Momentum for Kurdish independence stalled but is not finished

“I don’t think the desire for independence has waned,” says Bryan Gibson, Hawaii Pacific University.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Hopes and challenges. Bryan Gibson, of Hawaii Pacific University, poses for a photo in the Iraqi city of Erbil.        (Courtesy of Bryan Gibson)
Hopes and challenges. Bryan Gibson, of Hawaii Pacific University, poses for a photo in the Iraqi city of Erbil. (Courtesy of Bryan Gibson)

Momentum for a separate Kurdish state in Iraqi Kurdistan has stalled since the September 2017 independence referendum but has it disappeared? Relations between the Kurds and Baghdad are improving but fragile.

Internally, the two main Kurdish parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — remain at odds. Despite the unified Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), each party controls a separate zone.

The parties’ energies seem to be going largely into internal wrangling. Since September’s parliamentary election in Iraqi Kurdistan, they have been battling over how to choose a KRG president and over how many vice-presidents there should be. The likelihood is that the KDP’s Nechirvan Barzani will be president and his cousin Masrour Barzani will be prime minister.

Nonetheless, the idea of greater independence persists and has supporters in Europe and the United States. Kurdish universities are promoting overseas links and, in October, the University of Kurdistan Hewler (UKH) will be the site of an international conference, “The KRG’s Emerging Strategy for Stability in Iraq and the Region,” to help “stabilise a dysfunctional country.”

The conference advisor is Bryan Gibson of Hawaii Pacific University. His 2015 book “Sold Out? US Foreign Policy, Iraq, the Kurds and the Cold War” focused on Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdish nationalist leader whose war with Baghdad ended with defeat in 1975.

Gibson said that when he arrived in northern Iraq for the first time in 2016 for another UKH conference, he made “a sort of pilgrimage” to Barzani’s grave in Barzan, the clan’s mountainous homeland near Turkey.

“When you travel around Kurdistan, it’s not what you’d expect for a country torn apart by war,” he said.

Nor is this purely economic development. “Sitting in a cafe, I felt I could leave my iPhone, laptop and wallet, walk around the block, come back and they would still be there. I can’t do that in Washington DC, Seattle or Toronto,” Gibson said.

Gibson said decentralised politics in his native Canada could offer Iraq one example, although it would require greater understanding between Kurds and Arabs.

“Apart from the politicians who go down to Baghdad for politics in the Green Zone, they don’t interact,” he said. “When the Mosul crisis [seized by the Islamic State in 2014] happened, Arabs were allowed into Kurdistan as a safe haven and given opportunities to set up businesses… For a lot of these people, it’s the first time they’ve ever actually lived in civility.”

Gibson floated a notion of Iraq as “four decentralised states or provinces: the [predominately Sunni] Kurds, [Arab] Sunnis and [Arab] Shias would have an ethnic territory of their own and then a fourth province would cover Baghdad, which is more diverse.”

Revenue would be raised centrally and distributed per capita to the “states.” The central government would control defence, and each “state” its own police.

Gibson conceded that US actions exacerbated Kurdish-Arab tensions. “It was smart for the Kurds to align themselves with the US before and after the invasion but there’s no question… [this] alienated those who saw the US as a colonial power,” he said. “From a North American perspective, colonialism is far removed, they threw off the shackles of British colonials in the 1700s.”

Even more contentious is the Kurds’ relationship with Israel. “This goes back to 1962,” said Gibson. “It’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge but everyone knows it exists. The IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] and the Mossad have played a role helping Kurdish security forces.”

Historically, Gibson said, Israel used the Kurds “to tie down the Arab armies in Iraq, which worked well in [Arab-Israeli wars of] ’67 and ’73.” Since the Kurds established autonomy after the 1990-91 Gulf War, “there’s been a lot of Israeli investment building up their technology and communications,” he said. Israel backed the 2017 independence referendum. “Those relationships are etched in stone,” said Gibson.

Given that the referendum led not to independence but to lost territory, including Kirkuk, will the Kurds take a pragmatic course?

“I don’t think the desire for independence has waned,” said Gibson. “What changed is the Kurdish government got a bloody nose. They were reminded that the push for independence would not be easy.”

Gibson said he can imagine a future “more pliable government in Iran” giving Iraqi Kurds access to the sea but noted that Tehran, like Ankara, opposes independence.

Hence, he said, “The only way to the sea is through Baghdad” and that Kurdish leaders have made a “turn south.” They have “leverage,” he said, through controlling river headwaters. Potential irrigation and electricity-generation require both technology and political cooperation.

“Israeli irrigation techniques are some of the world’s best,” he said. “They have innovations that, if applied to Iraq, would be beneficial. Many people in Iraq would not want that unless it was surreptitiously provided through the Kurds.”