“We are quite close to a declaration of independence. The main obstacle for now is the US,” Prof. Ofra Bengio, editor of the forthcoming book Kurdish Awakening: Nation-Building in a Fragmented Homeland told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“There are three scenarios for such a declaration: When the American administration changes; before [Iraqi Kurdistan] President Masoud Barzani leaves office in less than two years’ time, as he might like to be remembered as the builder of Kurdistan; and finally if relations with Baghdad deteriorate further,” explained Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Asked if the Iraqi Kurds would be more likely to declare independence if their efforts to export oil independently via Turkey become constant and sustainable, Bengio responded that “the main obstacle for separation is the economic dependence of Erbil [the region’s capital] on Baghdad. If Erbil manages to export oil and gas independently of Baghdad it will make such a move much more plausible.”
The Iraqi Oil Ministry said last month that it was taking legal action against Ankara and state-owned pipeline operator BOTAS for facilitating the first sale of crude to be piped from Kurdistan without Baghdad’s consent.
The move raised the stakes again in a long-running game of political brinkmanship, with ramifications for Iraq’s territorial integrity, as Kurdistan seeks greater self-sufficiency.
The Kurdistan Regional Government said it was undeterred by Baghdad’s “self-defeating” request for arbitration at the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce and accused the Iraqi Oil Ministry of flouting the country’s constitution.
The Kurds say they are entitled to develop and market the resources in their region, and late last year finished building a pipeline to Turkey that circumvents Baghdad’s federal export infrastructure.
Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center who has traveled widely in Syria, told the Post that he agrees with Bengio’s assessment regarding the points necessary for the Iraqi Kurds to declare independence, and adds that “the situation in Anbar and Nineweh provinces, the [Shi’ite] sectarian agenda of the [Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki government, and its apparent inability or lack of interest in addressing Sunni claims and grievances also serves to fuel practical Kurdish separatist impulses.”
The Maliki government likewise does not inspire much loyalty on the part of Iraqi Kurds, said Spyer pointing out that “the inclination toward separation is clear.”
“The remaining issues are purely practical in nature.”
Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official who has traveled in Iraq, told the Post that “the thing to remember about Masoud Barzani is that his Kurdish nationalism has been more rhetorical than real.
“This, after all, is the man who risked everything the Kurds achieved to invite Saddam Hussein’s tanks into Erbil just 16 years ago, and this is also the man who actively sold American and Israeli secrets to the Iranians,” argued Rubin.
Barzani would prefer “to sell out Syrian Kurds to al-Qaida rather than allow any Kurdish competitors to take root,” he added.
Rubin sees the competition between Maliki and Barzani as beneficial to both men because it works to rally their respective bases, without crossing into open conflict.
Regarding the Kurdish oil sales, he said that “Barzani needs something to support his lavish lifestyle – but they will always be under the thumbs of their neighbors and they haven’t found any buyers for the first tanker of Kurdish oil: It was turned away two weeks ago from the United States and last week from Morocco.
“Kurds have a better shot at independence than at any time since after World War I, but Barzani has become more their Pharaoh than their Moses,” he concluded.
In an article in the summer issue of the Middle East Quarterly journal, titled, “Surprising ties between Israel and the Kurds,” Bengio charted the history of the relationship and how things could develop in the future.
The recent upheavals in the region and the geopolitical changes, she said, “could allow for open relations between Israel and the Kurds by removing the barriers of fear, suspicion, and conspiracy theories.”
She did say, however, that many obstacles could still block such a move and that intra-Kurdish rivalries between the four parts of Kurdistan hinder “a clear strategy towards Israel.”
“The fear of antagonizing each neighboring state also weighs heavily on their ability to maintain open links with the Jewish state,” she wrote.
Even though the Kurdistan Regional Government has had strong clandestine ties with Israel, the Kurds worry about angering Baghdad and particularly Tehran.
In addition, their wish to expand business ties in the Arab world makes an open relationship with Israel less likely, she wrote.
Asked if the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could allow for closer Israeli ties with Turkish Kurds, Bengio responded that it would “enable Israel to deal openly with the Kurds.”
In the article, Bengio concludes that going forward “it appears that relations between Israel and the Kurds are doomed to continue in the shadows. However, should the KRG declare independence, this might change the picture on both sides.”
“Jerusalem might be one of the first governments to recognize Kurdistan as it was with South Sudan. A Kurdish state would in turn like to have Israel’s support.
After all, besides the affinity between the two nations, they have common interests in the continued existence of each other,” she said.
Reuters contributed to this report.