By Mustafa Abid
“Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence. From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.” In his interview with BBC on July 1st, Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, made a bold statement, harnessing regional political turmoil to finally initiate the process of statehood for the Kurds. While in some respects his decision made logical sense, it also failed to account for regional realities that would inhibit Kurdish independence, and perhaps for this reason no referendum has yet come to light.
Barzani’s words are grounded in concrete realities. As a whole, things seemed to be looking up for the Kurdish independence movement in July. More than a year earlier, the Syrian government had essentially ceded the primarily Kurdish (and very oil rich) regions of northern Syria back to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Cementing its hold over that region in a manner reminiscient of the Kurdish governed areas in Iraq, the PYD declared the territory semi-autonomous, initiated its own civil administration, and defended itself against ISIS, all while maintaining an unspoken truce between the party and the Syrian government. Prior to the civil war in Syria, the cession of this land by the government to the Kurds would have been unthinkable. Now, as long as they can stave off ISIS and other extremist groups, the Kurds possess the fully autonomous territory they desired in Syria, contributing to the future Kurdish state.
Just as the instability in Syria created opportunities to advance Kurdish goals, the crises in Iraq provided a crucial window of action for the Kurdish independence movement. At the beginning of the ISIS offensive in Iraq, the Kurds accrued a series of critical victories against not only ISIS, but also indirectly against Baghdad itself. Compounding their takeover of Kirkuk, the military wing of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Peshmerga, captured two adjoining oil fields outside of Kikurk, commandeering some of the prime northern oil real estate. Now, in addition to the territory they desired in both Syria and Iraq, the Kurds held the most crucial card for a successful statehood bid: valuable resources.
It is remarkable to consider that after almost a century of calls for independence, the Kurds were able to seize two out of four desired territories in the span of 12 months. Due to a combination of ISIS in Iraq and the revolution in Syria, those respective governments have opted for, at least the time being, cooperation with (or toleration of) the Kurdish pursuit of nationhood. The story becomes much more complicated, however, when it comes to countries three and four from which the Kurds seek territory: Iran and Turkey.
For a Kurdish optimist, as perhaps Barzani was at the time of his announcement, Iran and Turkey don’t seem like such a big problem. Iran is, after all, arming the Peshmerga forces in Iraq to fight ISIS, and according to Barzani, “The Islamic Republic of Iran was the first state to help us… it provided us with weapons and equipment.” But this military bailout is by no means an indicator of permanent rapprochement.
In a recent article, Al-Monitor writer Turkiye’nin Nabzi highlighted the tenuous position in which the Kurds now sit with regards to Iran and Turkey. Nabzi reminds readers that regardless of current cooperation, neither Iran nor Turkey carries significant interest in an autonomous Kurdish state coming to be, and the repercussions it would certainly have with Kurdish separatists in the two geopolitical behemoths. As Nabzi notes, Barzani has actually shifted from his optimism over Turkish support of a Kurdish state to a belief that he would not receive “…assistance or opposition…” from Turkey. Even this statement remains optimistic though. While the Kurdish oil gains have been impressive, the one and only oil pipeline through which to export their black gold runs through Turkey. A similar, more hostile situation played a role in crippling South Sudan’s entrance into statehood , and contributed to civil war. It would seem unreasonable for the Kurds to seek statehood and autonomous foreign policy until they secured their own oil exporting abilities and could subvert Turkey’s power. While trade between Barzani’s KRG of northern Iraq and Turkey continues to grow, it does not yet seem enough to cement a statehood bid.
To further deflate dreams of statehood, Iranian diplomats have noted that they share Turkey’s view on a Kurdish state, which is something that “….Iran will never allow to happen.” Even if the Iranians are funding the Peshmerga, their own Iranian Kurdish population (some of whom are fighting with the Peshmerga) makes an autonomous Kurdish state an unfavorable outcome that would increase the risk that nationalist ideologies become inflamed by interactions with other Kurdish independence movements and begin stirring up tensions in Iran.
Beyond the obstructions Iran and Turkey might pose to the Kurdish state, the state’s current security situation highlights the challenges the Kurds may face in sustaining their autonomy. While at the start of the conventional ISIS offensive many viewed the Peshmerga as infallible fighting forces capable of trumping ISIS, the group actually suffered serious setbacks against the Islamists as the summer continued, eventually necessitating international intervention to prevent major defeat. Ostensibly, the real intention of U.S. airstrikes was not to save the Yazidis from genocide, but to stop the column of ISIS units that blew through the Kurdish lines and made a run for Irbil, a vital Kurdish economic capital. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the risk ISIS posed to Irbil was great enough to initiate a rush of both American and Iranian support. What if, then, the Kurdish state comes under another threat, but this time the threat is not one considered worthy of intervention by Iran, the U.S. or others who are currently fighting with the Kurds against ISIS?
Finally, on top of the exterior threats, the Kurdish nationalist movements faces internal disjunctions as well. The attempt at a Kurdish national conference in August of 2013 exemplifies the underlying tensions facing the independence movement. Seat apportionment ended with an attempted boycott by three opposition groups over the purported hegemony of the two main parties (Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s People’s Union of Kurdistan), and this only occurred over the 5/21 seats allocated to the Iraqi Kurds. The internal politics guiding the process, and an apparent bid by different party leaders to take control over the Syrian Kurdish regions (referred to as Rojava), seem to indicate that when the ISIS problem is eventually resolved, and if Kurdistan gains statehood, the Kurds themselves are not in agreement over what that would look like. Could they form an effective governing coalition? Perhaps, but in the process, it is difficult to guess what means of violence will be involved.
For some or all of these reasons, and likely for reasons completely unbeknownst to anyone outside Kurdish political circles, Barzani has not followed through on his promise. Either the Kurdish movement decided a silent approach to statehood would be smoother than its summer media blitz, or the roadblocks between the Kurds and statehood are currently too great to overcome.
Let this not be misinterpreted as the end of Kurdish statehood though. As we have seen already over the summer, military and political realities change in the Middle East change dramatically and often. Currently, Syrian Kurdistan rests on a dangerous precipice, on the one hand fighting ISIS, on the other wondering how the Assad government, perhaps eager after a ceasefire to re-start Turkish negotiations, might reconsider its gifting of the north to the Kurds; until the YPG knows how this will play out, it won’t make a secessionist move.
It seems that the most likely scenario for the near future will be a secession of the Kurdish territories in Iraq, but only after waiting a period of time to gauge the new prime minister. There is a chance that the new central government manages to entice the Kurds to stay, but more likely these efforts will fail, at which point Kurdistan will become a reality. The question, then, is whether and how Iran, Turkey and Syria will move to stop their own territories from seceding. One can imagine the numerous scenarios in which secession leads to violence, both external and internal; the specter of South Sudan certainly looms over the Kurds. Despite these many challenges, the nationalist ideology remains. However, as they did for the past century, the Kurds will bide their moment carefully, no doubt wanting nothing less than the perfect conditions before they make their move. Needless to say, those perfect conditions have yet to arrive.
Image Source: The Tower