The capture of Mosul in Iraq by ISIL/Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’) insurgents and the declaration of the Caliphate during the summer of 2014 gave the political kaleidoscope of the Middle East a profound shaking. Iraq “after Mosul” has presented the Kurdish people with an unprecedented political momentum, one in which they see their aspirations to control their own destiny strengthened by Baghdad’s weakness and in step with powerful regional forces that would now support their plans. Also, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan Region has developed from an isolated and war-ravaged backwater into a regional powerbroker.
As the Kurds sit on a great deal of the Middle East’s oil and its possibly even more important water resources, Kurdish nationalism will probably become increasingly salient in the years to come. The Kurdish uprising that has accompanied the Arab Winter since 2011 clearly illustrates the truth of this situation. But who exactly are the Kurds and how will their responses to the increasing instability define the future of the Middle East? The purpose of this article is to survey the Kurdish impetus towards independence. To this end it analyses the recent military, economic and political developments along the boundaries of Greater Kurdistan.
In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, mosques and minarets are now outnumbered two to one by tower cranes. New shopping malls, hotels and blocks of flats are being built at an extraordinary rate. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Iraqi Kurdistan is fast becoming a magnet for foreign investors as it begins a new dawn. However, Erbil is situated less than 80 kilometres from both Kirkuk and Mosul – two of the most dangerous places on earth. While Kurdistan indulges in its building and commercialisation binge, the rest of Iraq is still practically a war zone. The dramatic seizure of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, in the summer 2014, by a coalition of Sunni Arab militias spearheaded by ISIL/Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’), marks what may be a fateful turning point in the Kurdish history. At one moment, as a result of the battlefield victories by ISIL/Da’esh, Iraqi Kurdistan shared a 1000-km border with the so-called Islamic State.
Today, daily life in Erbil is largely stable, as Mohammed A. Salih points out. According to the Kurdish Affairs’ analyst, based in Iraqi Kurdistan, the worst days appear to be over. “At some point in August 2014, everything seemed to be in danger but now life is quite normal. People of course understand that ISIS is still a threat of sorts but no way as powerful as it used to be until a few months ago. As far as the ISIS threat is concerned, Kurdistan appears to be largely secure. However, its internal political and factional divisions are going to pose a serious threat in the future.”
Meanwhile on the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi Arabian air strikes of March 2015 against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have been touted as the latest escalation in a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the two countries continue to aid rival militants in the Syrian civil war, and to support opposing sides in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, questions have been raised about where this now-militarised regional rivalry could go.
If the Kurds declare independence in the north and Iraq is divided into three parts, then the Iranians – with their access to the Shi’ite region – will be land-neighbours with Saudi Arabia. Such a situation could provide Iran with a substantial opportunity to provoke the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Saudis, who also intervened in Bahrain to prevent the outbreak of the Arab Spring, will do everything possible to prevent Iraq’s fragmentation.
As for the Kurds, Mohammed A. Salih argues that if Kurdistan fails to unite around key strategic objectives and allow certain regional countries, such as Iran and Turkey, to play an important role in shaping their policies toward one another and the outside world, Kurdistan will be in a tough position that can destabilise it to some degree.
Some authors have gone further, arguing that the entire system of nation-states designed in 1916, when British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot secretly planned the eventual fate of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, is now being erased. As things develop quickly in the Middle East, the academic world, media and policy makers have remained relatively silent to the so-called “Kurdish issue”: the Kurdish demand for independence along with cultural, social and political rights and their immediate implementation before the window of opportunity closes.
In Iraq, the Kurdistan Region now stands on the threshold of restructuring the Iraqi state according to its federal or confederal design, or exercising its full right to self-determination and seceding from Baghdad, perhaps as the Republic of Kurdistan. By ignoring the realities of Kurdish strength in Iraq, the U.S. and other western powers run the risk of losing influence in the only part of Iraq that can be called a success story. However, by acknowledging Kurdish strength, the U.S. could be drawn into a complex reconfiguration of the Iraqi state, or even underwriting a new Republic of Kurdistan and being involved in the reordering of a new Middle East state system.
All of this means that the Kurds find themselves on the verge of establishing their first viable national homeland – nearly a century after the Great Powers carved up post-World War I Ottoman Empire into the countries of today’s Middle East. As Salih points out: “If the regional dynamics keep change in a way that it strengthens the Kurdish position, Kurdistan might become a fully autonomous state, especially as the rest of Iraq appears to be in a serious turmoil!”
Who are the Kurds?
Defining Kurdistan or Greater Kurdistan is a complicated task. Some authors describe it as the largest nation without an internationally recognised territory. Although there are no formal statistics on the population of Kurdistan, an estimated 32 million Kurds live in a geographic area consisting of Turkey (North Kurdistan), Syria (West Kurdistan), Iran (East Kurdistan) and Iraq (South Kurdistan), roughly following the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges, covering a surface slightly larger than Spain. In addition, Kurdish communities are also found much wider afield, notably in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and they form sizeable communities in such cities as Istanbul, Tehran and Baghdad, not to mention Berlin and London.
A recent phenomenon is the formation of a Kurdish diaspora in Western Europe. In the 1960s, Kurds from Turkey began to arrive in Germany, the Benelux countries, Austria, Switzerland and France as immigrant workers under contracts based on inter-government agreements regarding immigrant labour. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the military coup d’état in Turkey in 1980 and the Iraqi regimes long drawn out and murderous extermination campaign against the Kurds (Anfal), successive waves of Kurdish political refugees arrived in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America. Other campaigns against the Kurds in the 1990s have increased the Kurdish exodus to Europe. No precise and reliable census of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe has been recently carried out, but the most widely accepted estimates set their number at about 850,000.
Culture and language
Just as the Kurdish people inhabit different countries, the Kurds have several distinctive dialects: Kurmanji (also known in Iraq as ‘Badini’ or ‘Badinani’) is spoken most widely mainly in the north and west, while Sorani predominates the southern and eastern parts of Kurdistan. It is the latter, however, that has made the most headway in recent years by virtue of its position of the main language in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. One cannot even rely on religion when defining ‘Kurdishness’. While the large majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, some fifteen per cent are Shi’ites; including the so-called Faili Kurds, who where largely expelled to Iran by the former Ba’ath regime in Iraq. There are also some other significant Kurdish-speaking religious minorities.
Kurdish nationalism emphasizes grassroots participation, gender egalitarian approach, and increased women’s participation in all levels of social, political, and public life. Many credit the imprisoned Kurdish PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, known as an ardent promoter of gender equality. Around a third of his PKK guerrillas are thought to be women.
In Rojava or Western Kurdistan, a de facto autonomous region in northern and northeastern Syria, the empowerment of women has been a key to the Rojava revolution. A recent report of Roj Women, shows that since the self-declared autonomy, Kurdish women have established a dozen women’s unions, associations and committees and have carried out gender awareness campaigns on a large scale in the region.
Key moments in Kurdish history
Against such a confusing and complex background of what constitutes Kurdistan, a brief overview of the long and complicated history of the Kurds is unavoidable to set the context and to explain the Kurdish struggle for economical and political independence. For centuries the stateless Kurdish people have grappled with shifting power structures in the Middle East, ranging from the centralised forces of the Ottoman Empire to ethnic persecution under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
After World War I, a large portion of Kurdistan was returned to Turkish control. In 1920, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Sèvres Treaty promised the Kurds the formation of an autonomous state, which would have the right to elect for complete independence after one year, subject to the League of Nation’s approval. Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk later rejected the deal, and Turkey repressed Kurdish uprisings over the next few decades. The borders were fixed and Kurdistan was split up, as it is today, finding themselves divided among superior regional adversaries, namely Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Victims of the Cold War
In 1946, the Kurds, supported by the USSR, established the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. Moscow hoped to make use of the Kurds to counter British influence in Iran and to put pressure on the central government for an oil concession. Later that year, though, in the context of the very initial phases of the Cold War, the Kurds witnessed their first major blow, when the state collapsed, due to U.S. demands for Moscow’s withdrawal from northern Iran. In the early 1960s the first serious contacts were made with Washington, as the Kurds were emerging as a significant force in Iraq. During this period the Americans gradually gained influence in the Middle East to the detriment of the British Empire. The U.S. continued to show sympathy, but no material support, for the Kurdish cause. According to Shareef, the U.S. had more to gain from regional allies such as Turkey and the Shah’s Iran than from the stateless Kurds in Iraq.
In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê [PKK]) launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state by attacking both military and civilian targets – both Turks and Kurds – in order to maintain some sort of hold over the population in the region. The PKK’s ideology was originally a fusion of revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism, seeking the foundation of an independent, Marxist-Leninist state in the region, which was to be known as Kurdistan. Most of their bases were outside Turkish borders, mostly in Lebanon and Syria, while significant numbers of PKK members were sent to Europe to mobilise the Kurds who had migrated primarily for economic reasons and who did not have a politicized Kurdish identity.
For decades Turkish jet fighters dropped their bombs on the snow-capped Qandil mountains in northern Iraq to flush out the PKK forces. However, the conflict took a different turn in 1999 when the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Kenya, with the help of U.S. intelligence. In October 2002, Öcalan was sentenced to life imprisonment. During his capture, he repeatedly called for a bilateral ceasefire. By March 2013, being imprisoned for more than ten years, Öcalan stated that the era of armed struggle was over and that a deal with the Turkish government was within reach. Exactly two year later, in 2015, he repeated his statement. According to a report provided by the Turkish army, a total of 41,828 people died as a result of the armed conflict. In contrast, the PKK statistics show significantly lower militant but higher security forces deaths.
Meanwhile in Iraqi Kurdistan, from 1987 to 1989, a series of military campaigns against Kurdish “saboteurs” were undertaken by Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, leader of theBa’ath Party’s northern bureau. What began as a counterinsurgency during the Iran-Iraq war, resulted eventually in genocide. An estimated 180,000 people died during the campaigns. Although the Kurds and the Iraqi ruling elite were all Sunni Muslim, the Kurds were never happy under Arab rule, which persisted, in effect, until the Kurdish area of Iraq became autonomous under Western protection, following the first Gulf War in 1991. Meanwhile, more than a million Kurds had fled to Turkey, Iran and the mountainous areas of northern Iraq.
In 1992, parliamentary and presidential elections were held and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became reality by the virtue of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, an alliance of political parties. For the first time in decades the Kurds had a state of their own, although hardly on the terms they had imagined, since their autonomy was entirely dependent on outside forces. Unfortunately, violent factional fighting between the two major Kurdish parties soon after beset the region: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani. Eventually, in the late 1990s after two days of lengthy sessions, both parties reached a tentative agreement that came to be called the Washington Accord, with each party asserting control over a portion of the Kurdish enclave.
One of the articles of the Washington Accord stressed that both parties would endeavour to create a united, pluralistic and democratic Iraq that would ensure the political and human rights of the Kurdish people in Iraq and of all Iraqis on a political basis decided by all the Iraqi people. In addition, it stressed that both parties aspired to an Iraq reformed on a federal basis that would maintain the nation’s unity and territorial integrity.
Post-Saddam Hussein period
During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Bush administration deployed a significant amount of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Northern Iraq to combat the 150.000 Iraqi troops on the border of the de facto Kurdish enclave. A more political reason was to keep the Kurdish troops, a.k.a. peshmerga, in line, preventing the Kurds from taking the oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. After the American invasion, the Kurds’ perception was that they were starting to devalue within the context of the new Iraq. During the Interim Government Period, the Kurds were non-players in Iraq; it was only when the constitutional drafting process began that they suddenly became players again.
In the 2005 election the Iraqis voted in favour of a new constitution. To counterbalance a probable Islamist agenda, the U.S. aimed at more Kurdish power in the new transitional government. As a result, the first Kurdish president in Iraq’s history was democratically elected. The new constitution, which was approved by 78% of the voters in a hotly contested national referendum, recognised the Kurdistan Region’s institutions including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan Parliament. At the start of the next year, the PUK and KDP agreed to unify the two administrations. Later, on the 7th of May 2006, Prime Minister and nephew of the current president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, announced a new unified cabinet. Since then, this autonomy increased step by step, leading to developed and autonomous institutions, including a parliament, a national anthem and fast-developing trade and diplomatic relationships with other countries. Though for the time being, Iraqi Kurdistan still remains under Baghdad’s writ.
So, what has held the Kurds back in their attempt to establish a fully autonomous region? According to many, it can be explained in one word – cash. It is in the economic realm that the Kurdistan Region is most keenly tied into the Iraqi framework, or that is, until recently. With the institutions of the Iraqi state in chaos, the need for the KRG to generate revenues has become even more acute. The financial burden has been increased by the addition of more than 300,000 internally displaced Iraqis, and a quarter of a million Syrian refugees, and the need to re-supply and re-equip the peshmerga and security forces, so they at least have the tools with which to defend the region on an equal basis to the abilities of ISIL/Da’esh to attack.
In view of the foregoing the World Bank published in February 2015 its Economic and Social Impact Assessment on the Syrian Conflict and ISIS Crisis. According to the report, the KRG is facing an economic and humanitarian crisis as a result of the influx of the Syrian refugees (starting in early 2012) and more recently the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in 2014. Economic growth has contracted five percentage points, and poverty rate has more than doubled, increasing from 3.5 per cent to 8.1 per cent. The stabilisation cost for 2015 is estimated at $1.4 billion in additional spending above and beyond the KRG budget. This estimate could get much higher depending on how long the crisis will continue.
“This crisis has been an extremely big burden for the KRG to carry given that it has not received its budget share from Baghdad since February 2014,” as Mohammed A. Salih says. “The Iraqi government hardly seems to be taking any serious responsibility for the refugee / IDP crisis in Kurdistan. Kurdistan has reached out to foreign countries and bodies such as UN to help it tackle this issue and despite numerous challenges it has been able to tackle it rather successfully so far.”
In a statement from the Kurdistan Regional Government: “Finance is a sector in the region, which has seen development in recent years, but further reforms are still needed to enhance this sector. Foreign Direct Investment along with local investment is key to the development of the regional banking system.” Although membership is presently not possible, the KRG could encourage the World Bank/IMF to set up working groups on Iraqi Kurdistan.
With respect to the Kurdish banking system, which is virtually non-existing, the Kurdish Globe mentioned that, until now, the majority of the people traditionally keep their savings in safes, or hide here and there at their homes as they don’t have trust in the banks to deposit their savings in. As a result of the lack of regulation and historically weak banking culture, a cash economy has emerged, which has hindered the investments and funding needed to rebuild the region. Therefore, from Kurdish perspective, banking and the introduction of fiscal planning must take priority if the Iraqi Kurds intend to become a credible political force in the region and a government that investors can trust.
Struggle for oil
With the discovery of significant oil and gas reserves, the Kurds have the potential to become a key player within this resource-rich region. Recently, the KRG in Erbil funded a new pipeline, which can start pumping up to 400,000 barrels per day of Kurdish oil a day to Turkey from early 2014. The current pipeline runs from the TaqTaq oil field and connects with the above-mentioned Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, bypassing Iraqi territory and thus excluding Baghdad from any of the proceedings. Only just the TaqTaq field has been described as being “part of the largest great onshore oilfield in the world”.
Yet despite the presence of natural resources, the Kurds in Iraq have been battling a financial crisis since Baghdad authorities cut budget payments in January 2014 as punishment for its attempts to export oil independently.
For years, policy makers in Baghdad have been trying to finalise a national hydrocarbons law that would determine once and for all how to share oil revenues across the different regions and clarify legal issues regarding ownership and exports of national resources. Baghdad says that under the constitution, the Iraqi central government has the sole right to export oil and distribute revenues.
In theory, Erbil is meant to receive seventeen per cent of Iraq’s budget, which would equate to $14.6 billion per year. In practice, before the suspension of payments, KRG officials were of the view that the sums received rarely crept above ten per cent – or some $8 billion.
If the Kurds would develop, however, their own export routes, then 83 per cent of the revenues would still go to Baghdad. Yet, the vision of the KRG is to include a Turkish bank or company in the process. With the development of oil and gas export routes to Turkey, the Kurds would become less vulnerable to the crippling halts of payments from the Iraqis. Thus, starting to self-govern oil exports is yet another step toward increased independence and the solidification of the de facto state discourse as Baghdad loses its main pressure point to the Kurdistan Region.
Washington tried to settle the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil through a new national hydrocarbon law, but the two sides could not agree. Instead, in 2007, the Kurdish parliament passed its own law regulating oil and gas contracts in the region, which the central government in Iraq considered illegal, permitting generous production-sharing deals with dozens of foreign companies, such as the Anglo-Turkish company Genel Energy, China’s Addax Petroleum, France’s Total, Norway’s DNO, and Russia’s Gazprom.
By 2012, even major U.S. oil companies, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, had sealed exploration and production agreements directly with Erbil, openly challenging Baghdad — and the Obama administration, which, despite Washington’s established support for Iraqi Kurdistan, has opposed the deals, fearing that oil disputes within Iraq could threaten the country’s stability.
In reaction, Baghdad signed, in mid-January 2013, a preliminary deal with the British company BP to develop the Kirkuk line, just west of ExxonMobil’s area. Yet Kurdistan claimed rights to the same field. By rejecting the BP deal in Kirkuk, the Kurds complained that any such agreement must be approved first by all parties in the dispute, as Reuters reported. 
An energy agreement was finally brokered between Baghdad and Erbil on the 2nd of December 2014. Underscoring a simple philosophy at the heart of the complicated negotiations, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office stated: “that Iraqi oil belongs to all Iraqis.” At the same time, Mr al-Abadi’s government also agreed to pay the salaries of the Kurdish peshmerga and will also allow the flow of weapons from the U.S. to the Kurds, with the government in Baghdad as intermediary. Although many interpreted the agreement as a step back for Barzani and Kurdish independence, it was considered to be a major victory. The terms do indeed reinstate Baghdad’s right to receive all oil revenues from the Kurdish-controlled areas in return for providing the KRG its long overdue but constitutionally mandated 17 per cent of the national budget. However, the agreement also recognizes the KRG’s legal sovereignty over extraction and sale of oil and gas in all Kurdish areas.
It is thus the fear of being economically dependent on Baghdad that moved the Kurds to plan for an independent oil and gas sector as early as 2004. The more Baghdad squeezes, the more the Kurds move towards economic independence.
In 1991 the Kurdistan Region in Iraq came to interact with the international community as a de facto state aspiring to maintain its recently earned autonomy. Based on its early learning, it came to rely on the democratisation of its system as the foundation for its earned sovereignty. Toward the end of the second decade of this de facto statehood, the KRG made significant socio-political progress, and reached an advanced stage of state building – a progress at least partly correlating with its commitments to maintain a viable and secure autonomy within Iraq. KRG’s foreign policy of demonstrating its earned sovereignty actually paved the way to further reforms in the KRG. It even allowed transnational coalitions of external and domestic actors to utilise the KRG’s own foreign policy and discourse to exert pressure on it to take further changes in the same fields that served its legitimation efforts.
As such, according to international law, the KRG today meets most of the criteria of a sovereign state: (1) a defined territory; (2) a permanent population; (3) a government and (4) a capacity to enter into relations with other states.
On the 9th of December 2014, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, reaffirmed his commitment to Kurdish statehood after making a historic call for an independence referendum on the 30th of June 2014. Barzani’s announcement came after the ISIL/Da’esh incursion into northern Iraq earlier that month, which effectively eliminated Baghdad’s control over the disputed territories of Kurdistan. Against this background, Barzani told the BBC that he is intending to hold a referendum on independence within months. “Everything that has happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” Mr Barzani said. He and other Kurdish leaders say that for more than ten years they have done their best to help build a stable, federal Iraq by participating fully in the Baghdad central government. “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.”
Indeed, Barzani must act fast. In fact, in the best-case scenario, the Kurdish referendum must occur before the June 2015 Turkish parliamentary elections because Barzani is unlikely to have more leverage over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than he has now.
As the summer of 2014 wore on, the KRG had difficulties to defend its positions from ISIL/Da’esh attacks, putting a damper on Kurdish exuberance about the upcoming referendum. The fall of Sinjar and Zumar and other strategic areas near Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, showed that the peshmerga were beatable. But even that turned into a political blessing for Barzani’s government. Western powers, including the United States and its NATO partners initiated direct military cooperation with Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, and military aid began arriving from Europe during August 2014.
All this means that the Kurds now find themselves on the verge of establishing their first viable national homeland. Yet, right now, however, the international environment does not seem to be suitable for independence. First of all, the Kurdistan Region is still officially part of the Republic of Iraq, which is caught in an increasingly sectarian geopolitical power struggle in the region spreading from Iran to Lebanon, and more recently Yemen. Secondly, a declaration of secession by Iraqi Kurdistan could prompt the final collapse of rump Iraq into separate Sunni and Shi’ite statelets, intensifying sectarian conflict through the region. Thirdly, infrastructure weaknesses further challenge Kurdish energy and political ambitions: the amount of oil the KRG is actually exporting is still insufficient to significantly raise Baghdad’s export levels or support an independent Kurdish state. In addition, since the Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk have no access to the sea, they are dependent on the goodwill of Baghdad or their neighbours to ship their oil to world markets. And collapsing oil prices certainly don’t help either.
Alarmed by the secessionist tendencies – even as Kurdish leaders profess to be responsible players in a united Iraq – Baghdad has used various means to thwart the Kurd`s ambitions. The federal government has exploited several advantages: Kurdistan`s landlocked nature, its own monopoly over the export infrastructure and the presence of a far greater volume of oil in non-Kurdish Iraq, especially in the area of Basra.
The 32 million Kurds of the Middle East don’t only live in Iraq, of course. But all of them are feeling the tremors of change. Iran, for instance, which has a significant Kurdish minority of its own, about seven per cent of the Iranian population, is strengthening its ties with the KRG, which it views as a vital ally in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh. And in Syria, the civil war has enabled the Kurds to set up wide-ranging self-administration in the northeast of the country.
As such, the outlook of regional powers has been in flux before the invasion of Mosul in 2014, and the rise of ISIL/Da’esh since then has only served to further divide the perspectives into a camp that includes several states – namely Turkey, Israel, and some Arab states – that views the Kurdistan Region of Iraq moving towards independence as a positive development, and a camp of one state, Iran, that views Kurdish independence as unacceptable. Interestingly, western powers, and most notably the U.S. and the U.K., are more in line with Iran than with their Turkish, Israeli and Arab allies.
Regarding the Kurdish question, the European Union’s emphasis has been strongly on human rights and finding a holistic solution to the situation in Turkey, being a candidate state. Throughout the 1990s, the European Parliament called for a political solution to the question: “The key to the Kurdish question lies in Turkey, which is, an ally and an important trade partner of Europe…The settlement of the Kurdish problem in Turkey will greatly contribute to finding a solution for the Kurds in neighbouring countries.” Eventually, the Kurdish question became part and parcel of Turkey’s eventual EU candidacy during the 1999 Helsinki Summit.
Since the 1990s, Kurdish-British relations have improved drastically due to the UK’s contribution to overthrowing Saddam Hussein and its recognition of the Kurdish genocide. Also the Germans have since the beginning of 2009 a Consulate-General in Erbil, a fact that also reflects the importance of the Kurdistan-Iraq region and of the Kurdish returnees who had been living in exile in Germany.
During the 2000s, the Kurdish lobby in the EU became somewhat disorganised following the capture of the PKK leader Öcalan and as it was no longer as effective as during its heyday in the 1990s in bringing the issue on the EU agenda. The EU has also designated the PKK a terrorist organisation.
During the summer 2014 events, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU welcomed the decision by individual Member States to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material. The EU Ministers also invited the European External Action Service (EEAS) to ensure a stronger presence in Erbil. Given the Kurdish’ role in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh and in the resolution of Iraq’s political crisis, the EU today seeks to increase its presence in Erbil, in full respect of Iraq’s constitutional order.
From being the singular most important block to Kurdish independence breaking out anywhere –with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once famously joking that he would object to Kurdish independence even in Argentina – Turkey is now the strongest supporter of Kurdish self-determination in Iraq. Recently in Turkey, home to the region’s largest Kurdish minority, the government of Erdoğan has abandoned long-held policies aimed at the suppression of a distinct Kurdish identity and is conducting peace talks with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), responsible for a decade-long insurgency in eastern Turkey.
Rather than being a threat to the integrity of Turkey, an independent Kurdistan (in Iraq) is increasingly seen as essential to Turkey’s own security – by allowing for the engaged management of Turkey’s own “Kurdish issue” with regard to the PKK, as important for Turkey’s energy security – by being a source of much-needed natural gas, and serving as a buffer between Turkey and what is seen as either a jihadist-dominated Sunni Arab region, or a region in the throes of what could well be one of the most devastating sectarian conflicts the Middle East has witnessed. By treating the Kurdistan Regional Government as a de facto nation-state, Turkey legitimises the KRG internationally and increases its sovereignty, knowing that this can eventually result in Kurdish independence.
As Ankara and Baghdad each began to view the other as pursuing antipathetic sectarian-focused policies, Turkey quickly found strong economic and security-based linkages with Erbil – linkages that would prove useful in managing the PKK threat and, most importantly, giving an opportunity to Turkey to improve its energy security and, in the future, limit its exposure to Russian and Iranian natural gas imports.
In 2012 the volume of trade between Iraq and Turkey had reached twelve billion dollars, of which seventy per cent was between Turkey and the Kurdish Region. Interestingly, the latest developments in Turkish-KRG relations have raised alarm in Washington concerning the possible disintegration of Iraq.
Özge H.-I., a female Turkish Kurd who works and lives in Germany, believes that there is a potential for the Kurds to establish a republic by uniting the Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi regions of Kurdistan. “In Turkey, they have been trying to obtain autonomy via political debates for more than ten years. The Kurds have made progress, but in my opinion it is hard to finalise it by virtue of peace conditions. In the Middle East it is almost impossible to gain independence without war and bloodshed.” Beside the independence of the Kurdish nation, Özge also pleads for more peace, and human and social rights in the Kurdish region. “In the future, Turkey needs to pay more attention to these factors.” In addition she argued that, despite the reforms, Turkey is heading step by step towards a dictatorship.
For Israel, with a long-standing partnership with the Kurdish leadership and particularly with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) that stems back some fifty years to the days when Barzani proved to be a well-placed ally for Tel Aviv, it is a second nature to support initiatives that serve to break the integrity of Arab states – even those that no longer have the ability to challenge Israel’s right to exist. Perhaps it should not come as a much of a surprise that, in June 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for Kurdish statehood, taking a position that appeared to clash with the U.S. preference to keep the war-torn Iraq united.
Sunni Arab States
Since the uprising of the Kurdistan Region in 1991, there is little enthusiasm between the Kurds and Arab Gulf states. However, after the regime change in Iraq and the growth of the KRG’s economy, the KRG has proved to be for the Gulf states an alternative arena to assert their influence and check Iranian-Shia power, as well as to pursue commercial opportunities in general. Newly established consulates from Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine attest to the KRG’s expanding regional support base and its investment potential.30 For instance, in 2014 during the opening ceremony of a new branch office in Erbil, Dubai Chamber’s President and CEO Hamad Buamim stressed his organisation’s commitment to enhancing ties with the Kurdistan region. “The office in Erbil provides added value for UAE companies and will help them access businesses opportunities in Kurdistan.”
The mood in Tehran towards the unfolding plans of Erbil is ambiguous. In keeping with the stated policies of the U.S. and the U.K., Iran extended its full support for Iraq’s independence, national solidarity, and territorial integrity and, in so doing, criticised the Kurdish leadership in Iraq concerning the occupation of Kirkuk and the plans to hold a referendum there, and going as far as to refer to the exporting of oil as illegal.
Kurdish issues have been an important part of the myriad political and socioeconomic problems that have preoccupied the Islamic Republic of Iran since its inception. The Kurdish factor has also been an important determinant of Iran’s regional foreign policy in the past three decades. War in Iraq paved the way towards a growing strategic-military alignment between Ankara and Tehran on the Kurdish insurgency. However, unlike Turkey, Tehran did not take its own Kurdish problem as an issue of primary importance, due to its historical relations with Iraqi Kurdish communities. In fact, the Iranians are more aware of the rising number of Azeris, who represents thirty to forty per cent of their population. If the Azeris were to achieve federalism, it would be the end of the Iranian state.
Nonetheless, since the overthrown of Saddam Hussein, Iran and the KRG have enjoyed growing ties. Trade and economic relations between Iran and the KRG have made considerable growth over the past twelve years: from $100 million in trade exchange value in 2000 to almost $6 billion in 2015. Moreover, in February 2015, a joint council was established between the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture of Sanandaj, capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, and its counterpart in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with the aim of boosting trade ties between the two Kurdish-inhabited regions.
Iran also has demonstrably taken the lead in aiding Iraqi Kurds in their war against extremist fighters loyal to ISIL/Da’esh. As Kurdish President Massud Barzani explained in late August 2014, “The Islamic Republic of Iran was the first state to help us…and it provided us with weapons and equipment.”
The strongest faction amongst the Syrian Kurds is the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat [PYD]), an organisation closely associated with the PKK. With their close ties to the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel [YPG]), the PYD has significant forces. Being aware of the situation, the Kurdistan Regional Government has engaged in foreign policy and has begun to interfere in the on-going Syrian civil war, keeping in mind a three-legged strategy.
First of all, Kurdistan takes in hundreds of thousands of refugees as part of pan-Kurdish responsibility in times of crisis. Secondly, Massoud Barzani supports the Erbil-based Kurdish National Council (KNC), the Syrian counterpart of the PYD, while at the same time criticising the PYD’s unilateral move. Thirdly, the KRG trains Syrian-Kurdish fighters within Northern Iraq who could possibly return to Syria, where they would strengthen the pro-KDP position, thus limiting the influence of PKK-friendly groups.
Also in Syria, IS emerged as the main threat to Kurdish self-rule. The siege of the Syrian border city Kobani, that ended whith the withdrawal of IS, was even hailed by the media as the “Stalingrad of the Kurds”, adding an epic dimension to the Kurdish nation-building that was accelerated on the ashes of the Arab Winter. The resistance of Kobani has also become the pride of the Democratic Union Party.
The Rojava Model
Amid the Syrian civil war and the withdrawal of the Syrian Army in the north of Syria in 2012, the population of Rojava (i.e. Western Kurdistan) took control of their region and declared a democratic multi-ethnic and multi-religious autonomy similar to the Swiss model with three separate and geographically detached administrative regions or cantons (Kobane, Afrin and Cizire). Despite economic hardship and a de facto embargo from trade with other parts of Syria, Turkey and KRG, the people of Rojava have been using their newly acquired freedom to experiment with radical democracy, by applying the Democratic Autonomy project propagated by Abdullah Öcalan.
The Rojava model is based on two main pillars, which may prove very efficient in the strengthening of democracy in the region. The first pillar is direct democracy as the basis of a communalist system in which citizens participate actively in decision-making and the management of the polis, from the neighbourhood to the municipality and as far as the government. The second pillar, equally revolutionary, is the denial of the nation state structure and philosophy as such. In Rojava, many different religious and ethnic groups–Christians, Yezidis, Arabs, Turkmens, Chechens, and Armenians–live together with the large Kurdish majority.
By officially and insistently denying the nation state and by trying to create administrative structures that incorporate these different elements, the Rojava model gives to minorities a participatory role unprecedented in the Middle East – a role as equals in the management of the polis.
Within two years Rojava has witnessed substantial institutional and political changes and for the first time in Syrian history, the communities are governing themselves without the intervention of an authoritarian central government. Referring to these developments as the ‘Rojava Revolution’, the people of Rojava have eagerly been involved in organising their own affairs, from running schools and hospitals to generating electricity and even making their own tanks.
The most visible change has perhaps been the inclusion of women in the defence force and the police as separate units through the establishment of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Women’s Security Forces (HAJ). According to various estimates, female fighters make up between 7,000 and 10,000 of the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, representing roughly one third of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in Rojava.
The United States
While the U.S. does have an Iraq policy, it also has a de facto policy towards the Kurds. Over time the very nature of U.S. interaction with the Kurdish movement evolved from initial contacts to a much more institutionalised relationship. Secondly, the Kurdish issue has been a critical issue for important neighbouring states, namely Iran and Turkey, and therefore has played a major role in America’s policy towards those states as well.
Traditional U.S. policy towards Iraq has been to support fully and unconditionally the territorial integrity of the country. While U.S. policy has, since 2003, been mindful of satisfying the Kurds’ federal demands and in keeping the Kurds engaged as fully as possible in the political process in Baghdad, there has never been any notion whatsoever of the U.S. supporting any form of restructuring the Iraqi state into a confederal system in which sovereignty is held by the regions and voluntarily delegated to the confederal state, and has been resolutely opposed to any notion of an independent Kurdish state.
Nonetheless, since 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed de facto nationhood under U.S. protection. Washington is also wary of the precedent Kurdish independence in Iraq could set to other possible secessionist-minded people across the region, including the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and also, perhaps, Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia, and maybe even a Basra secessionist movement in the south of Iraq.
That said, the U.S. is popular by Middle East standards in Iraqi Kurdistan, thanks to the establishment of a no-fly zone over the region after the Allied victory over Saddam in 1991, and the overthrow of Saddam and his Ba’ath regime in 2003. The Kurdish community in the U.S. has a presence at the lobbying level through individuals and through the Kurdish National Congress of North America, established in 1988. Between 2003 and 2014 the KRG representation in Washington spent in excess of $8.5 million on lobbying and public relations.
And yet President Obama and his predecessors have all been notably reluctant to give their fiat to Kurdish statehood. America was extremely unclear and inconsistent on where it stood with reference to the Iraqi constitution and its support for what was, essentially, ethnic federalism.
Washington also fears that creating a new player in such a volatile neighbourhood could invite serious instability. However, from a western perspective, the Kurdish peshmerga troops remain the best hope for those who want to stop IS in Iraq, and the Obama administration will likely attempt to persuade them to join the offensive — or at least to provide substantial logistical and intelligence support to the Iraqi army.
In fact, the U.S. did not want oil-rich Kirkuk to go to the KRG, because it believed that this would lead to Kurdish independence. David Mack explained that, when it comes to the Kurdish issue, for Washington, ‘regional stability’ and the stability of ‘our NATO ally Turkey’ are major considerations.
By the summer of 2014, shortly after U.S. bombs started to fall in Iraq, President Obama made clear what his model for the country’s future was. “The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see,” he said in a speech. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.”
The initiation of military support for Iraq’s Kurds and airstrikes in northern Iraq marked an important turn in U.S. foreign policy. Although military support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained limited, arming the Kurds represented a serious change in U.S.-Kurdish relations and appeared to conflict with previous U.S. policy in Iraq.
What appears to have changed in the summer of 2014 was a newfound alignment of Kurdish and U.S. interests in Iraq. From the Kurdish standpoint, fears of further setbacks at the hands of the Islamic State made the Kurds increasingly willing to ally with Baghdad and shift their military strategy from defending Kurdistan to crushing the broader threat to Iraq by the Islamic State. Once the front line against the Islamic State shifted from Baghdad to Erbil and Iraqi forces began cooperating with the Kurds, arming the Kurds was no longer a break from U.S. interests to preserve a stable and united Iraq. Instead, the Kurds had become integral to saving Baghdad.
This argument finds support in the growing literature on third-party support for rebel groups, which cites the alignment of the third-party and armed group’s strategic objectives as one of the critical factors behind external support. Effective marketing and diplomacy by these groups are ways in which they make such strategic overlap known to potential sponsor states. Therefore, changing strategic goals and Kurdish framing of those goals may have contributed to the United States’ decision to directly support the peshmerga.
By March 2015, the Kurds were able to hold a 1000-km front against the Islamic State’s advance. Their steadfastness should prompt America to rethink its alliances and interests in the region and to deepen its relationship with the Kurds. The U.S. has also urged the region to rethink its planned oil pipeline to Turkey, which is being constructed in defiance of the central government in Baghdad. Nevertheless, many U.S. oil companies have ignored Washington’s advice, rushing in to join in the growth of now-booming Kurdistan.
With or without Iraq?
In the week following the fall of Mosul, the expansion of ISIL/Da’esh, the paralysis of the Government of Iraq, the remobilization of the Shi’a militias, U.S. and western leaders have remained committed to pursuing policies aimed at the shoring up of the unified Iraqi state. Arguably, the collapse of states and the emergence of new ones presents scenarios that are inherently complex, demanding, and potentially dangerous with unintended and unknown consequences.
Yet, right now, the position of Washington has been to pressure the Kurds to lead the way in finding a solution to Iraq’s problems, rather than implementing ways forward for their own self-determination. This pressure, it seems, has been ignored by the Kurdish leadership who now seem to be on the verge of taking matters into their own hands, irrespective of what Washington wishes to see.
There are also international legal niceties that the U.S. government would be acting against, including the principle of the territorial integrity of states and the inviolability of existing state borders – making it problematic for the United States to publicly support a secessionist movement beyond acknowledging that there exists a right to self-determination.
The break-up of Iraq beyond the current federal status is believed neither to be in the U.S. interest nor to be in the interest of the Kurds. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were expected to be helpful to the Americans and not a source of instability.
The positive points, though, at least match if not outweigh the cons. Firstly, within Iraq, the removal of the debilitating “Kurdish problem” would then leave Arab Iraq to work out its differences without the complicating factor of dealing with the Kurds either as enemies or allies. In regional terms, bringing the Republic of Kurdistan into a closer embrace with the United States may further serve to limit Iran’s options to foment difficulties in either Kurdistan or what remains of Iraq. From a U.S. perspective, the Kurds would be a staunch and loyal ally in a region that remains of critical importance to Washington, irrespective of any refocusing of U.S. strategic efforts elsewhere. Lastly, in terms of how this plays in the U.S. heartland, the Kurds are a nation deserving of a state. The embracing of Kurdish independence may be seen as a positive policy action in a region that is currently in the throes of many terrible conflicts.
According to a Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Today, however, Kurds are evolving from a victimised people to a relatively coherent political community with viable national aspirations. At the same time they are caught up in the strategic geopolitical calculations of the various influential actors of the Middle East. With the creation of the post-colonial order, both superpowers and regional powers have fought relentlessly for domination of the Middle East. As a result, and at their peril, the stateless Kurds have had to play at both regional and international levels to advance their ethnic struggle. With Saddam’s regime gone, the Iraqi Kurds had the rare change to forge a new Iraq: democratic, pluralistic and decentralised. However, the United States and other western allies have all been notably reluctant to give their fiat to Kurdish statehood.
The Kurds are thus in a vulnerable position: when needed, as a pawn they gain value, when redundant they are insignificant, but overall they remain most of all an asset to Washington in a hostile region. Which vision prevails will have profound implications for the future of Iraq and the wider region. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempt to maintain central authority over Iraq’s provinces has reignited ethnic and sectarian violence, which in turn has raised doubts about whether Iraq can hold itself together. Indeed, an effort by Baghdad to block Kurdish-Turkish cooperation could easily backfire, provoking the KRG to declare Kurdistan’s independence.
The Kurds are at a historic crossroads. However, right now, there are still numerous unknown variables that could potentially pose a threat to the developments I argued above. These include the development of the Syrian civil war and regional sectarian violence and the perspective of the sections on Iran. At this point, it is too early to speculate about exactly how these factors will influence the Kurds. However, it seems to be that the geopolitical map of the Middle East will be redrawn in one way or another.
MA Comparative and International Politics
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