A new non-Arab important actor may soon appear on the Middle East map.
Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region President and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader, Massoud Barzani demanded his party to work with other parties to find a mechanism of action to hold a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan.
The Council of KDP leadership held a regular meeting on Dec.20. Barzani said that his party will launch procedures to organize a plebiscite.
Kurdistan has all the characteristics of an independent state: the presidency, the parliament, the constitution and the army (the Peshmerga – hundreds of thousands of seasoned troops), the relatively flourishing economy and the foreign policy with international offices located in Erbil, the nation’s capital. Real borders exist between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the Iraqi state. It also has the flag, the anthem, the language, the educational system, sneezy international airports and a strong desire to create Greater Kurdistan independent from Arabs, Persians and Turks.
There are around 40 million Kurds across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria – the largest ethnic group without self-determination. In Iraq and Syria, Kurdish groups have established their own states de facto. There are significant Kurdish diasporas communities in Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Russia, Lebanon and, in recent decades, some European countries and the USA.
In Iraq, the Kurds have enjoyed self-rule since 1991, when a U.S.-led no-fly zone was established in the north of Iraq to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s forces. The Kurds set up the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and their own parliament. After the U.S. and its allies toppled Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan’s status as a federal region was formalized by the Iraqi state. Foreign embassies are in Baghdad, but more and more countries recognize that they need a consulate in the Kurdish capital Erbil. Among them are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Turkey.
Despite widely spread corruption, Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys democracy. The two main parties – the Barzani’s Democratic Party and the Talabani’s Patriotic Union – currently rule in coalition, but remain rivals for power and influence. A third party, Gorran (Change), which recently emerged from the Talabani’s party, promises to increase choice. In 2005, 99% of Kurds supported the idea of independence at a referendum.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy is based almost solely on oil. Banking, commercial law and basic services such as the post are all rudimentary.
Kurdistan regional government (KRG) controls parts of Iraqi Kurdistan estimated to contain around 45 billion barrels of oil, making it the sixth largest reserve in the world. About 60% of Iraqi oil is produced in Kurdistan. The prospects have caught the attention of major oil traders, who are now prepared to risk spoiling relations with Baghdad to gain a foothold in the region. The Kurds pay little attention to the Iraqi government protests, but infrastructure is a real problem. In October trucks were used to transport oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan because the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline is unreliable often hit by explosions.
For ten years the regional government in Erbil has argued bitterly with the authorities in Baghdad over how to share the revenue from oil. In December, a deal was struck that lets the Kurds export oil from their own territory through a new pipeline connecting to an old one to Turkey, as long as they send the revenue from 250,000 barrels a day back to Baghdad. The Kurds hope to be producing 800,000 barrels a day by the end of this year, and 1million by 2017. After the Iraqi army fled from IS the Peshmerga expanded the Kurds’ zone of control deeper into Kirkuk province to the south. Now the Kurds are upgrading a pipeline to pump Kirkuk’s abundant oil northward to join the flow to Turkey.
The self-defense formations’ (the Peshmerga) strength is estimated to be around 200 thousand, a force to reckon with. Following the June 2014 Islamic State (IS) invasion of Iraq and the retreat of the Iraqi Army, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) filled the void and took control of almost all disputed areas. Some weapons have been captured from the Islamic State (IS).
After the IS offensive of August 2014, multiple governments decided to arm the Peshmerga with some light weaponry such as light arms and ammunition.
France and Britain have sent advisers. Germany has provided some MILAN anti-tank guided missiles and has promised hundreds more. The US has promised 25 Humvee armoured vehicles.
Hence all new arms to the Kurds must go via Baghdad, since Western governments accept that Iraq’s government still has sovereignty over the Kurdish region.
The Kurds’ immediate priority is to fend off IS. More than 800 Peshmerga have been killed and 3,600 wounded since IS took Mosul – a heavy toll for a fledgling state. The Kurds have had notable successes. In the mountainous Sinjar area in the north-west, they have retaken the town of Zumar and the border town of Rabia, and have recaptured most of Sinjar city. IS may lose control of the road westward from Mosul to its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa, which is a lifeline for the jihadists. In the south-east, close to the border with Iran, the Peshmerga have consolidated around Jalawla and Saadiya. And they have tightened their grip on Kirkuk city and the northern half of Kirkuk province which they seized in the summer after the Iraqi security forces fled.
In early December, several hundred Turkish soldiers have been deployed to provide training for Iraqi troops in an area near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which is under Islamic State control. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu explained that Turkey had been invited by the Ninewah Provincial government with the consent of the Iraqi government, and that actually some Turkish troops had been there as trainers for a year now. Iraq asked Turkey to withdraw its troops immediately. It remains to be seen what exactly role will Turkey play as the fight against IS unfolds in Iraq. Anyway, the violation of international law by Ankara is obvious.
The US – Kurds come and go game has its own story. During the Richard Nixon’s tenure Iraq became friendly with the Soviet Union. The US began to fund and encourage the Kurds to fight for their independence against Saddam Hussein as part of a strategy to weaken the Iraqi regime and general policy aimed at containing the USSR. But just as the Kurdish independence movement was near to success it became clear that the stance was part of a political ploy, the United States didn’t really want independent Kurdistan, and the support was subsequently withdrawn. The story of US betraying the Kurds is described in the famous book by Stephen Hunter called The Second Salladin released in 1998.
The Turkish parliament's refusal to join the U.S. – led coalition created to invade Iraq gave Iraqi Kurdistan a strategic boost. Rather than transit Turkey, U.S. forces parachuted into the Harir airfield, north of Erbil. The Peshmerga participation cemented an enhanced relationship. The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the new political tensions along sectarian lines have also raised questions over whether Iraq would split apart. Some experts believe that the US will only support an independent Kurdish state if Baghdad becomes hostile toward US interests in the region. The US would support the Kurds if its relations with the Iraqi government worsened.
In June 2006 the new Middle East map (1) prepared by retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters was published in the June 2006 edition of Armed Forces Journal under the title of Blood Borders: How a better Middle East Would Look.
The map mirrored key elements of Mr. Peters’ book Never Quit the Fight, which was released the same year.
It featured a “Free Kurdistan” that included additional territory taken from Syria and Iraq presented as a divided state.
This is the time Iraq, as the whole region, faces grave problems. It’s impossible to predict how the events will unfold. The international community has a role to play here. Not the US alone as an actor who exerts great pressure on the Kurds and the Iraqi government, but all the parties involved with the UN carrying out the mission it was created for 70 years ago. The fate of Kurdish people is a big problem on the international agenda. On Dec. 18 the UN Security Council adopted resolution on the Syria’s roadmap to peaceful settlement. Perhaps, it was the first step to tackle the Middle East hot issues on a broader scale at global level in accordance with international law, something the Turkey’s military foothold in Iraqi Kurdistan confronts with. It’s important to include the legitimate Iraqi government into the process, no matter it is facing hard times, to prevent an uncontrolled chain reaction of separate deals and arrangements tearing up the volatile region.