A change of prime minister will not resolve Iraq’s structural problems, and while a dysfunctional Iraqi state is reeling from onslaughts by Islamic extremists, the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country have never been stronger. Even so, we are very unlikely to see an independent Iraqi Kurdistan in the immediate future.
Behind the recent flood of news reports from Iraq, about the brutal efficiency of the Islamic extremists, ethnic cleansing, and Western intervention, there is another, deeper question that deserves more attention: Now that the Iraqi state is so weak, will the Kurds in the north of the country take the opportunity to break free?
Superficially there is much to suggest that such an event is likely. Firstly, in July this year, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region, announced that a referendum would be held “in the course of months” on whether the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) should declare independence.
Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIL) is currently operational in an area that extends eastwards from Aleppo, in war-torn Syria, to Mosul, 500 kilometres away on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and southwards to Falluja, which is close to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The Islamists’ spectacular offensive has knocked Iraq’s oversized security service off its feet and brought down to earth the pie-in-the-sky ideas about a functioning and democratizing Iraqi state.
A weak Iraq may sound like good news for those Iraqi Kurds – the vast majority – who dream about having their own state. The relationship between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurds in the period between 1960 and 1991, when the Kurds were granted limited autonomy, can be summarised as follows: when the Iraqi government has been weak, it has recognised Kurdish rights and acceded to Kurdish demands; but when the Iraqi government has been strong, it has done everything in its power to crush the Kurdish opposition. The latter situation was exemplified by Saddam Hussein’s campaign of genocide and forced migration, which left 80 per cent of Kurdish towns and villages in ruins. At that time the Iraqi state was strong, while the Kurds were weak.
Now the situation is reversed. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is stronger than ever. The Kurds have acquired friends other than the mountains, where the Kurds repeatedly sought refuge until 1991, and the KRG has taken advantage of a rare combination of political stability and oil wealth. Of the many milestones in Kurdish development since 1991, 12 June 2014 is one of the most important. In the course of a couple of hours, Kurdish soldiers captured Kirkuk, which had previously been controlled by Baghdad, when Iraqi soldiers fled in panic from an IS attack. The Kurds had aspired to control of Kirkuk – a geo-strategic trump card – for over half a century.
Despite their strengthened position, there are several reasons for thinking that the Kurds are unlikely to declare independence in the immediate future.
A hesitant Obama has sent in bombers and provided weapons, but the US sees the solution to the problem posed by IS as political rather than military. Sunni Muslims must be included politically, so that they have something to lose if the Iraqi state collapses. This is because Iraq, like some American banks, is “too big to fail”. According to this analysis, an independent Kurdistan is undesirable because Kurdish independence will hinder Iraqi statebuilding. So when Obama’s bombers take long pauses between bombing raids, and when Obama provides only a moderate supply of weapons, this is partly because the support is meant to function only defensively, without strengthening the KRG more than necessary.
France and the UK are now following the example of the USA and are permitting hi-tech military equipment to be supplied to the Kurds, together with weapons and ammunition. This is a notable escalation of European participation in Iraq, but should still be understood more as an attempt to counter IS than as a declaration of support for Kurdish independence. IS has captured cutting edge weapons that were “Made in the USA” from fleeing Iraqi soldiers, so the West is arming the Kurds to enable them to withstand the Islamic extremists. The EU supports supplying weapons to the Kurds, but is clear in its support for Iraq as a sovereign state. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warns that an independent Kurdistan will destabilise the region.
For reasons having to do with security and energy policy, from both an international and a regional perspective, it is desirable for Iraq to remain a single entity. Iraqi oil should be pumped out onto the global market and Iraqi soldiers should comprise a military front against IS in order to prevent further destabilization of the region and its transformation into a platform for international terrorism.
The states neighbouring the autonomous Kurdish region have their own Kurdish populations, as well as a long history of oppressing them. Iran has even described the announcement of a referendum on Kurdish independence as “a Zionist conspiracy”. Turkey, however, represents a possible ally. This year the KRG has begun to export increasing volumes of oil via Turkey. In addition, 80 per cent of the region’s imports come from Turkey – including most of its food, now that the oil is flowing and ancient Kurdish agricultural land is lying fallow. Turkey and the KRG are cooperating closely, but for decision-makers in Ankara, as well as in Washington and Brussels, a functioning Iraqi state is nonetheless Plan A, whilst an independent Kurdistan is Plan B. Moreover, Turkey’s economic colonization would put a KRG that is independent of Iraq in a de facto relationship of dependence on Turkey.
This leads us to another point: the KRG is not as strong as it may appear. The IS offensive has raised questions about its military ability, while the whole public sector is under enormous pressure as a result of fighting, an influx of refugees and lost income, since Baghdad started to withhold oil revenues in protest against bilateral Kurdish oil exports to Turkey.
It is difficult for a non-governmental player to sell oil legally against the will of the state in a world of sovereign states, particularly when the state in question is the world’s seventh largest oil producer and has the financial muscle to impose sanctions on one’s customers.
This financial muscle is at the same time an incentive for remaining under Baghdad’s control, although on more favourable conditions now that the KRG’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Baghdad is stronger. These conditions will be that in the future Baghdad will guarantee to allocate 17 per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues to the KRG, as previously agreed and without any further breaches; the KRG will be allowed to export oil bilaterally; and that Kirkut and its oil will come under the KRG’s control. If these conditions are achieved, the KRG will have taken a new step towards future independence, and will have time on its side.
An alternative scenario is that the Kurds will find more buyers for their oil (they have already found some) and will build up their oil revenues while exchanging the protection and control of Baghdad for that of Ankara. In this scenario the Kurds would be threatened by both IS and Iraqi forces, as well as Iran; they would lose Baghdad’s oil revenues; and they would be sitting on a tinderbox of discontented militias of different ethnicities in Kirkuk.
During the course of my research I have interviewed many Iraqi Kurds, both people living in Norway and those who have returned to their homeland. They have told me of their fundamental optimism for Iraqi Kurdistan, which is combined with a fundamental uncertainty due to the presence of Syria, Iran and Turkey as neighbours. Fervent nationalism has taken the KRG to its current position in a series of enormous strides since 1991. But now there are sound and practical reasons to proceed with caution.
This text was published in Morgenbladet 22 August: Vaklende løsrivelse.
Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext