Masud Barzani, president of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is in the habit
of dangling from time to time the idea of independence for Kurdistan.
example in an interview with Judith Miller in 2006 he insisted: “Having an
independent state is the natural legitimate right of our people.”
another interview with the BBC in January 2012 he stated: “I like the Kurdistan
Region to evolve day by day. But what I really wish is to see an independent
The latest such example was during the celebrations of
Nowruz, the Kurdish new year.
In his speech on March 21, 2012, he
threatened by implication to declare independence for the Kurdish region if the
political deadlock in Iraq continued.
He further insinuated that the
oil-rich Kirkuk had to be incorporated into a future independent
What is one to make of these declarations? Are they merely
empty talks as his critics say, or trial balloons intended to prepare the ground
for such an eventuality? In approaching the issue of independence Barzani is on
a horn of a dilemma. On the one hand it seems that the Kurds are facing the best
window of opportunity for such a move.
On the other hand, the formidable
obstacles also seem to have gathered momentum.
The positive incentives
have to do not only with the Arab Spring and the geopolitical changes that are
taking place in the region as a result but also with the international community
which appears more forthcoming regarding the modification of old maps and the
formation of new states. This trend, which started in the 1990s with the
establishment of new states on the debris of the Soviet Union, found its
expression lately with the declarations of independence by South Sudan,
Palestine and Azawad in Mali.
Barzani has also to reckon with pressure
put to bear on him by the Kurdish people with regard to independence.
informal referendum held in early 2005 showed that 95% of Kurds opted for
However, Barzani’s critics blame him of missing earlier
opportunities such as in 2003, of caring only for his post and the accumulation
of riches and of lacking the courage to take such a step. Indeed, a possible
internal Kurdish crisis is looming in the horizon if such demands are not
The ongoing crisis between the KRG and Baghdad could provide
another incentive or excuse for such a move.
Barzani’s accusations that
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is leading Iraq to another dictatorship were
accompanied by threats that if the political deadlock in Baghdad continued,
Barzani would revert to the Kurdish people to ask their views on the next steps,
namely declaring independence.
Interestingly, Ankara has kept its silence
regarding such reports. Moreover, according to a report in the London-based
Al-Hayat report, David Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency,
has asked Ankara to support such a Kurdish move. Though this report seems
far-fetched its very circulation is interesting.
Against this there are
some daunting obstacles including the Kurds’ commitment in the Iraqi
constitution to a federal state, the economic and political dependence on
Baghdad, and the fear of antagonizing the neighboring states, especially Turkey
which has become the KRG’s lifeline to the outside world and its most important
economic and trade partner.
Another very important concern is the
Since the 2003 war the Kurds have become the US ally and
the most credible partner in post-Saddam Iraq. But the maximum the American
administration can accept at this stage is a viable federation in Iraq in which
the Kurds would contribute to the stability of the state rather than open a
Pandora’s box of secession.
Barzani’s strategy for solving such dilemmas
is what one may call “creeping independence,” which means preparing the
infrastructure on all possible levels for such eventuality and waiting for the
opportune time for the declaration. This strategy was summed up lately by
Barzani’s son Masrur, director of intelligence and security in the KRG, who in a
way expressed the feelings of Kurdish youth: “Establishing a Kurdish state is a
The question is not whether or not we should declare the
Kurdish state, it is rather how we can protect it. The first prerequisite is
that our nation should be prepared to disregard its party and individual
interests and to fight for their nation.
Whenever our people and the
international conditions are ready, then it is a proper time to declare it.
However, I believe better conditions and a brighter horizon have emerged for
Examining the situation on the ground one can only repeat what
every observer who visited the area testified to: Kurdistan has all the
trappings of a state. In fact, in certain areas it seems even much more cohesive
and developed than the Palestinian Authority or South Sudan.
symbolical level the most glaring manifestations are the Kurdish flag, the
anthem, the use of the Kurdish language and discussions of the national
narrative, especially with regard to the traumas of the chemical weapons and the
genocide meted out to them by Saddam. On the practical level one should mention
the Kurdish independent institutions such as the presidency, the parliament, the
constitution and the army, (the Peshmerga); the flourishing economy; and the
diplomatic ventures such as Kurdish representatives in foreign countries who
function autonomously of the Iraqi missions.
Another unique situation is
that there exist real borders between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the Iraqi
An important boost to the position of Kurdistan as an autonomous
region was given by Masud Barzani’s weeklong visit to the US and his meeting
with President Barack Obama, American officials, the business community and the
Indeed, the fact that Obama received him alone and not as part of
an Iraqi delegation significantly boosted Barzani’s stature as a Kurdish
national leader. It is also a far cry from the American-Kurdish relationship of
only a decade ago when such a visit was conducted secretly and the Kurdish case
as a whole was quite subdued in the US.
So the question now is not if the
Kurds of Iraq declare independence but when. It seems that the timing depends
mainly on relations with Baghdad.
If these continue to deteriorate, the
Kurds might use this as an excuse to bolster their independent status. Also,
further deterioration of relations between Turkey and its neighbors, Iran Syria
and Iraq might encourage Ankara to turn a blind eye to such a Kurdish move.
Finally, it seems that the younger generation is more likely to take such a bold
step. In such scenarios the Kurds of Iraq might make the extra mile within years
but not generations.
The writer is a professor at the Moshe Dayan Center
for Middle East and African Studies. She is the author of the recently published
book The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State.