Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan – As rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran reach new heights following the execution of Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr on January 2, Iraqi Kurds see opportunities and threats arising from the sectarian turmoil and the tectonic geopolitical changes in the region.
“Kurdistan should warm up to those who accept Kurdistan’s future and its efforts for statehood,” said Khasro Goran, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the dominant faction in the Kurdish autonomous government in northern Iraq.
Massoud Barzani, KDP’s leader, who serves as the Kurdistan region’s president despite some internal opposition regarding the legality of his tenure, made a diplomatic splash in December by visiting Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Both Riyadh and Ankara received Barzani in a manner normally reserved for visiting heads of state. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman held talks with Barzani in the presence of the senior members of the Saudi royal family.
And in a first act of its kind in the country’s history, Turkish authorities raised Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag during Barzani’s visit to Ankara.
Goran praised the dramatic shift in the Arab states’ stance towards the Kurds in Iraq, countries that had for decades opposed the emergence of a Kurdish entity in northern Iraq.
Although the regional settings appear to be shifting in the Kurds’ favour, domestically, Iraqi Kurds have failed to formulate a united position towards these developments.
Kurdistan must not join one side of this conflict against another side ... If we take sides, Kurdistan will turn into another arena of the conflict in the region and we will have much to lose from that.
Whereas the KDP has tilted more towards the so-called “Sunni Arab powers” in the region, its key domestic rivals, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have grown closer to the opposing Iranian-led camp, while some have refrained from articulating a clear preference.
“Saudi Arabia and Turkey want to redefine the Kurds’ role from a Sunni perspective and not as Kurds,” said Sardar Aziz, a parliamentary adviser for Gorran Movement, a major Kurdish political faction in rivalry with the KDP. “And we see the KDP wanting to play along with that discourse.” The majority of Iraq’s Kurds are Sunnis but there are also Shia and Yazidi Kurds.
After returning from his visits to Riyadh and Ankara, Barzani instructed his party officials in late December to work with other Kurdish parties to create a mechanism for holding a referendum on whether Iraqi Kurdistan should become an independent state.
As Iraqi Kurds ponder what they can gain from the expanding regional conflict, some prescribe caution. Being smaller actors in a great game of major regional powers means that there will be limits to Kurdish ambitions and their ability to capitalise on the changes, analysts say.
“Kurdistan is internally fragmented,” Farid Assasard, a member of PUK’s leadership council, told Al Jazeera. “Kurdistan must not join one side of this conflict against another side … If we take sides Kurdistan will turn into another arena of the conflict in the region and we will have much to lose from that.”
Another major consideration for Iraqi Kurds is how the rising tide of regional sectarian tensions might affect their ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Despite initial setbacks in the face of ISIL attacks in summer of 2014, Kurds have now pushed ISIL fighters from the bulk of Kurdish-controlled areas seized by the group. However, ISIL is still uncomfortably close to major Kurdish-controlled urban areas such as Erbil and Kirkuk.
Given the ability of Kurdish Peshmerga forces to stand up to ISIL, some believe sectarian-motivated geopolitical competitions in the region will not have a bearing on the Kurds’ fight against ISIL.
“I don’t think the sectarian escalation will affect the war against [ISIL] because Kurdistan enjoys the backing of Western and regional nations,” said Goran, who leads KDP’s bloc in Iraqi parliament.
“The war is essentially being fought on the ground by the Peshmerga forces with air support from the Western coalition.”
Assasard said that the last time Iraqi Kurds picked sides in a regional conflict was in the 1970s when they sought assistance from the governments of Iran and United States to force the then Iraqi government into conceding political and cultural rights to them.
But when Iran and Iraq reached a deal on redrawing certain parts of their disputed border areas, Iran and the US cut off their support leading to the ending of the brief experiment in Kurdish self-rule agreed between the Kurds and Baghdad.
Amid the sectarian maelstrom gripping the region, some believe the Kurds will ultimately opt to stay on the sidelines, since historically their ethnic identity has been the primary consideration rather than religious or sectarian affiliations.
Kurds make around 20 percent of Iraq’s population while the remainder are mostly Shia and Sunni Arabs.
“[Kurds] are pragmatic enough to understand that picking sides for certain short-term gains – be it economic or military – will not serve political unity inside Kurdistan in medium to long term,” said Athanasios Manis, a senior research fellow at Middle East Research Institute, a think-tank based in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
“And it might complicate further Erbil’s relations with Iraq’s Arabs [both Shia and Sunnis].”