If there had ever been any possibility of Kurdish independence from Iraq being feasible anytime soon, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), renamed the Islamic State (IS), put an end to it with its capture of Sinjar, a critical town on the road to Syria. Sinjar’s capture puts in doubt the ability of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces to hold on to territory they acquired in the aftermath of the Iraqi military debacle in Mosul this past June. This is not to say that the much-vaunted Kurdish peshmerga units will buckle under an IS onslaught, but it does mean that the KRG will be hard pressed to defend itself.
The dream of independence for the Kurds, who have enjoyed a quasi-independent existence since the first Gulf War in 1991 and who won a federal status after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, began to become a reality with the mismanagement of Iraq under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The latter has increasingly become a divisive force in a country already divided along multiple religious, sectarian, and ethnic lines. Maliki undermined the careful balance that had been established after much compromise, fighting, and an enormous effort to defeat al-Qaeda aligned insurgency. He has succeeded in alienating just about everybody in Iraq, starting with the Sunni minority that had ruled the country from time immemorial and had finally made their quasi-peace with the new Iraq. No one has been able to explain why Maliki would embark on such a perilous course, but he did, and Iraq is now facing its greatest danger since the dark days of the sectarian bloodletting of 2006–07.
The Kurds, who have many disagreements with the central government—first, over the final status of their borders with the rest of Iraq and, second, on the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the territories they control—have given up on Baghdad, or at least on Maliki’s Baghdad. With the worsening of the oil dispute, where both sides are equally at fault and equally right at the same time, Baghdad has stopped transferring 17 percent of the Iraqi budget it owes the KRG, approximately $1 billion a month, provoking a severe financial crisis in the Kurdish north. KRG President Masoud Barzani promised last month that he would organize a referendum (date unclear) to ask the Kurdish population whether it would like to secede from Iraq. This is like asking Americans if they like their flag; the conclusion is foregone.
This is not the right moment for independence. There are two main reasons. First, as the IS onslaught demonstrates, the threat from this insurgency is real and encompasses not just Iraq but also Syria. IS has proven itself to be cunning and quite adept at tactics, if not strategy. Defeating it will take time, resources and a commitment to fighting. For a population that has not known much else but violence and uncertainty, this is a tough choice. The Kurdish peshmerga forces may have experience, but they are woefully underfunded and underequipped. Most importantly, they over-extended, having sent their forces to areas abandoned by the Iraqi army. It is telling that some of the accounts of the fighting between IS and the Kurds mention that the Kurdish forces ran out of ammunition. In other words, the Kurds cannot stand up to IS on their own when it comes to defending the outlying areas. If the latter’s gains are to be reversed and the group defeated, the KRG will need support from the central government. Baghdad has authorized the Iraqi air force to fly supporting missions for the Kurds, but this is far from sufficient. Baghdad, too, needs the Kurds to confront the IS, especially after the July 10 debacle, when Iraqi government forces abandoned Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, without putting up much of a fight. The first priority for all of Iraq has to be the defeat of IS; allowing the new Caliphate to consolidate its gains means that more and more jihadists would flock its ranks and hence make the ultimate struggle more challenging. The current IS threat is an opportunity for Baghdad and Erbil to work out a quick compromise to smooth over their differences. If the Kurds are to resist the IS onslaught, Baghdad has to make sure that arms (even if routed through Turkey) and resources reach the north.
The recent American intervention that took the form of humanitarian drops and very selected bombings of IS emplacements, even if continued and expanded, only serves to buy time for the Iraqis, Kurds, and the central government to reorganize. It is a boost of morale for the Kurds, to be sure, but the IS is unlikely to be deterred, in some ways may even welcome the American intervention as validating it newly acquired fame and prowess.
IS’s advances in both Syria and Iraq, unless reversed, risk plunging the whole region into a sectarian war with incalculable consequences from which no one, including the neighboring countries of Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, will be able to escape. While people focus on the immediate devastating impact of the conflict on the different populations, one should also take account of the damage done to the region’s infrastructure especially to the water and irrigation networks in an area of the world already facing prolonged drought conditions. The Arab Spring, especially in Syria, owes its origins as much to the authoritarian regimes as it does to the changing climate conditions pushing people from the countryside into urban areas in search of livelihood. The current destruction of basic infrastructure will take years to repair and will require international and regional cooperation.
The second set of reasons for delaying independence has to do with the conditions the Kurds find themselves in. A forced and sour divorce from Iraq will leave them isolated in the region, relying solely on Turkey for all their trade and oil and gas export routes, not to mention airline connections. Being dependent on one country is bad enough, but being dependent on one which has its own domestic Kurdish problem that has yet to be resolved, where Kurds are not universally well regarded and where the political leadership is demonstrably unreliable, is foolhardy. Iran, the Kurds’ other major neighbor, is also hostile to Kurdish independence for fear that its own Kurds will be inspired to foment trouble along the same irredentist or separatist demands.
The Kurdish economy in northern Iraq is still very dependent on the 17 percent it is allocated from the Iraqi budget. In many ways, the KRG is a classical rentier economy living off oil exports. There is a growing and flourishing trade relationship with Turkey and beyond, but oil revenues fuel much of it. A significant segment of the KRG population depends on direct and indirect government disbursements. Were the KRG to give up on its share of Iraqi oil, it would then have to come up with enough exports to compensate for that loss. This doesn’t seem possible in the near future, even if the Kurds lay claim to the Kirkuk oil fields, which account for 12 percent of Iraqi production. It will take years to ramp up production to sufficient levels and establish the pipelines and export routes necessary to bring the hydrocarbons to market.
The discussion above assumes that Iraq and the rest of the region will not contest KRG’s independence. Life is not that simple. The Arab world writ large has historically taken a dim view of Kurdish aspirations for independence; it has always viewed Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan as part of Arab lands. Yet, a confluence of factors, most importantly the civil war in Syria and its spread to Iraq, have rendered the borders drawn by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement irrelevant. The border between Syria and Iraq ceased to exist a long time ago; the respective central governments’ writs do not apply in those regions. Even if IS were to be defeated within a reasonable amount of time, those borders will not assume their old importance. Borders in general have become less relevant with time; they may exist de jure but not de facto. Localities will continue to exercise a great deal of autonomy as they interact and trade with whomever they wish. The bonds between populations across communities located alongside borders are far more relevant to their daily existence than the ineffectual states residing in Baghdad or Damascus.
In fact, the resolution of the Syrian and Iraqi crises lies in greater devolution of powers from the center to the localities. The KRG, in this sense, is the leader. One way to keep the different communities in both countries together is by loosening their ties to the center and by giving them a real chance at managing their own affairs. The traditional interests of the central state—revenue extraction (namely, taxes) and conscription for the army—will be irrelevant, not only because no one wants to fight for the center but also because after years of war the populations are exhausted and impoverished. They will, in effect, be wards of the state, to the extent that the state has some resources.
So what are the incentives to remain together, you may ask? In Iraq, the answer is simple: oil. Just as Baghdad disburses a share of the oil revenues to the KRG, it will have to do the same with all the provinces, or would-be federal states within the Iraqi state. In Syria, this is more difficult: There are, after years of central control, infrastructural developments and challenges (think of water infrastructure, dams, and electricity generation) that require, at least for the foreseeable future, the need to collaborate among all the different regions. More importantly, after a potential settlement, Syria will become a recipient of enormous quantities of international reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. In all likelihood, the region’s oil-rich states will have to step up to this task, but they are unlikely to accede to any dissolution of Syria or Iraq for that matter.
This brings us back to prospects for Kurdish independence. Secession, were it to occur in the near future, would likely be under unfavorable conditions: lack of resources, enmity from the region, and, most importantly, a military ill-equipped to face threats from either the IS or the rest of the region. Unlike even Iraq, as Michael Knights and Sam Metz have argued, KRG units lack modern day heavy weaponry except for Saddam-era equipment. They also have no air force. Moreover, as the loss of Sinjan demonstrated, Kurdish forces are over-extended; the KRG has taken over control of territories that have been in dispute since the formation of the new Iraq. Many of these territories are of mixed ethnicity. While these territories are claimed to be part of the historical Kurdistan and include large number of Kurds, such as in Kirkuk, they are also home to Arabs, Yazidis, and Turkmen who have traditionally harbored suspicions of Kurdish intentions.
Over the course of the past two years, as the security situation and daily conditions in Iraq have deteriorated, the Kurdish north has finally managed to score political gains with the communities that harbor suspicions toward it. In comparison to lackluster Iraqi government performance, the ability of the Kurdish forces to protect some of these communities bought them significant goodwill. This of course will be sorely tested in view of the reverses suffered at the hands of IS, even if these prove to be temporary. Even the Turkmen, who have always looked to Turkey for protection and shown much hostility to the Kurdish authority, have begun to change their attitude. This has something to do with the much-improved relations between Ankara and Erbil, and especially the change in Turkish policy abandoning the use of the Turkmen as a fifth column, if not as a potential countervailing force, against the Kurds. The fall of Tel Afar, a predominantly Turkmen town, to IS militants in June was a significant blow to Turkmen communities and their reliance on Turkey for protection. Many Tel Afar inhabitants who took refuge in Sinjar have had to once again flee, this time towards the KRG.
Iraqi national identity over the years has been constructed along ethnic—that is, Arab—lines. The ethnic Arab glue is far more potent as a force for unity than the sectarian divisions (and current fighting) between Shi‘a and Sunnis would lead us to believe. Paradoxically, the Kurds did play an important role in keeping Iraq together. In the sectarian/ethnic arrangement for the division of the country’s top positions, the Kurds had the presidency, the Sunnis the speakership of parliament, and the Shi‘a the powerful executive in the form of the prime ministership. In the able hands of former President Jalal Talabani, the presidency became an important office that helped navigate the treacherous Sunni-Shi‘a divisions and disputes and offered resistance (albeit not total) to Maliki’s machinations. In fact, the situation deteriorated following Talabani’s stroke and his incapacitation. Having a Kurd as the head of Iraq was a powerful symbol of unity.
In another paradoxical outcome of the current developments in Iraq, Barzani and the KRG leadership are likely to change their approach to the Syrian Kurds. To date, Syrian Kurds have preferred to affiliate themselves with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), shunning and thereby infuriating the more established KRG. Necessity is also the mother of new alliances: Syrian Kurds have already been engaged in fighting IS and other jihadist forces, and now they, together with PKK forces, have joined the fight in Iraq on the side of the KRG in the name of Kurdish unity. This, too, is likely to have consequences down the road for the region.
It may be too late for Iraq to remain as a unified territorial unit, even as a loosely stitched together federal arrangement. If partition or separation is to come naturally, then the Kurds are better off waiting for an amicable divorce—one that would be accepted by most inside and outside of Iraq, and one that would not engender the feelings of enmity that a sudden and premature move would. The United States, like many others, is more likely to sanction an independent Kurdistan that emerges naturally and consensually, rather than one that jumps the gun and creates new challenges for Washington in a country it is desperately seeking to forget. In part, this explains Washington’s resistance to any sign of independent activity by the Kurds, such as the direct sale of oil through Turkey to third parties without traditional export Iraqi controls.
Do Kurds deserve a state of their own? If they want one, who is to say no. Iraqi Kurds are the ones who have traveled the furthest, and it is quite likely that they, with their Syrian brethren, will be the first to taste the fruits of freedom. This does not mean that we will see an independent pan-Kurdistan that would also encompass territories in Turkey and Iran. The ability of Iran and Turkey to withstand the shockwaves of Kurdish independence rests on two factors: the strength and resilience of state structures (here they are indeed formidable), and the kind of deals they might offer their restless and politicized Kurdish minority. On this score, the Turks are both a step ahead (they are engaged in a process of some kind with the Kurdish opposition) and face more daunting challenges (Turkish Kurds are more organized and have had many more years to hone their political and military strategies). Still, devolution of power and the recognition of belonging to a different ethnicity would go a long way toward buying Ankara (and Tehran in principle) time to win the loyalty of this critical group.
In the meantime, the threat to the region does not come from partition but rather from the consolidation of the IS. Defeating it will require extraordinary collaboration between not just Baghdad and the Kurds, but also Ankara. Risks will have to be taken: Iraqi Kurds will need better military equipment, something Baghdad has long prevented, and there will have to be a new Iraqi government committed to taking a fresh approach.