Erbil’s Ankawa suburb used to be its own town, but for all intents and purposes it is now part of the sprawling capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
It is home to tens of thousands of Christians, many of them refugees from Mosul and the Nineveh plains.
Over a nargileh in a small Christian-owned café, the men said it would likely be their last Christmas in Iraq.
“It’s finished here.”
Wouldn’t the Nineveh plains be liberated from Islamic State in the coming year? “No, we don’t think so, and anyway, there’s nothing to return to,” the younger proprietor said.
For these Christians the future in Iraq may seem dim, but for Kurds the future is looking brighter every day.
For those commentators always predicting Kurdish independence, it seems to be a case like all the suitors waiting for Penelope to finally finish weaving a burial shroud in Homer’s Odyssey.
So when will the burial shroud of Iraq finally appear, and Kurdistan emerge? The Economist noted that the Kurds of Iraq were “ever closer to independence” in February of 2015, but it cautioned them to “play their cards cleverly.”
In a July interview with Al-Monitor, Masrour Barzani, the son of the president of the KRG and chief of the intelligence services, said that the region was not pushing for forced separation from Iraq but an “amicable divorce.” Iraq was a “failed system” and Kurdistan would be more effective on its own. “We would be able to make our own agreements to purchase our own weapons.”
Weapons aren’t the only thing the Kurdistan region’s independence would mean: The KRG wants to export its own oil without going through Baghdad and without having to wait for budgets to pass through Baghdad, which are often snarfed up by the federal government.
The Kurdistan region is stable; it doesn’t suffer from the kind of sectarian strife plaguing the rest of Iraq. It has new airports. There is security and safety in the KRG. Malls and shopping centers are rising in Erbil, and in the northern city of Duhok new hotels dot the main highway and a stately new American University campus has bloomed.
On December 21 KRG President Masoud Barzani instructed his Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Kurdistan, to “find a mechanism” for the preparation of a referendum on independence.
“I don’t know whether it happens next year or when, but independence is certainly coming,” he told a meeting of the Atlantic Council in May.
Every Kurd I spoke to in the KRG wants independence.
This general aspiration was symbolically clear on Flag Day on December 17, when Kurdish flags hung everywhere and people attended patriotic events. The two large parties of the KRG, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, want independence.
But pragmatism beats rash actions. Surely Kurds are aware that other peoples that sought independence – whether in the case of Palestinians, South Sudan, Kosovo or East Timor – have had a long, hard struggle.
There’s no point to declare independence and then not have anyone recognize it.
Beneath the consideration of haste is the consideration of regional strategy.
The rise of Islamic State in Iraq weakened the authority of the Baghdad central government and revealed its true face as a Shi’a-dominated polity deeply infiltrated by Iranian influence. Privately, some Kurds admit that in June, when Islamic State appeared in the Sunni cities such as Tikrit and Mosul, they thought it was heading to Baghdad. Iraq would disintegrate, Kurdistan would remain.
But Islamic State turned on the Kurds in August, conquering thousands of kilometers of disputed areas in Kirkuk and Shingal, committing a genocide against Kurdish-speaking Yazidis and heading for Erbil. The war on Islamic State may have been initially traumatic, but a year and a half later it has left the KRG united, its political problems seemingly pushed aside.
Now Iran is on the rise in the Middle East, and its allies in Syria and Baghdad form an arc around the KRG. In the old days Sunni Arab parties feared an independent Kurdistan, but now it could be a bulwark against Iran. Similarly, the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees in the KRG a regional ally, meeting with Masoud Barzani on December 10 and ostentatiously displaying the Kurdish flag.
But the plot thickens. The Kurdish-based YPG, the armed forces of the Kurdish region of Syria called Rojava, is considered closer to the Assad regime and Iran.
The issue is further complicated by tensions between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey and the KRG. There is a lot of resentment in some sectors of the KRG against the PKK, which has bases there and which is involved in a struggle with the Turkish state.
They accuse it of occupying villages on the border, which are shelled by Turkey and to which civilians cannot return. They claim it exaggerates its role fighting Islamic State, or that it actively undermines the KRG’s interests. In August the Turkish paper Today’s Zaman accused Abdolreza Rahmani Fazil, the interior minister of Iran, of “visiting the PKK stronghold in Kandil [mountains].”
It is a complex puzzle. The mostly Kurdish HDP party in Turkey crossed the electoral threshold in June and November parliamentary elections, even as a major crackdown on the PKK is going on. PKK and HDP are considered to be closely related. The Kurdish-dominated YPG in Syria has accomplished major successes against Islamic State. Even Iranian Kurds are affected by these divisions, aligning in various groups such as PDKI, Komala and PJAK, the latter of which is also thought to be related to the PKK. In some ways the KDP, which also has supporters in Turkey, Syria and Iran, but which dominated the KRG, feels threatened by the Iranian potential to destabilize the area or by a future confrontation with the PKK.
From an outside perspective it seems inexplicable, for instance, how the border between YPG-held areas in Syria and the KRG is not blossoming in trade. Here are two nominally independent Kurdish areas that are not united but divided as much as they might have been under the old regimes of Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad.
On Kurdish Flag Day many Kurds in the KRG were angered by videos allegedly showing YPG fire trucks dispersing Kurdish protesters who were holding a large flag. Why don’t they fly the Kurdish flag in YPG areas? wondered viewers.
There is also a feeling that the Western governments have not done enough for the KRG. Why do they insist on always dealing with Baghdad, when they know the level of corruption there? many wonder. Why don’t they see in Kurdistan – with its high level of democratic participation, diverse media and tolerance for diverse communities of Christians and Yazidis, while hosting 2 million Arab refugees – a model for the Middle East? Instead, the West wants to work with Iran and Iraq! So the KRG is reaching out to Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The Turks even maintain a controversial small military base near Mosul, which is training troops for the eventual liberation of the city.
But Kurdish security experts are clear: they do not want Baghdad’s Shi’a militias in Mosul. They don’t want them anywhere near Kurdistan. They also want the Arab refugees to go home to Nineveh and elsewhere.
It’s a catch-22. Without the liberation of Mosul and expansion of the Shingal front, no one can go home.
Who will take back Mosul, this ripe fruit hanging low on the Islamic State tree, waiting to be plucked? “We don’t sacrifice Kurdish lives for an Arab city,” say many Peshmerga commanders. The fruit that is not picked will rot.
Perhaps as long as the KRG can function as an independent state, it can postpone the pitfalls of independence.
Keeping Iran at bay, and the major parties united, and finding a way to export oil, while discussing issues with the YPG, would be essential.