“None of my aspirations for the country post-2003 have come to pass,” says Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq’s former ambassador to the United Nations, “and my worst fears and my worst nightmares have all been exceeded.”
After years living in the United States, Istrabadi returned to Iraq following the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein to help build what he hoped would become a united and democratic country. The nightmare he was unable to predict descended on Iraq this year in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a murderous Sunni Islamist militia that has taken over huge swaths of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and declared themselves the rulers of a new Islamic caliphate. Iraq’s army has proven unable to defeat the group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State. Its barbarous extremism, including crucifixions and the mass murder of Shia Muslims, has provoked revenge killings of Sunni Muslims and deepened sectarian divisions among Arab Iraqis to a degree that the continued viability of the Iraqi state is uncertain.
The country is, in some ways, already unofficially and roughly split between a Kurdish north, a Sunni centre and a Shia south. Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia chauvinist, has done little to heal these divisions.
But what is a nightmare for many Iraqis may also be advancing the dreams of others. Iraqi Kurds have long wished to carve an independent homeland out of northern Iraq. Since Saddam’s overthrow, they have participated in the national politics of the country, while enjoying high levels of autonomy. They send MPs to Baghdad and, since 2005, the president of Iraq has been a Kurd. Now, according to some Kurdish leaders, the rise of the Islamic State and the resulting instability in Iraq has changed Kurdish obligations to Baghdad, and made it practical to take concrete steps toward independence.
“In reality, Iraq is partitioned now. Should we stay in this tragic situation [in which] Iraq is living?” Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said in an interview earlier this summer with the BBC. “The latest events have established that [independence] is the solution. We can’t experiment with our fate for another 10 years. We can’t remain hostage to an unknown future indefinitely.”
In July, Barzani asked the Kurdish Parliament to set a date for a referendum on independence. He told the BBC one would happen within “months.” The results would almost certainly be a strong endorsement of Kurdish independence. It’s unclear whether, or how quickly, the Kurdish government would then move toward declaring statehood. But already, they have taken steps to expand and strengthen such a state if they do.
In June, as Iraqi army units collapsed before ISIS attacks, Kurdish peshmerga ﬁghters seized the large and multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, sometimes dubbed the Kurdish Jerusalem because of the cultural importance Kurds ascribe to it, as well as surrounding oil fields—giving a prospective Kurdish state an added source of income. Ostensibly, this was to prevent them from falling to ISIS, but it is unlikely that the Kurdistan government will willingly return the territory to Baghdad.
“These are high-stakes gambles,” says David Romano, co-editor of Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East, speaking of Kurdish moves toward statehood. “But it’s hard to imagine the Kurds in a better position.”
Kurdish relations with Baghdad, however, are getting worse. The KRG is mostly funded by a 17 per cent allocation of Iraq’s federal budget, but payments were reduced earlier this year, and cut in March, because of a dispute over energy development and oil exports from Kurdish areas. The KRG has tried to make up for this shortfall by exporting oil through the Turkish port of Ceyhan. This has sparked an international legal battle between Baghdad and the KRG, resulting in tankers floating around the world’s oceans, unable to unload their cargo due to Iraqi legal threats against potential buyers.
This dispute with Baghdad over oil exports encapsulates one of several major challenges an independent Kurdistan would face: its relations with what will remain of Iraq. “It’s unlikely to be a velvet divorce,” says Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It will not necessarily be bloodless, and I think the Kurds recognize that.” The potential for violence, should Kurdistan declare independence, increased when Kurdish forces took over land inhabited by non-Kurds, such as Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, making a prospective Kurdish state less homogenous than it would otherwise have been.
Barzani has said that any referendum on independence will include all citizens of Kurdistan, not only ethnic Kurds. And since the advance of the Islamic State, thousands of non-Kurds, including many Iraqi Christians, have sought refuge in Kurdish territory. This suggests an independent Kurdistan would at least aspire to be a pluralistic state.
But, according to Denise Natali, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, to suggest that non-Kurdish Iraqis would therefore easily accept the dismemberment of their country, especially if an independent Kurdistan were to include newly seized territory, is unrealistic. “If the Kurds unilaterally take Kirkuk, there will be openings for greater political conflict, because nobody will be in agreement on the borders,” she says. “It will be a hotly unstable, unrecognized political entity, in which now Sunni Arabs and Kurds are fighting over resources and borders.”
The problems facing an independent Kurdistan won’t end in Iraq. Iran is ﬁrmly opposed to the birth of a Kurdish state. “They could, through a lot of armed groups, support all kinds of violent actions in Kurdistan,” says Kawa Hassan, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Iran is the biggest and most dangerous player in this game.”
Another important player is Turkey. Ankara fought a long conflict with Kurdish guerillas in eastern Turkey, but, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has tried to resolve it. Erdogan has also forged strong relations with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. Turkey’s official position is to support the territorial integrity of Iraq. But Barzani has said he expects Turkey would do nothing to block Iraqi Kurdish independence. Turkey stands to profit significantly from Kurdish oil exports through its territory.
But, according to Natali, the lack of alternative export routes except through Turkey would make an independent Kurdistan reliant on Ankara. “It would create a shifted semi-autonomy from Baghdad to Turkey,” she says. “I don’t buy that Turkey wants to see an independent Kurdistan. A Kurdish vassal state? Yes.”
Hassan, a Kurd from Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, would like to see the birth of an independent Kurdistan, eventually. “All Kurds, from all different backgrounds, they agree on one thing, and that is independence,” he says. But Hassan believes Iraqi Kurdistan currently lacks the necessary state institutions, economic strength and international backing necessary to thrive as a sovereign state.
Advising prudence, however, is a hard sell in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This whole rhetoric of independence is actually the rhetoric of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani,” says Hassan. “And he plays on the emotional strength of this idea of independence in a way that no political party or group can say, ‘I’m against that,’ because you will be portrayed as a traitor.”
It’s easy to understand why the idea of independence resonates with so many Kurds. They are the world’s largest stateless nation. In Iraq, especially, they have suffered at the hands of the state that hosted them. Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds in the 1980s killed tens of thousands, including, most infamously, the approximately 5,000 who perished during a chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988.
“It’s not about a right [to statehood]. They have a right, but they can’t change their geography,” says Natali. “The main point is not: Should they have a state? It’s: What would it look like?”
If Iraqi Kurds are to move toward independence, says Natali, they should negotiate with Baghdad in a time of relative peace. But advocates, and even sympathizers, of Kurdish independence argue that it is the erosion of the Iraqi state that has pushed Kurds to accelerate their quest for sovereignty.
“I always used to say it’s incumbent on the Arabs of the country to build a state the Kurdish rank and file actually want to be a part of,” says Istrabadi, the former ambassador, who describes himself as an Iraqi nationalist. “In fact, what we’ve done is build a state that even the Sunnis of Iraq don’t want to be a part of.”
In America, Washington’s policy remains to support a united Iraq that includes the Kurdish north. But some members of Congress are arguing that this position should change. “I just don’t feel that it’s fair to hold the Kurds hostage, because, unfortunately, we’ve screwed up things in Iraq, and everything is falling to pieces,” said Democrat Eliot Engel during a recent House Foreign Affairs Hearing. “We’re essentially saying to the Kurds, ‘You know what? You have to be the glue that keeps Iraq together and, therefore, we’re going to deny you your aspirations.’ ”
Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with America is close, with some bitter roots. After the first Gulf War in 1991, then-U.S. president George H. W. Bush urged Iraq’s Kurds and Shias to rise up against Saddam. They did, but, without American help, were slaughtered in the thousands. But the Kurds then managed to establish a de facto state under the protection of American, British and French air power, which enforced a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. They enjoyed this autonomy until Saddam’s toppling in 2003, when they rejoined the rest of Iraq.
“They are, by far, our best allies in the country, but also in the region,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA intelligence officer who now works for the Soufan Group, a security consulting country. “We’ve always had a great relationship—militarily, politically and intelligence.”
An independent Kurdistan might deepen that relationship. Some American commentators have looked to a future in which a military base in Iraqi Kurdistan could put fighter jets within easy striking distance of Iran, and serve to guarantee Kurdish sovereignty in a potentially hostile region.
But an American military presence wouldn’t solve the sizable economic challenges an independent Kurdistan would confront. “If neighbouring countries and Baghdad close their borders, Kurdistan can’t feed itself. Over the last 10 years, there’s been a huge construction boom, but there has been no economic development,” says Hassan, adding that a hasty declaration of statehood would be “very, very reckless.”
The wisest counsel for Kurdish nationalists is likely patience. They are currently well positioned to negotiate a new relationship with Baghdad, while also building their own institutions and economic base. It’s possible Iraq will recover, and the country’s Kurds will benefit from membership in a larger and internationally recognized state. And, if Iraq does collapse completely, Iraqi Kurds will then be better placed to strike out on their own than they are now.
Even a prosperous and radically decentralized Iraq, however, is unlikely to neutralize Kurdish dreams of independence. The borders of modern Iraq were drawn when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered following the First World War. The Kurds never wanted to be part of it, says Hassan. Many still don’t.