Kurdish leaders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region have stated that they won’t be handing Kirkuk back to Baghdad’s central authority if and when ISIS is repelled. When Bagdhad’s multi-billion dollar army and police forces numbering in the tens of thousands was quickly defeated by a small ISIS force believed to number only several hundred fighters, it left a power gap across much of Northern Iraq. The Kurds have been using this gap to expand their own territorial holdings.

ISIS Kurds

Many analysts have doubted that ISIS had any potential to seize Baghdad. The small rebel-terrorist force is certainly proven on the battlefield, but is believed to number less than 15,000 strong, with most of those soldiers bogged down in Syria, and certainly not strong enough to take a town numbering over 3.5 million. The bigger worry has been the Kurds and their willingness to come to the table to support a unified Iraq.

Kurds the “biggest” force in Iraq

At the moment the Kurds field the largest and best trained army in Iraq and one of the largest in the entire region. The “Peshmerga”, or “those who face death”, is believed to number about 200,000 strong and is heavily armed. This rivals Bagdhad’s central army and vastly outnumbers ISIS forces.

Even more conservative estimates place the size of the Peshmerga at at least 35,000. These conservative numbers, however, only count officially incorporated forces, though it is believed that many more Kurds are part of the Peshmerga. Most estimates range closer to the 200,000 mark, and the Peshmerge have some 2,000 armored fighting vehicles, plus other advanced weapons, including rockets and artillery.

Perhaps more importantly, the Peshmerga is a battle hardened fighting force, trained and equipped to actually wage a war. Iraq’s central army, despite all the glitz of its American weapons, is poorly trained and has no real leader capable of uniting it into a worthy fighting force.

Like Iraq’s central army, the Peshmerga have also been equipped by the American government. Outside of the United States, and a few of its oil rich allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the Peshmerga are probably the most well-equipped fighting force in the region.

This explains why ISIS troops have largely left Kurdish regions alone, with the except of Kirkuk and a few other border towns existing in the gray area between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. Even in Kirkuk resistance to the Peshmerga control has been minimal.

Eventually, maybe, Baghdad’s central army will be able to repeal the ISIS attack. If not the central government, then perhaps Shia militias. It’s question whether or not the Shia will be able to stabilize the Sunni dominant northern regions if and when ISIS is repelled.

At the moment, however, it is highly unlikely that Baghdad could succeed in any sort of direct confrontation with the Peshmerga. In terms of army size and equipment both forces are about on par, but the Peshmerga’s proven ability on the battlefield gives them a substantial edge.

Kurds looking to break away from Iraq?

The Kurds have shown little interest in expanding their territory outside of Kurdish regions, so it’s unlikely they’d ever mount an offensive campaign against the central government. Still, if the Kurds walk away from the table, Iraq itself could collapse, and right now it appears that the Kurds are willing to do just that.

The Kurds now appear ready to take full advantage of this. Kirkuk and surrounding areas have long been in the sights of Kurdish leaders. The large city is one of the most important in Iraq and is heavily populated by Kurdish and Kurdish-sympathetic people. Up until now, however, the city has been under Baghdad’s central control.

Now that the Kurds have control of Kirkuk, they appear to be in no mood to give it back. And given that the Kurds represent the most unified and well-trained fighting force in the country, Baghdad likely has little recourse.