is a very different entity without the Arab districts of Hawija, Abasi, Zab and other places. So, we go to after Mosul and that attack on Kurdistan and the attack of the disputed territories. ISIS launched a multiple-front-attack known as four-dimensional warfare, coming at the Peshmerga from many different sides and quite simply, Peshmerga forces brave and courageous where they were, were overwhelmed by what was a concerted push by ISIS at this time. But it did result in an alignment, in a sudden recognition as it were in western capitals of the importance of the survival of the Kurdistan Region.

Arguably, of the success of the Kurdistan Region going forward in the face of ISIS threat, and If you really wanted to hold Iraq together, the Kurds should not be seen as the agents of Iraq’s’ demise but as bedrock on which it would be built. And so there was an eleventh hour defence in Makhmour in Gwer; aircraft in the skies, Peshmerga reorganised, reequipped, later on, and pushed back ISIS. It was a near-death experience, but arguably it was near-death experience and could see Kurdistan come out of the situation even stronger, well-aware of the problems that now it faces at the boundaries with Islamic state, well-aware of the sensitivities, as we have heard from Marwan Ali, of not getting the disputed territories right and well-aware of the fact that the future could actually quite bleak as well as possibly be very rosy in deed. But it has been at a cost as well. Kurdistan’s survival limits to a degree, I would argue, the ability of Kurdistan Region to fully self-determine its own future now that its interest is more aligned with the international interests going forward.

Moving quickly to the practical and theoretical questions of governing Kirkuk and the disputed territories, I had the honour of serving as senior advisor to Stephen De Mistura in the writing of the document of 2009. It is not necessarily the document that I agree with, but that was my job as an advisor. But it did provide a very useful understanding of the political and social landscape of the disputed territories, which are essential in understanding of how to move forward. It also presented not necessarily plans, but ways of how disputed territories have been managed comparatively in different parts of the world. Remember that every situation is quite different and the resolution for Kirkuk and the disputed territories will be quite different. But various models have been projected both in that report and in others, that Kirkuk could become a regular governorate of Kurdistan region, that Kirkuk and the disputed territories could become a self-contained regions, that there could be special status arrangements either within the governance of Iraq or within the Kurdistan Region. These are all possibilities. They are all probably quite bad possibilities but it is not the question of finding a really good one, it is the question of finding the one that everybody is equally disappointed with, and in that way, I think even though the UNAMI document was dismissed by pretty much every political party, the fact that they are all unified in this dismissal was actually quite a good starting point to get everybody at least talking about it.

But the resolution in Kirkuk and the disputed territories is going to be more the process of its resolution than the end result itself. The confidence building of the process is more important than actually finding that line at this moment. If we move to the practical considerations, the theoretical side will keep the constitutional loyalists and academics busy for many and many years. But there is a practical question here; Kirkuk is now a divided governorate. We don’t talk about the same Kirkuk as it was in 2005, even than, it would have been heavily divided as we say in many maps of the attenuation of the Kirkuk province over the years by the government of Saddam Hussein.

But now it is divided, the western provinces are not part of Kirkuk as it were anymore; the Kurdish-controlled side has a big Peshmerga presence there and it is been firmly tied into the Kurdistan Region going forward. It is also a threatened governorate, the ISIS forces have not gone away. Even as recently as a few weeks ago, there was an upsurge in ISIS attacks across the whole fronts and especially in Daquq where many Peshmerga lost their lives. As a result to the threat of recalcitrant Arab tribes that may or may not have interest with ISIS going forward. It is also a contested governorate between Baghdad and Erbil. Of course there is a question, as we have heard previously, about oil. The history of Kirkuk, and arguably the history of Kurdistan and Iraq would be different without oil, of course it would, but oil has to be resolved as an issue. It seems to me there is a deal, a possible deal on the table accepting that Kirkuk’s oil in the Avan and Baba Dome and Khormala Dome belongs to Iraq. That government is unable to get oil out; it cannot take it to Beiji, it cannot take it anywhere else. If Kirkuk’s oil is going to flow as it should, then it has to go through the Kurdistan-controlled pipeline to the Khormala facility and out through Ceyhan.

That seems to me a clear possible deal going forward, and it is in these areas that clear practical deals that are perhaps possible for politicians to achieve that the future of Kirkuk will be found. I have to say that I am reasonably pessimistic about this coming to pass. The question of the threats of ISIS is absolutely huge and in some way is a discussion about the future of the disputed territories and the future of Kirkuk is caught now in a Catch-22 situation. There will be no resolution of the threat of the Islamic State without a resolution of the problem of the disputed territories; conversely, there will be no resolution to the disputed territories without the removal of the Islamic State. And it is this particular Catch-22 that brings the status of the disputed territories, this whole issue, into international domain. And it is one, I would think, that would become more obvious, as the months and years go along, that the resolution of the disputed territories will be as important to western capitals and other capitals, as well as it is to Erbil, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul themselves. Thank you.

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