Kurdish Independence: A Dream Fraught With Danger

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Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to ISIS in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Perhaps one of the most important developments in the recent history of the Middle East was Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem during the June 1967 War. Israel, a state just 19 years young, was now in possession of a city holy to the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wresting Jerusalem from Israeli control has been a rallying cry for secular Arab nationalists and Islamists alike ever since. The future status of Jerusalem has also been the main stumbling block in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for decades.

Now, following the seizing of Mosul and other cities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Kurdish Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was quick to take military positions in and around the hotly contested city of Kirkuk as Iraqi forces fled.

Although without the religious significance of Jerusalem, the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk has had a lasting significance for Iraqi Kurds. It is said that the Kurdish attachment to Kirkuk is comparable to the Jewish longing for Jerusalem. Although a mixed city comprising of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, it was the Kurds who predominantly inhabited Kirkuk where they were historically the majority.

That was until the Iraqi Ba’ath Party came into power in a bloody coup in 1963 and destroyed and expelled Kurds from the city’s outlying districts. Such ethnic conflict reached genocidal proportions under Saddam Hussein. An estimated 200,000 Kurds were forced to flee. To prevent their return, Kurdish homes, farms and livestock were either burned or confiscated. Streets were renamed and Arab families were encouraged to settle and populate the oil-rich city.

Since the liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s rule in 2003, the Kurds have been busy creating a regional government in the autonomous northern region of the country. It has its own government, parliament, police force, ministries and other state-like institutions. It has even signed energy contracts with Turkey, much to the anger of Baghdad.

Make no mistake: The KRG aspires for independence. However, Kirkuk remains outside of the KRG’s autonomous zone.

There are several reasons why so far the KRG has resisted going its own way and declaring independence. The future of Kirkuk is a major factor. Baghdad is loath to relinquish its oil wealth. And the KRG has not wanted to risk a conflagration with Iraqi forces much larger and better equipped than the Kurdish Peshmerga. Meanwhile, the KRG receives 17 percent of Iraqi oil money, a much needed source of revenue.

Moreover, independence might also trigger Turkish intervention. Ankara threatened such action after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, if the status of Kirkuk was changed. This was to protect the city’s Turkmen community and because Ankara was concerned that the birth of a Kurdish state could reignite the national aspirations of its own Kurdish population. Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) during the 1980s and 90s claimed the lives of 40,000 Kurds and Turks as well as billions of dollars.

However, following the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a not-as-well-equipped and outnumbered ISIS, there is little to prevent the Kurds finally obtaining statehood.

Indeed, as the Kurdish Peshmerga draw defensive lines around their new territorial gains, the de facto outline of the new Kurdish state looks to be coming into being with little tangible opposition from an embattled and embittered Baghdad.

As if to cement this new reality, there were rumours in the Kurdish media that there had been an alleged agreement between Baghdad and the KRG that would allow Kurdish forces to retain their jurisdiction over Kirkuk. However, this was later denied.

East of Kurdistan, closer relations have been forged between the Kurds and Baghdad’s backers in Tehran. Meanwhile, relations with Turkey have increasingly warmed. Not only have Erbil and Ankara signed energy agreements, but last month saw the first exports of oil from Kurdistan into energy-starved Turkey. No longer is Iraqi Kurdistan a security threat to the Turkish Republic, but a source of opportunity and investment. Many Turkish companies have invested in the KRG in a wide range of sectors from services to energy and construction. 

While the notion of an independent Kurdish state and the regaining of the historically important disputed areas have been met with jubilation by the Kurds of Iraq, it should not overshadow the danger of a nascent Kurdish state finding much of its southern border shared with extremists or an angry Baghdad.

The capturing of the new territories may well be - as the state of Israel has found out - the beginning of new conflicts, checkpoints and repeated terrorist incursions. In short, the Kurdish dream comes fraught with danger.

Sofia Barbarani is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraq. She is a graduate of King’s College London and City University London. Follow her on Twitter @SofiaBarbarani

Simon A. Waldman is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at King's College London. Follow him on Twitter @SimonWaldman1

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