Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has asked parliament to form an electoral committee that would establish the groundwork for a referendum on independence from Iraq.
Given that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have already seized the contested multi-ethnic and oil-rich city of Kirkuk, following the fall of Iraq’s north to Sunni Islamist forces, and given that a referendum on independence was passed with a 98.8 percent approval in 2005, the question is: Why are the Kurds going through the motions, and not outwardly announcing a break from Iraq?
The reason is that despite coming desperately close to realising their century-old nationalistic aspirations, the Kurds are more judicious than their southern Arab Shia and Sunni neighbours.
Rather than wave goodbye to a weakened and politically divided Baghdad now, Barzani is prolonging the process of secession because of two glaring facts. The first is that he is fully aware that Kurdish independence is inevitable.
The second is that an immediate break-up of Iraq would exacerbate the current crises in the Middle East, leading to further destabilisation of a number of countries – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, etc – and ultimately, a blowback for an independent Kurdistan.
While there has been much media fanfare about the possibility of Kurdish independence recently, one critical caveat has not been sufficiently examined – how an independent Kurdistan will survive in a very hostile region.
To begin with, this new state would have to immediately confront the threat posed by the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Kurds have watched as it tore through Syria by giving no quarter to enemies – whether those in government forces or rival Islamist militia – and then proceeded to rout the US-funded and trained Iraq army.
The Islamic State has made no serious move against the Kurds, but it is unclear how they would react if the Kurdish region does break away. According to some reports, the Islamic State has already recruited hundreds of young Kurdish fighters, complicating the tense situation.
An independent Kurdistan could also feel the wrath of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia Arab allies. In previous years, the KRG and Baghdad have feuded over oil export rights, compensation for oil production and more significantly, territorial dominion.
Kirkuk is no small cake, and the Arabs – this issue transcends Maliki and his allies – are not likely to take the loss easily. There have been in recent years, nearly deadly standoffs between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga over demarcating the Kurdish autonomous region. The KRG has wanted to integrate the Peshmerga into the regimented Iraqi military, but Baghdad has repeatedly resisted. With the Iraqi army disorganised and ill-prepared, this may now be a moot point.
To the north and east, a new “Kurdistan” would have to deal with Iran which has played a significant role in the Iraqi political landscape. It is unlikely that Tehran would immediately sign up to Kurdish independence; Iran would not like to see the Baghdad government, which currently serves as a vital supply conduit to Iran’s long-time ally and proxy Damascus, so weakened.
With one-fifth of the country subtracted from Tehran’s grip and likely to be influenced by the US and Israeli administrations, the chains holding Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Iran could also be weakened. However, given Iran’s current nuclear talks with P5 + 1, and Tehran’s desire to remove the sanctions, the Islamic government could be pressured to sign on the dotted line.
But geopolitical considerations remain. Iran’s sizable minority Kurds could find inspiration in their Iraqi counterparts and press Tehran to acknowledge their nationalistic aspirations.
The most crucial question, however, is whether Turkey – once a fierce opponent to Kurdish independence – will now become its greatest enabler.
Turkey has also manoeuvred to maintain its economic, political and social foothold in northern Iraq. And this is where the Kurdish question comes to the fore. The Kurds have, in the past decade, emerged as erstwhile allies and their strengthened ties with Ankara could yet reap the greatest reward of all – statehood.
Turkey has for decades not only vehemently opposed an independent Kurdistan in the region, but has also waged a brutal war against its own Kurdish minority in the southeast.
The US invasion and occupation of Iraq, however, and the subsequent decentralisation of authority in Baghdad, altered the dynamic of Kurdish-Turkish relations.
After a brief war of words between Barzani and Turkish officials over alleged support and harbouring of Ankara’s nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the KRG and Turkey quickly found middle ground.
Following the geopolitical manifesto of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Ankara has in the past decade, opened four consulates – in Baghdad, Basra, Erbil and Mosul. No other country has as much diplomatic representation in Iraq.
Turkey has also walked a tightrope in trying to restore once-frayed ties with Baghdad, while expanding its economic influence with the KRG. There are lucrative ties to be made on both sides; while Turkey is the Kurds’ largest trading partner and development financier – as of 2012, there were more than 1,000 Turkish companies working in the KRG region – it also views Baghdad as a growing market for trade, to the order of tens of billions of dollars a year.
In the past five years, Turkey’s ruling AKP has succeeded in using diplomatic and political means to end the decades-old conflict with its Kurdish minority. Recently, the Turkish prime minister asked parliament to debate a new law that would enable his government to formally begin talks with the outlawed PKK. This would have been unheard of just a decade ago, but the debacle in Syria has also contributed in creating a domino effect of shifting alliances and undercurrents so dramatic that age-old prejudices have fallen to the wayside in the face of new geopolitical realities.
The manner and pace in which the Islamic State seized and consolidated its power in Iraq has also tipped the balance of power in the country; Balkanisation is now a real possibility.
The Turks may be more inclined to accept – let’s hold off on using the phrase “support” for now – Kurdish independence as a fait accompli if Baghdad continues to appear unable to assert its authority. But even if they were to see that in their best interest, the Turks must tread carefully.
Recently, Ankara reiterated its support for a unified Iraq just one day after a senior Turkish official appeared to voice acceptance of an independent “Kurdistan”.
This should not be viewed as confusion but as a testing of the waters. Ankara is worried about angering Baghdad, which has complained numerous times about the Turks’ rapprochement with the Kurds and their alleged role in a pipeline which would carry oil from the fields near Kirkuk via Turkey to Europe and the rest of the world.
Turkish strategists are also carefully scrutinising the situation in Iraq; if Maliki will step aside to allow some semblance of a national unity government to emerge, and whether Baghdad will be able to overcome its political bickering and hold the rest of the country together.
As soon as Baghdad’s authority becomes untenable, Turkey will move closer to publicly accepting Kurdish nationalistic aspirations.
If Erdogan gets his way with the parliament, he will have validated his policies in dealing with the PKK and automatically boost his popularity with the Turkish Kurds. This is particularly important to the once-embattled prime minister who is running for president in an upcoming election.
Ultimately, the KRG is the greatest beneficiary of the current upheaval in Iraq and Syria, and the political momentum in Turkey.
But to survive in a region where people traditionally bear grudges, an independent Kurdistan will not come about, or survive, without a significant and public policy change in Ankara. As Iraq continues to come undone, the Kurds and the Turks may come to realise that they desperately need each other.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is an Iraqi political analyst and an associate professor of practice at the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University of Cairo.
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