Is a Kurdish state on the horizon?

Energy deal with Turkey lessens Kurds' reliance on Baghdad-controlled infrastructure.

Kurds pose behind Kurdish flag_311 (photo credit: Mike Finn-Kelcey/Reuters)
Kurds pose behind Kurdish flag_311
(photo credit: Mike Finn-Kelcey/Reuters)
While the media is focused on Iranian nuclear talks, the war in Syria, and the elections in Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) is making headway in severing Baghdad's grip over its national ambitions, making an independent Kurdish state seem like a more realistic possibility.
There is plenty of regional and international opposition towards such a scenario, not to mention the web of Kurdish political rivalries, but fresh geopolitical realities are furthering the Iraqi Kurdish cause. Developments such as a new pipeline deal with Turkey are turning the KRG into an influential and crucial player in the Middle East.
While ethnic Kurds are spread out throughout Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, their Iraqi brethren have made the most progress in terms of achieving Kurdish-nationalist goals. Since 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan has operated as a semi-autonomous region. It is secured by its own forces, relatively stable, and increasingly able to make unilateral foreign policy decisions, much to the chagrin of Baghdad.
Moreover, the Kurd's cause was helped tremendously when their  premier threat, the Iraqi army,  was defeated by the US in 2003. After the war, the country enjoyed a period of internal stability and growth under the US's continued presence, and the region was preoccupied with ruthless Sunni and Shiite bloodletting. All the while, the KRG was able to entrench itself as a formidable player in Iraqi politics.
With that in mind, the issue of oil remains one of the main obstructions to Kurdish independence in Iraq. As a developing entity, the Kurds rely on their southern Arab neighbor to transfer and ship newly discovered oil reserves to foreign markets. The long running Arab and Kurdish dispute within Iraq continually jeopardizes existing oil agreements, notably leading to a recent halt of all oil traffic from Kurdistan. Iraq realizes that its hold over Iraqi Kurdistan depends on its ability to control the oil infrastructure and the market. Without this, Iraq cannot prevent the Kurds from selling oil on their own — a major step towards independence from the Arabs.
Then late last month, it was reported that Ankara and Erbil agreed to construct energy pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkish terminals, two of which were made without Baghdad’s consent. The plan has enraged Baghdad not only for its timing — as Shiite Iraq remains in a diplomatic quarrel with Turkey — but also for its brazen and intentional meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. But for the Kurds, the pipelines are a strategic breakthrough and likely to alleviate the long term problem of Baghdad’s monopoly on infrastructure development.
Building and securing pipelines in the Middle East is no easy task. Hence, the Turkish-Kurdish plan signals Ankara’s faith in the KRG’s ability to secure territory and enable the continuous flow of energy to meet Turkey’s growing needs. That said, Iraqi Kurds are likely wary of Turkish intent, given the ongoing feud between Shiite Iraq and Sunni Turkey, plus the nature of Middle East power politics. This is nothing new for the Kurds, who have often been a chess piece among competing powers — mainly Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria — fighting for their own geostrategic ascendancy.
With that in mind, Kurdish alliances are often short-term and need-based, thus warming Turkish-Kurdish relations do not mean Turkey wants Iraqi Kurdish independence. Turkey has its own very violent Kurdish conflict. Cooperation between Turks and Kurds is likely intended to increase Ankara’s influence in Iraq by taking advantage of the current political stalemate in Baghdad. The partnership also deals a sharp blow to Turkey's new regional rival, the Iranian-aligned Maliki government.
Nonetheless, the pipelines offer the Kurds concrete gains in the form of energy infrastructure. They will gladly play along with Turkey, as long as their partnership mitigates their most pressing issue: removing themselves from the Iraqi vice.
That vice is widening, as Iraq’s ability to control a stable, ethnically homogeneous, and increasingly prosperous Kurdish entity wanes. The pipelines mark an important step forward for Iraqi Kurds. Such a move would not have been possible had the Kurds not laid the proper foundations. The primary pillars are stability within Iraqi Kurdistan and an increasingly hostile relationship between Iraq and Turkey. In the future, Iraq will undoubtedly seek to maintain influence over its separatist northern regions. Nonetheless, the Kurds are pressing ahead with independence from Baghdad — with or without its consent.
The writer is an Intelligence Analyst with Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.