In an interview with Rudaw Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) stated that “the Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in.”
Such a far-reaching statement should not come as great surprise to those following developments in Iraq and the kind of relations that have been developing between the Kurds and Ankara.
Indeed, the upheavals in Iraq have increased significantly the chances of the Kurds declaring independence from Iraq, for the following reasons: First, Baghdad continues with its policy of not engaging the Kurds and not suggesting solutions to the basic problems which began with the promulgation of the constitution a decade ago.
Second, a main stumbling block to declaring independence was the Kurds’ economic dependence on Baghdad. However, in the past few months Baghdad has stopped payments to the KRG. The Kurds have also managed to export oil independently from Baghdad, which may over time significantly reduce their dependence on Iraq in any case. In addition, the Kurds’ taking control last week of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and the other disputed areas granted them important economic edge over Baghdad. It also solved an ongoing dilemma of the Kurdish leadership, which had been reluctant to take any move toward independence before securing control of the Kirkuk region, which they termed their “Jerusalem.”
The Kurds’ window of opportunity has opened wide because all the other forces acting in the Iraqi theater are now engaged with more formidable challenges. The Baghdad government headed by Nuri al-Maliki is engaged in a war for life and death against the Sunni salafists ISIS whose aim is to depose the Shi’ite government in Baghdad and establish an Islamic state in the Fertile Crescent with Syria and Iraq as a start.
As to ISIS, it appears that at this point in time it will not attempt to challenge the Kurdish entity because it is engaged in a more urgent war against what they call the Shi’ite infidels, because the Kurds are by-and-large Sunnis and because ISIS believes the Kurds are a formidable power, as was proved by recent encounters.
Thus, while the Iraqi army crumbled instantly in Mosul and Tikrit, the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, proved its mettle, first in Mosul when the Peshmerga managed to stop ISIS from encroaching on the area under Kurdish control, and then in Kirkuk, where it managed to nearly instantly dismantle Iraqi forces on which the Americans spent billions of dollars.
The Peshmerga’s political instinct was also illustrated in their quick seizure of Kirkuk airport which together with the two existing ones in Erbil and Sulaymaniyya will secure the Kurds important strategic asset of independent connections with the outside world. All in all, ISIS’s unwillingness at this point in time to challenge the Kurds was reflected in the message it sent them lately to the effect that if the Peshmerga does not initiate a war, ISIS too will refrain from doing so.
What about the reaction of the outside world, which is the Kurds’ main concern, should they go the extra mile and declare independence? To start with, the whole world is aware of the fact that Kurdistan is already a de facto state. And for all the endeavors or rather talk about the integrity of the Iraqi state it will be impossible to turn the clock back to the so called Iraqi unitary state of the 20th century. For while all players continue to pay lip service to the elusive goal of Iraq’s integrity they at the same time choose to do business with this de facto Kurdish state, thus proving the adage that the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.
They do so because this entity has emerged as a very stable and secure region, because it proved its pro-Western and secular inclinations, because it demonstrated its capabilities in managing the export of oil against all odds and because the latest developments have illustrated that it is the last bulwark against the jihadist onslaught on Iraq and the entire region.
Finally, the huge amount of oil and gas that are now under its control will certainly help neutralize the more moralistic calls to protect the “sacred borders” of Iraq, which in any case no longer exist.
Still, the Kurds’ main concern is what the reactions of the neighboring states might be. To start with, Syria is neutralized by its own struggle for survival and will not do so much as raise a finger against the Kurds. Jordan is not interested in doing anything either. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia might be quietly happy with a force containing the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, but even if not it is unlikely they will send forces to fight the Kurds.
This leaves the two “big brothers”: Turkey and Iran. The received wisdom is that these two states will do everything in their power to stop the emergence of a Kurdish state; however, their acts on the ground prove the opposite.
As for Turkey, it has for a long time now turned itself into a midwife for the Kurdish state. Its most recent crucial move in this regard was to allow the export of Kurdish oil through its territories, which makes Turkey into a lifeline for a future Kurdish state. Iran, too, is up to its neck with business and relations with the Kurds.
Will Turkey and Iran be happy then with a Kurdish state which might foment trouble among their own Kurdish populations? Maybe not. Will they send troops to fight the KRG if it declares independence? It is quite doubtful.
All said, the Kurdish leadership’s dilemma is quite clear. On the one hand its apprehensions regarding Turkey and Iran might be well-based and justifiable. On the other hand its urge to seize this unique window of opportunity is also strong. Is the time ripe for it to take bold action and cross the Rubicon now? The AKP’s latest declaration might have encouraged it to do so.
The author is head of the Kurdish Study Program at the Moshe Dayan Center and author of The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.