A new non-Arab important actor may soon appear on the Middle East map after the Islamic State (IS) group is driven out of the Iraqi city of Mosul. The separation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region from Iraq increasingly appears to be a matter of when, not if. A move known to be coming for such a long time is expected to take place this year with the United Nations oversight making it legitimate.
On April 2, the two ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by President Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani, agreed on holding an independence referendum. They issued a joint statement announcing their commitment to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. KDP and PUK coordinate with political parties and other nations in Kurdistan to set the timing and procedures for referendum in a close and appropriate time. On March 30, Barzani met with UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to discuss the possibility of an independence referendum. Guterres said the UN would act as an intermediary between Erbil and Baghdad.
A spokesperson for the KDP, Mahmud Mohamad, told Rudaw that it has already been agreed that the referendum would be held in 2017. Kurdish parties will start talks with Baghdad and neighboring countries on the issue. In early March, President Barzani predicted that Iraq faces the prospect of being split into two or more independent states, following the example of Czechoslovakia, which split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has cited referendums in Catalonia, Quebec and Scotland as precedents. But in each of those cases, the national-level democracy accepted the regional referendum and did not actively oppose it, or try to prevent it by force.
The decision for a referendum came one week after the council had voted in favor of raising the Kurdish flag on municipal buildings in the city of Kirkuk, a decision taken by the Kirkuk governor and Kirkuk Provincial Council.
The KRG has long held secessionist ambitions. It made it clear that the question would be addressed as soon as possible to include the territories conquered in the fighting, including a lot of oil-producing regions and the major city of Kirkuk. Iraqi Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They also see their city as their historical capital. If the decision to secede is taken, it will become a bone of contention with the government in Baghdad.
The Iraqi Kurdistan is already essentially independent with its own foreign policy and trade deals from their capital in Erbil with little regard for what Baghdad says. The region has all the features of a state: independent institutions, a constitution and the armed forces (Peshmerga), economy, diplomatic representation and borders between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the Iraqi state.
The Kurdistan Ministry of Natural Resources notes that there were no problems with the export of oil via Turkey. A source at the Ministry told reporters that Turkey had informed the KRG that it was going to conduct planned maintenance work on the pipeline that carries the Kurdish oil exports to Turkey’s Ceyhan port. The KRG controls parts of Iraqi Kurdistan estimated to contain around 45 billion barrels of oil, making it the sixth largest reserve in the world.
Kurdistan was cut off from Baghdad and functioned independently since the war against IS militants started in 2014. The region controlled its own economy and developed its oil resources.
The question of Kurdish independence has always troubled the surrounding countries: none of them have ever wanted a Kurdish state. The move is doomed to be opposed by Turkey and Iran, given their concerns about the aspirations of their own Kurdish populations. The United States is Iraqi Kurdistan’s ally. Formally, it has never supported the idea of secession out of fear of setting a precedent throughout the Middle East region. In practice, the Kurdistan could be used as leverage to influence Iraq if it turns into the orbit of Iran. In June 2006, a map of the Middle East, prepared by retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, was published by Armed Forces Journal.
Although the map does not officially reflect a Pentagon’s doctrine, it has been used in training programs at NATO educational centers like Defense College in Rome. Among other things, it reduced Turkish landmass and featured a «Free Kurdistan» that included additional territory taken from Syria and Iraq. Iraq was presented as just a fragment of what it is now, carved up to also include Sunnis Iraq and the Arab Shiite State.
If a referendum on independence is held with the anticipated results, the move to statehood will have far going consequences.
The Kurds are Sunni Muslims. With Kurdistan gone, the population balance inside Iraq will change in favor of the Shiites. Taking into consideration the existing divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, it is logical to expect the Sunni-dominated Western parts of the country shift out of the Baghdad’s control, leading to the breakup of the country. Masrour Barzani, head of the KRG’s Security Council and son of President Barzani, said last June that Iraq should be divided into three separate entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed, with a state each given to the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds.
Independent Kurdistan will inevitably inspire other Kurdish groups in the region, especially in Syria. There has also been occasional violence between Kurdish separatists groups and the Iranian state.
There are 5.3 million Kurds in Iraq, about one sixth of the whole population of over 30 million, the majority living in Iran, Syria and Turkey with significant Kurdish diasporas communities in Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Russia, Lebanon and, in recent decades, some European countries and the USA. Roughly 55% of the world's Kurds live in Turkey, about 18% each in Iran and Iraq, and a bit over 5% in Syria.
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnicity in Western Asia after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks. The situation in Iraq is quite different from what takes place in Iran, Syria and Turkey. For instance, Iran simply doesn’t recognize the very existence of Kurds as a minority, something aptly played on by the US and Israel.
If President Assad falls, Syria will splinter into religiously or ethnically homogenous mini-states, one of which will almost certainly be under Kurdish control. Coupled with the recent emergence of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, this would create something of a league of semi-autonomous Kurdish states between the northeast regions of Syria and Iraq. The combustible state of affairs alarms Turkey, which has waged a bloody, three-decade civil war against its 14 million Kurds.
As the recent history shows, becoming an independent state is not always a success. True, 112 countries recognize Kosovo, but many do not, even under the US and EU pressure. Somaliland is a failure. South Sudan has gained its independence through an internationally recognized referendum only to be plagued by internal conflict. The separation from Ethiopia did not make Eritrea prosperous. So, the emergence of a differences-torn territory with bleak prospects for future is a possibility.
The process of unification is a bumpy road. There are also Turks, Arabs, and Assyrians to name but a few of the multitude of peoples in the Kurdistan region. And they manifest different religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Yazdani. Unification means getting together different groups with different backgrounds, cultures and visions. There are options. A new secular, democratic non-Arab nation may appear to change the Middle East landscape. The other outcome is the emergence of a corrupt, backward country unable to make on its own. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since February 2016 the public sector in Kurdistan has protested corruption and unpaid wages. For the first time in 25 years, Kurdish protesters are publicly showing their disappointment in the government.
Frzand Sherko, an Iraq-based strategic scholar and political analyst specializing on Iraqi Kurdistan, writes that the demonstrations have now incorporated demands for KRG leaders to step down and dissolve the government. Members of the security forces and peshmerga are also participating in civil protests. Public sector employee salaries have not been paid since September 2015 and recent austerity measures have included salary cuts of up to 75 percent. The government’s debt is $25 billion. The mounting frustrations with the government may bode ill for a public referendum on an independent Kurdistan.
Independence will not do away with historic divisions. The Kurdish Autonomous Region is split between two parties who control different areas and maintain separate peshmerga militias. The two parties are in coalition and that’s a good thing but they are facing resistance from the Gorran opposition movement, which has staged protests over President’s Masoud Barzani extending his term by mandate under the pretext to fight the IS.
Not all Kurds are adamant in their desire for cessation, there are those who believe that this is a multifaceted problem with many questions to be answered. But the region has become a factor of the Middle East political scene, an entity to reckon with no matter where the tide may turn in the volatile region.