Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Prospects for Independence in Iraqi Kurdistan

The press has been awash with talk of Iraq collapsing under the current crisis and breaking along sectarian lines. Whether this is likely or not, one real possibility that is emerging is of the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq declaring full autonomy with recently extended borders incorporating the entire area inhabited by the Kurds in Iraq. President Barzani has told the BBC that a referendum on independence, which is the nation's goal, is being planned for the next few months. However, it is uncertain how well an independent Kurdistan would fare. Iraqi Kurdistan is surrounded by potentially hostile neighbours none of which would risk the instability this would cause among their own Kurdish populations. There are also uncertainties about how an independent state could progress, not just diplomatically, but economically too. On the other hand, maybe an opportunity like this will not present itself to the Kurds again. I hope to discuss some of these potential problems here.

The first major problem that an independent Kurdistan would come across is one with which it is already very familiar, namely a lack of funds. Currently Kurdistan is supposed to receive about 17% of the national Iraqi budget, although the Kurds claim that they have never received more than 10%. The situation became worse in the last year due to conflicts with Baghdad over Kurdish oil and gas resources. One of Maliki's now infamous divisive policies was to further reduce the amount of money getting through to Erbil. This has been a particular problem for a region in which such large portion of the population rely on a government salary. To make matters worse, the US was backing Maliki and refused to buy Kurdish oil which has been gathering in the Turkish port of Ceyhan for months. To yet further confound the problem, the entire Kurdish economy is almost entirely based on its huge oil and gas reserves:

Israel has now bought the first shipment of Kurdish oil and while this may prove to be a short-term success for the Kurds, some potential long-term problems will be considered below. While petrol might be readily available for Kurds most of the time (although they are now suffering a serious shortage), the energy infrastructure is severely lacking so that constant power-cuts prevent the suitable heating of buildings in winter and the necessary cooling in summer. To bring this to a suitable state will require an incredibly large investment.

I further problem that has been disrupting the Kurdish progression towards independence is the lack of unity between the main parties, KDP and PUK, which also represents a lack of unity between the regional population as a whole. A bitter civil war was fought between the two main parties during the harsh international sanctions against Iraq which took a toll on the already war-weary Kurds. Despite the main parties coming together to form a government since the US invasion, there are still clear tensions. These have been exacerbated by the emergence of a third key party, the Change movement, which seeks to take on the rampant corruption and lack of transparency in many Kurdish institutions. This partly grew out of the Kurdish version of the Arab Spring which left several protesters shot dead by Kurdish police. Change also replaced the PUK as the second largest party in parliament, however, this has led to a deadlock since the PUK still maintains a large and loyal militia force and so negotiations on power sharing in government have been complex and drawn-out. No government was able to form for months after the elections and services suffered accordingly. This problem also does not seem likely to dissipate as much of the territory gained by the Kurds has been acquired by PUK forces. There is also the issue of the PUK's relative closeness to both Tehran and Baghdad. An independent Kurdistan would need to figure out a solution to these problems if it intends to solve the greater problems that it will face.

The selling of Kurdish oil to Israel has led to Netenyahu's public support for an independent Kurdistan, however, this is a double-edged sword for the Muslim country. There is not only the potential fall-out from other Muslim neighbours, especially Iran whose influence on the Kurdish region is not negligible, but also the real issue that Israel is a Western country and as such share in the precedence of previous Western support in the Middle East. As Kurdistan has experienced before with both Great Britain and the USA, western powers are often flippant and untrustworthy when it comes to the causes of small groups in the region (or in most places in the world). The Kurds have been made promises of a state by Western powers which have later been reneged. Kurdish oil may prove to make Kurdistan a big player in the Middle East, however, oil too can lead to problems - the US policy to support Maliki over the Kurds is evidence for this. There is also an ethical problem of selling oil to Israel considering the heavy machinery used to destroy Palestinian homes and build illegal, racist settlements. Unfortunately, Kurdish distrust of all things Arab may mean many overlook the obvious similarities between the Kurdish and Palestinian struggles.

An early statement by a spokesperson for Turkey's leading AKP party which hinted at Turkish support for an independent Kurdistan splitting from Iraq were ecstatically received by many, but unsurprisingly this policy has flipped (if it ever was official policy) and Turkey is now a staunch supporter for Iraq's territorial integrity. Despite Baghdad's prior efforts to thwart the pipeline bringing much needed Kurdish oil to Turkey, the prospect of Kurdish independence stirring up such sentiments among its own repressed Kurdish population would be too much. Considering the situation in Kurdistan in Turkey, the Turkish government should be considered the greatest threat to Kurdish independence in spite of its strong economic ties with the region.

This leads to the final hurdle for an independent Kurdistan splitting from Iraq, the question of how to ensure the freedom of fellow Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iran. The area which is considered Greater Kurdistan is unified by culture and national sentiment more than linguistic relations. The Kurdish languages consist of several different languages and dialects which are often not mutually intelligible.

So, if Kurdistan exists, then it does so in cultural and political solidarity with all oppressed Kurds and if only one part of Kurdistan is able to liberate itself, then it is itself only partially formed. While the situation in Syria has given way to the Kurds there forming their own semi-autonomous region, the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iran are very unlikely to (at least peacefully) achieve any form of autonomy at all. Aside from this there is also the problem of lacking political relations between the Kurdish regions. Öcalan of the PKK in Turkey has very different ideas to the ruling Barzanis in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdish relations with the Turkish government have brought little benefit to the Kurds of Turkey and disputes with the Kurds of Syria, who tend to align more with the PKK, have led to the closing of the border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan as well as the harassment of Syrian Kurds fleeing to the Iraqi side.

In spite of all these problems and difficulties, there is the general feeling that this is the best chance any of the Kurdish regions will get to declare independence and not only that, but also potentially including all the Kurdish areas which have, until now, lain outside of the autonomous region.

Independence for the Iraqi Kurds could also prove to be the foot in the door emboldening other regions to take greater steps towards independence as well as bringing international attention to the issue and hopefully mitigating against the undoubtedly harsh and violent reactions from the neighbouring dominant states. While the USA is unlikely to support Kurdish independence (at least at first) they are even more unwilling to get stuck back in the quagmire of Middle Eastern sectarian conflict. Furthermore, a Western friendly Kurdistan could provide a welcome source of energy for countries dependent on an ever increasingly unreliable Russia, which in turn could provide the Kurds with much needed foreign support and protection. Although this is not necessarily good news for anyone who values the global environment.

As the possibility of an independent Kurdistan breaking away from Iraq becomes more and more likely, questions of how this process will pan out will need to be answered in order to plan against inevitable setbacks and unpredictable events. Even though the region might not be one hundred percent ready to take this step, perhaps the risk of losing this opportunity is too great in comparison with the potential for instability in the tumultuous few years which may lay ahead of this fledgling nation.

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