For Iraq’s Kurds, the dream of independence put on hold
BEIRUT - Iraq’s Kurds, known for their pragmatism, have been able to defend their national interests in a region plagued by constant upheaval. But now that events appear to be taking a turn for the worse, with Iran-Arab rivalry reaching unprecedented levels, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will have to exercise great care as it navigates increasingly dangerous waters that have for now delayed its dream of independence.
In early May, Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, told a closed discussion organised by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think-tank, that “the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) has postponed the Kurds’ referendum on independence”.
The ISIS onslaught on Iraq and the Kurdish region, which shares a 1,000km front line with the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, has cost the Kurds dearly. Some 1,200 of their peshmerga fighters have been killed, with another 7,000 wounded.
Supported by coalition air strikes, Kurdish forces have defended their territory against the jihadists. But the region has been rocked by several bombings. In April, one in Erbil, the capital, targeted the Christian area of Ainkawa, where the US consulate is located.
Jamestown Foundation researcher and leading Kurdish expert Wladimir van Wilgenburg reported that “the bombing was claimed by the Kirkuk Wilayat,” the self-proclaimed ISIS governorate covering the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk region, which Kurds claim is historically theirs.
In November 2014, six people were killed in Erbil when a suicide bomber tried to drive his vehicle into the government headquarters, only to be cut down by gunfire from the guards. There was also an attack against the Security Directorate in Erbil on September 29, 2013.
The fighting has weighed heavily on the Kurds’ resources and economic stability. Barzani says there are about 1.5 million displaced in Kurdistan, including 250,000 refugees from Syria. In Dohuk province, refugees and displaced outnumber the indigenous population.
In February, a KRG-World Bank report estimated that economic growth in Kurdistan shrank 5 percentage points while the poverty rate more than doubled from 3.5% to 8.1%. The report estimated that stabilisation costs in 2015 will total at least $1.4 billion above the KRG’s budget.
The budget, heavily inflated because of the war, has also been hurt by plunging oil prices. This has strained a deal between the KRG and Baghdad, under which the Kurds get a 17% share of Iraqi government revenue if they export their oil through state-owned pipelines.
But the KRG is using a pipeline running northwards through Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan and pocketing the revenue without Baghdad’s consent.
The fighting, falling oil prices and tense relations with Baghdad are not the KRG’s only challenges. Iraq is home to both Sunni and Shia Muslims, which has left the Kurds, an ethnic minority, in a tough spot as tensions grow between the regional representatives of these communities, Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Iran appears to be moving towards a deal on its nuclear programme with US-led world powers, the Saudis have been upping the ante against Iran’s expansionist policies.
In March, Saudi Arabia, heading a coalition of ten Sunni Arab states, unleashed a military campaign against Shia Houthi insurgents, who are supposedly backed by Iran, in Yemen.
In Syria, fresh rebel advances appear to be linked to a new-found collaboration between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, resulting in greater unity among the groups fighting President Bashar Assad, Iran’s main Arab ally. The Kurds have astutely risen above regional conflicts, setting aside religion to focus on their national interest, namely achieving statehood.
In Washington, Barzani reminded the Atlantic Council audience that while he did not know “whether it would happen next year or when … independence is certainly coming.”
His priority is to ignore regional disputes while defending Kurdistan’s interests amid the increasingly complex Iraqi turmoil. While the ISIS offensive may have weighed heavily on the Kurds, it has also underlined the military capabilities of its peshmerga and highlighted its government’s growing credibility.
In addition, Kurds will be instrumental in the coming offensive on Mosul, de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq, which has made Washington — fearful of seeing Iraq partitioned — more inclined to funnel weapons to the KRG, according to a Kurdish official quoted by Rudaw, a Kurdish news agency.
“Arming the Kurds will not lead to independence” since they lack the economic means and international recognition, van Wilgenburg argues. He’s right. To achieve a sustainable independence, the KRG may need more time to strengthen its economy and its infrastructure, while smoothing out internal Kurdish rivalries.
Playing a leading role in degrading and destroying ISIS could also allow the KRG to acquire precious international support, strengthening its hand in the regional game of high-stakes poker.