Analysis: How Kurdistan’s Independence Can Spark the Middle East

Despite longstanding ties between the Kurds and Israel, support for Kurdistan independence is more than likely a geo-political one, with Israel looking to get a foothold in the region.

A STATUE of a Peshmerga fighter in Kirkuk. Kurds voted, now the question shifts to what their neighbors will do. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A STATUE of a Peshmerga fighter in Kirkuk. Kurds voted, now the question shifts to what their neighbors will do.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For some, Kurdistan’s Independence Referendum that was held on 25th September may have passed by unnoticed, with the Catalan Independence Referendum seeming to garner significantly more attention.
According to the Kurdish Election Committee, voter turnout was reported to have been 72%, with 92.73% voting in favour of independence. Quite a compelling margin and a significantly high turnout.
The Referendum had been originally planned for 2014, stemming from disagreements between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and central Iraqi government and came off the back of an unofficial 2005 referendum, where 98% voted for independence.
While the 2005 referendum and even the latest were classified as non-binding, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government has changed its position, calling the referendum binding. The KRG had also claimed that a result in favor of independence would kick-start preparing and negotiating independence from Iraq, rather than anything more drastic as the Iraqi government has already rejected the legality of the referendum.
Following the result, a Kurdish court was then given the task to review the results of the referendum and approved the outcome, noting that there had been no red flags during the process, with international observers also affirming that the vote had been held in an appropriate manner. The head of the commission has stated that the result will be final once approved by the Kurdish Court of Appeals, while the Iraqi government has asked that the Kurdish government annuls the result ahead of any talks between the KRG and the Iraqi government over ongoing disputes.
The KRG has clearly ignored calls from Baghdad, which has resulted in Baghdad banning international flights in and out of the Kurdish region while threatening to also close land borders.
Unlike before, there is greater pressure for independence this time around, following the Iraqi government’s decision to withhold funding to the KRG back in early 2014. In response, the KRG looked to export oil via its northern pipeline to Turkey, only to see the Iraqi government pressure success to block the sales of the oil.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that there have been accusations of the Iraqi central government being ineffective, which ultimately led to the change in Iraqi government leadership in 2014 and the postponement of the 2014 Independence Referendum. It was in 2014 that ISIS began its efforts in the Kirkuk region, where oil reserves are reported to be 9 billion barrels. The Iraqi army’s collapse in defense of the region in the summer of 2014 led to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces stepping in and taking control of the region.
Focus then shifted onto the liberation of Mosul until early April of this year, where liberation was considered to be progressing well, leading to the 7th June announcement of the referendum. It was also announced at the time that the referendum would also take place in Kirkuk, Makhmour, Sinjar and Khanaqin regions, which are disputed areas claimed by the Iraqi central government.
It hasn’t just been the Iraqi central government, who formally rejected the referendum on 12th September, with Iran and Turkey issuing a joint statement in strong opposition to the referendum in mid-August, which was in line with the Iranian government’s voice of opposition in June.
Across the region, there seems to be a common view on the referendum and the possible division of Iraq, with Syria and Saudi Arabia also voicing opposition, while Israel stands alone. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing support to Kurdistan efforts to gain independence as military and business ties between Kurdistan and Israel having been formed back in the 60s.
Despite longstanding ties between the Kurds and Israel, support for Kurdistan independence is more than likely a geo-political one, with Israel looking to get a foothold in the region, which would support its military and intelligence work against Iran in particular, whilst also wanting to secure oil supply from the Kurdish region as Israel importing almost 80% of its oil from the Kurdish region.
A Kurdish state is in line with Israel’s intention to strengthen ties with non-Arab Muslim states or groups, to not only disrupt the region but to also soften Israel’s isolation within the Middle East.
To put it into perspective, Israeli flags were seen flying in Kurdish towns during the referendum, with slogans including “We are the second Israel”, reflecting the Kurdish people’s dissatisfaction with the way in which they have been treated by the Arab world over the years.
While Israel has openly supported independence, the US has taken a different position, calling for a unified, stable and federal Iraq. From a US perspective, regional stability is of greatest importance, particularly with the ongoing fight against ISIS. With the US a strong ally of Israel, how things develop in the coming months will be of significant interest. Israel’s desire to destabilize the region goes against US foreign policy and desire for regional stability and, while there have been some rumblings of support for Kurdish independence from the Senate, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the US does not recognize the referendum and will continue to support a united and democratic Iraq.
With Iran continuing to tighten its grip on the region, an independent Kurdistan is likely to create some challenges particularly with international community more than likely as global leaders continue to look to douse the flames of war within the region, which has been a hotbed of conflict for almost half a century. Iran’s concerns go beyond concerns of an Israeli foothold on its borders, however, with sizeable Kurdish communities in other countries within the region, including Iran, likely to push for greater autonomy, which has led to closer ties between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.
While for some this is a political game of chess, for others this is considered to be an issue of oil. The Kurdish region supplying as little as 600,000 barrels per day, not only are such numbers easily made up for on a global scale but would likely be considered a welcome outcome from a supply perspective as OPEC and Russia continue to look to restore oil price stability.
So, whether the US will be embroiled in yet another conflict in the Middle East remains to be seen, but with the majority of the region supporting a unified Iraq, it does seem questionable whether independence, even with a greater presence of Israel within the region, will fire up the furnaces of war. The only real issue will be how the Iraqi government handles the referendum result and how, in the event of an eventual recognition of an independent Kurdish state, the oil will be divided.
It certainly seems justified for the Kurds to lay claim to oil resources within the region when considering the fact that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces protected and ensured continued supply as the Iraqi army resistance faltered.
Interestingly, Russia’s Rosneft just recently looked to speed up negotiations with the KRG on investments that would include a Kirkuk to Ceyhan pipeline, a possible stake in the Kirkuk oil field and possibly an investment in a natural gas pipeline from the KRG to Turkey and Europe. The Russian’s are never to miss on an opportunity and Rosneft looks to be Putin’s geopolitical pawn as the company offering sizeable capital injections to the Kurds to refinance oil sales deals with companies including Glencore and Vitol.
Such a move by the Russians will bring into question the Turkish government’s bid to alleviate itself from dependency on Russian oil, which may play into Iran’s hands, but perhaps there will be some fear of Iran and Turkey developing closer relations.
A diplomatic resolution to what could become a geo-political landmine is necessary, with Libya an example of how effective militias in the region can go against the grain of global political leaders and the resolution will likely have to be in the shape of an oil revenue sharing structure that had been discarded at the time of rebuilding Iraq.
For those looking to see where rising tension within the region will be reflected in the global markets, not only did crude oil prices surge back in 2014 over ISIS moves into Iraq’s oil region, but with US interests at stake and concerns of possible military action, gold also found its feet. Yet, for the markets to really run for the safe havens, the prospects of war will need to be real and the region will need to be far more divided on its stance towards Kurdish independence.