Kurdistan Regional Government has tried to manage the negative impacts of ISIS but the situation has worsened because ISIS has managed to present itself as a voice for Sunni grievances, turning the extremist groups efforts into a “rebellion” against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite majority government.
Maliki’s authoritarian moves and ambitions have isolated him, and left him without the support of Kurds. KRG has already announced that they will not help Baghdad in the fight against ISIS but will only defend civilians and public property.
The impact of ISIS will be long-lasting on Kurdistan and are already emerging in the region. It has effectively divided Kurdish leadership position towards the recent attacks of ISIS because of the division of Kurdish political parties into the Shiite-Sunni axis — the former is supported by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani and the latter by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani.
While PUK forces in Kirkuk territories are fighting against extremists, KDP forces in Mosul have taken a more defensive approach. PUK leaders have shown concern that ISIS are fighting against them primarily and not KDP. Meanwhile, KDP hosted Sunni tribal leaders and politicians in Erbil last week.
Some media outlets have claimed there is a KDP-ISIS cooperation but such claims are without substance. KDP’s policy is simply, they will only fight ISIS if necessary but if ISIS does not fight them, they will not either.
The division is highlighted here — KDP believes Nuri al-Maliki’s leadership has failed in stabilising Iraq, and more importantly, it has failed to provide a cohesive and inclusive governing system. On the other hand, PUK believes ISIS pose a grave danger to Kurdistan regardless of who rules over Iraq.
One of the achievements of Kurds during this crisis is that Kurdish forces control 95% of their territory for the third time. Kirkuk, a disputed area, is now under the full control of Peshmerga forces, but if disputes continue between KDP-PUK controlling the area might not be sufficient to keep it under Kurdish control.
Many expected ISIS to bridge the gap between Kurdish political parties and be a unifying force, but it has done the opposite. While KDP perceives the current situation to be the perfect climate for Kurdistan’s independence claim, PUK takes a drastically different approach, they believe the “timing” is not right to pursue Kurdistan’s independence claim.
Kurdistan’s lack of unity among political parties during crisis is proving to be a major block towards contingency plans. There should be a greater emphasis on political parties working together in the face of threats to Kurdistan region, and their differences should not be exploited during these times.