The phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ has undoubtedly been a guiding principle for many a political leader over the years. And it seems appropriate when considering the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan. It appears that in the midst of the conflict and humanitarian suffering in Iraq and Syria, an independent Kurdistan could emerge.
In June, Iraq’s future as a territorially integrated state was cast into doubt, as fighters attached to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – a splinter group from al-Qaeda known for its hardline anti-Shia sectarianism – began a co-ordinated offensive that led to the capture of large swathes of northern Iraq. As the Iraqi army melted away, Kurdish fighters stepped in to defend the important oil-producing centre of Kirkuk.
When later accused by the Baghdad authorities of sheltering ISIS fighters, Kurdish leaders pledged to boycott the government led by Nouri al-Maliki. In fact, they accused the Iraqi prime minister of using the ‘sheltering’ argument to deflect criticism of his government and its failure to rebuff the ISIS attacks. In July, the Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, called for a referendum on independence in the face of fears that Iraq could be split into three parts: ISIS, Kurdish and a Shia-majority government based in Iraq.
At the moment, Kurdish Iraq is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which was set up in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The 2005 Iraqi Constitution divided Iraq into a series of federal regions that are largely free to control their domestic affairs, with distinct rights, powers and revenue-raising capabilities.
Given the substantial natural resources in northern Iraq, the prospect of oil-related revenues funding a nascent Kurdistan is appealing to many Kurds living not only in Iraq but also in the neighbouring states of Iran, Syria and Turkey, and among the Kurdish Diaspora. In total, the Kurdish population is thought to number around 30 million people.
However, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan is particularly unwelcome in Turkey. The current government in Ankara doesn’t refer to the KRG by that name, preferring ‘the local administration in northern Iraq’.
With its long-standing experience of secessionist violence, revolts, terrorism and often-brutal state-sponsored repression, the modern history of Turkey is characterised by an uneasy coexistence between a Turkish majority and a substantial Kurdish minority, numbering roughly 11 million or about 16 per cent of Turkey’s population.
Although this contretemps clearly threatens the viability and territorial integrity of Iraq (and hence the future security of Iraqi citizens), it also brings with it an opportunity for the KRG. Shortly after Kurdish politicians withdrew from the national government, Kurdish forces took control of two northern oilfields. The KRG insisted that it was forced to act as a consequence of the security vacuum left after the retreat of the Iraqi army. The two fields reportedly generate about 400,000 barrels of oil a day, and access to this major source of revenue may have emboldened the Kurdish political elites.
Ever since independence in 1932, following the British mandate, Iraq has been a patchwork of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities governed by a series of military governments and despots, notably Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish president has declared that Iraq is now effectively a partitioned state and believes that a referendum will confirm that the 2005 vision of a federal and stable Iraq is doomed. In his judgement, and that of other Kurdish commentators, Iraq is already being torn apart.
Should such a referendum confirm support for independence, the pathway to secession, let alone recognition, won’t be straightforward. The national government in Baghdad is hostile and believes that the KRG is deliberately seeking to undermine its authority. Iran, Syria and Turkey will remain implacable in their hostility to independence lest it encourage their own Kurdish minority communities, and the USA is also opposed to any break-up of Iraq.
The KRG is short of money, and despite the oilfields and oil-related revenue in Kurdistan, poor infrastructure challenges daily life there. And across the whole of Iraq, sectarian violence prevails, with regular reports emerging of abductions, killings and bombings.
The future for Iraq is bleak. Although the prospects for Kurdish independence remain uncertain, the KRG already enjoys some autonomy without international recognition. It’s clearly a model for other Kurdish communities and will be watched with interest and anxiety by its neighbours and the wider world.
This story was published in the September 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine