Since US airstrikes began on Islamic State targets in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, a number of Western countries have finally decided to empower and arm Iraq’s Kurds in the ever-expanding battle against the radical group. The West has finally made the right decision, as the Islamic State group can only be confronted and defeated with the help of a reliable regional ally such as the Kurds.
Western support for the Kurds should be part of a long-term strategy aimed at stabilising Iraq as a whole. In other words, help the Kurds help Iraq.
Iraq’s problems are the Kurds’ problems
Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs can work together. The retaking of the Mosul dam through a joint Kurdish-Arab force – a dam that the Islamic State could have used to flood cities like Baghdad – proves that not only is intervention in Iraq working but also that these are reliable and organised forces that can fight the Islamic State and do the job effectively.
More importantly, it showed that, with support, Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish forces are able to work together to fight a common enemy that constitutes an existential threat to the Iraqi state and everything the Kurds have achieved over the past two decades.
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Having initially decided to engage in defensive operations and fortify its control in disputed territories, like the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) can no longer view Arab Iraq’s problems as separate and disconnected from Kurdistan. Continued sectarian violence in Arab Iraq has allowed groups like the Islamic State to emerge with significant local support. At the same time, the Kurds have spent the past decade securing their borders through their organised security forces as well as sophisticated intelligence networks.
The jihadist threat is nothing new for the Kurds but they can no longer simply seek to manage the threat. The Islamic State group is ambitious, resource-rich and growing in strength, as its ranks swell with discontented Sunni Arabs from the region and foreign fighters. Therefore, the group must be actively and decisively confronted immediately.
Every defeat of the Islamic State is a gain for Iraq as a whole, as the future of Kurdistan is intertwined with that of Iraq’s. Now that Kurdistan has entered the fight, it must be empowered and given sufficient weaponry to fight the Islamic State in the north in a serious and sustained military campaign backed by US air strikes. This will give Arab Iraq the breathing space it needs to organise militias into the armed forces and set up an army that can function in an organised, effective and accountable manner. Only then can Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs have a chance in defeating the Islamic State.
Fears of partition
Some have argued that empowering the Kurds will undermine the territorial integrity of Iraq, given Kurdish ambitions to achieve independence. In July, the Kurdistan Region president, Massoud Barzani, asked MPs to make plans for an independence referendum and there was widespread anticipation that independence was an imminent scenario. The Kurds, however, are unlikely to declare independence any time soon.
Kurdistan is still economically dependent on Baghdad and on the national budget, 17 percent of which the Kurds are entitled to and which provides the Kurds with billions of dollars worth of revenues. Baghdad recently withdrew the Kurds’ share of the national budget because of a dispute over Kurdistan’s right to export oil. The KRG failed, as a result, to keep up monthly salary payments to state employees, creating a fiscal crisis that on its own has the potential to undermine stability in Kurdistan.
The Kurds have still gone on to develop an independent export capacity, having completed a pipeline that allows for Kurdish oil to be directly exported to Turkey, without going through the national pipeline controlled by Baghdad. Although this, in theory, means Kurdistan can avoid any punitive measures undertaken by Baghdad, it still lacks the legitimacy to sell its natural resources. Recently, Baghdad managed to block the sale of Kurdish oil in a US court, which means that the central government still has enough sway internationally to make sure that the sales through the new oil pipeline are limited.
For now at least, the international community does not seem to favour an independent Kurdish state and the Kurds are aware that they can’t make it on their own and that a move to independence now will further destabilise Iraq.
Independence in the long term
With or without Western military help in the current phase, the Kurds are likely to move towards independence in the long run. They will continue to move forward, developing their economy and institutions with or without Arab Iraq, as they have done over the past decade.
They entered the new Iraq with more than two decades’ worth of nation-building – a mature political process, organised security forces and a solid foundation on which to build an economy. Arab Iraq, on the other hand, inherited decades of sectarian conflict, a divided society, economic sanctions and the humanitarian impact of disastrous wars with its neighbours.
Kurdistan’s progress over the past decade provides enough reason to believe that they will continue to build on their achievements, regardless of what Arab Iraq decides. There also may soon be a shift in US and European foreign policy toward the Kurds that recognises Kurdistan’s disconnect from the rest of Iraq and which looks to the Kurds for regional and energy security needs. That means that even without statehood, the Kurds can still achieve de-facto independence that has the support and backing of the international community.
Baghdad can choose to either fight the Kurds’ statehood ambitions or work with them and help them on their way through partnership and cooperation. If Arab Iraq and its Shia-dominated government opts for the second scenario, it would win over a reliable economic and security partner with which it already has a history of cooperation. Iraq’s Kurdish and Shia parties fought the former regime and have worked together to prevent a return to the pre-2003 political order.
Unlike the Islamic State and its supporters, the Kurds, with or without statehood, do not constitute an existential threat to the Iraqi state. Through partnership Kurdistan and Arab Iraq can stabilise the country and ultimately defeat the Islamic State.
Ranj Alaaldin is a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and a Doctoral Candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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