In the latest evidence of ongoing fragmentation in what was once Iraq and Syria, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, this week announced his intention to hold a referendum in the coming months to decide the question of Kurdish independence.
“I have said many times that independence is the natural right of the people of Kurdistan,” Barzani told the BBC in an interview. “All these developments [in Iraq] reaffirm that, and from now on we will not hide that the goal of Kurdistan is independence… I cannot fix a date now, but it’s a question of months.”
Barzani’s words reflect the increased self-confidence of the Kurds, following their recent acquisition of the oil-rich Kirkuk area and the effective performance of their armed forces against the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – in sharp contrast to the army of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The US was quick to make its opposition to this move, and its continued support for Iraqi unity clear. US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told a press conference, “As we’ve said many times over the past few weeks, we believe that a unified Iraq is a stronger Iraq,” Meanwhile, the de facto disunification of Iraq continued.
The opening session of the new Iraqi parliament, elected after the April general elections, lasted only as long as it took for the Kurdish and Sunni MPs to walk out, following the failure to find an agreed-upon candidate to replace Maliki as prime minister.
The fighting, too, is going on. Iraqi troops this week claimed to have halted the advance of ISIS fighters and retaken the city of Tikrit. The Kurds clashed with ISIS forces in the town of Jalawla in Diyala province, preventing the Sunni Islamists from widening their hold in the town.
What does all this portend? As in Syria, so in Iraq: Politics and diplomacy lag sharply behind the de facto situation on the ground.
Both local politicians and the “international community” have evidently not yet grasped the reality of what is now taking place in the land area formerly known as Iraq and Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry in recent days held meeting after meeting in Iraq, Europe and the Middle East to cobble together a government of “national salvation” in Baghdad.
Much analysis remains focused on whether “partition” of Iraq and Syria is feasible or advisable. But the reality is that both countries are already partitioned. A single war is now taking place in the land area that was once divided between them.
Three coherent blocs are engaged in this war. The three blocs are ISIS, the Kurds (KRG in north Iraq, PYD in north Syria) and the pro-Iran, largely Shi’ite, Russia-supported element of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Maliki, et al.
All three of these blocs hold coherent and solid territorial areas. In the case of ISIS, which has in many ways become the pivotal player in this war, a single-state authority is in the process of being established to hold power over the area stretching from the Turkish Syrian border all the way to Mosul.
ISIS is already conducting its military planning on a statewide basis. The state in question is not Syria or Iraq; it is the as-yet- unnamed successor entity that the movement has created.
The massive haul of arms acquired from the Iraqi Army’s 2nd and 3rd Divisions in Mosul and from other units in the Kirkuk and Diyala areas deep in Iraq is now finding its way back to the Syrian battlefield.
Kurds in the embattled Kobani enclave close to the Syrian-Turkish border reported a renewed ISIS offensive from the east this week. Syrian Sunni rebels have noted the appearance of American Humvee jeeps as far west as the vicinity of Aleppo city – about 400 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
Against this emergent reality, international diplomacy appears helpless and flailing.
The US, as we have seen, along with Turkey, remains opposed to any declaration of Kurdish statehood. So Barzani is likely to tread carefully regarding any such announcement.
The ISIS entity, for obvious reasons, will not be receiving formal recognition from anyone any time soon.
The Assad regime can survive only with the continued injection of Iranian money and know-how, and Russian arms. The West remains formally committed to a transition of power in Damascus.
But all this is largely beside the point. All these entities will continue to exist unless and until someone is willing to destroy them.
They are not strong enough to conquer each other (in the Kurdish case, there is no desire for such conquest).
There are no signs of any external force on the horizon that is willing or able to carry out the conventional military campaign which alone could force these successor entities back into the neat state boxes which the West would like to see reestablished.
Thus, on the ground, partition has already happened.
Absent a game-changing development (such as a major commitment of US ground forces), it is difficult to see how Iraq and Syria can be put together again.
In the period ahead, as Barzani’s statement this week seemed to indicate, we may have to get used to referring to “the former” Syria, and “the former” Iraq – in the same way it is now customary to refer to “the former” Yugoslavia.
The problem for the people of these areas is that the wars between the successor entities appear as if they have a long time yet to run.