Over 100,000 Kurds have fled Kirkuk since the Iraqi army and the Hash’d al-Shaabi militia seized control of the territory, in the face of an overwhelming vote for an independent Kurdistan.
Kirkuk is of great importance for both Kurds and the Iraqi government. Its oilfields would have made any potential Kurdish state economically viable and allow it to quickly establish international trade links. Few oilfields now remain in the hands of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The stepping down of President Masoud Barzani and the recent death of former Kurdish Iraqi President Jalal Talabani have left a great deal of uncertainty for Iraqi Kurdistan.
Elections for the Kurdistan Regional government have been pushed back to autumn 2018 and tensions between Barzani’s KDP and the Talabani family’s PUK remain high. As the Iraqi army and Shia militias entered Kirkuk, the PUK laid down their arms, at the behest of the Iranian secret service chief Qasem Soleimani, and retreated back into KRG-controlled territory.
The Iraqi government has tried to reassert itself in Kirkuk as people flee. They have restricted the sale of alcohol, taking down Kurdish flags and potentially preparing the way for a re-Arabisation process.
Tensions within the largest Kurdish parties are nothing new. They fought a 20-year long civil war with each other. In 1996, Barzani actively encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack the PUK.
The referendum was viewed as a project of Barzani, with the PUK reluctantly supporting it. The inclusion of Kirkuk, which has had great population shifts since the 1990s and remains ethnically more diverse than the KRG-controlled region, was always going to be disputed.
Sole Kurdish control was only established in 2014 following the incursion of Daesh and the effective dissolution of the Iraqi army in the city. Since the fall of Saddam there has been frequently stormy joint Shia-Kurdish control.
Kirkuk has had a changing population for a long time. Under Saddam the city was Arabised, with large numbers of Kurds displaced and forced into the area now under the control of the KRG.
In 2003, as the coalition forces advanced through Iraq and Kirkuk fell, the city was heavily looted and occupied by Kurdish peshmerga. At the time the Kurdish forces did not expect to gain control quite so easily. Many of the Turkmen and Arabs who had made Kirkuk their home were driven out, not by waves of ethnic cleansing but through seizures, looting and an increasing Kurdish majority population. The Kurdish advance on Kirkuk was aided as in 2014 by the disintegration of the army.
The need for the oilfields to keep running is probably stopping all-out assaults on Kirkuk by the Iraqi Army. The KRG control one of the major pipelines into the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Daesh destroyed Baghdad’s main pipeline, and they are now reliant on the oil going into Ceyhan.
The end of the “Islamic State”
Now Daesh have been driven out of Raqqa, the contiguous territory that they once controlled has been almost completely broken up. Good.
Trump has said; “We will soon transition into a new phase in which we will support local security forces, de-escalate violence across Syria, and advance the conditions for lasting peace, so that the terrorists cannot return to threaten our collective security again.”
The defeat of Daesh also bolsters the Assad regime which looks increasingly stable in the face of a much beaten and fractured Syrian opposition. Trump claims that he wishes to offer “a political transition that honors the will of the Syrian people”.
The will of the Syrian people is of course not clear, but Trump is de-facto granting Assad the USA’s consent to continue Ba’thist rule of Syria.