Let’s have a little quiz on geopolitics. Question one: What is the world’s third largest nationless population? Is it the Tamils? Nope. The Palestinians? Close, but no. Numbering at over 35 million, the Kurdish people exist as one of the largest nationless populations in the world. Now with recent events unfolding in Iraq due to recent advances of ISIS, the Kurds stand to gain fully fledged independence – heralding the creation of a new nation –Kurdistan.
What are some of the signs of such a development? Well, take Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit of the Iraqi Kurdistani President Massoud Barzani. On June 24th, Secretary Kerry visited the President in the Kurdish capital Irbil which is perhaps one of the surest signs of sovereignty and recognition by the United States even if the US continues to back pedal on the issue of Kurdish independence. The matter at hand is not necessarily refusing the allowance of Kurdish independence but the United States’ attempt to maintain stability in the Middle East and to not antagonize other Middle Eastern countries with large Kurdish populations, namely Turkey and Iran.
However, two recent developments have shifted this dynamic. The first is that the Turkish government, which has led a nearly 30 year struggle against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) active in the Eastern part of the country, has formed ties with the autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq. Not only has the Turkish government signed a 50 year oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan, but the Spokesman for the Turkish Justice and Development Party, Huseyin Celik, announced publicly that Ankara was ready to accept independence of an Iraqi Kurdistan. Both countries trade a great deal and with oil now in the mix after Kurdistan’s seizing of oil-rich Kirkuk on June 12th, the prospect of cooperation and multilateral diplomacy is very promising.
The other major development is grounded in geopolitical realism — that is the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan remains the only functional state in all of Iraq. Not only has the state managed to maintain an independent and well-oiled bureaucracy and democratic political system, it has managed to secure its borders against the ISIS horde which pummeled the Iraqi army until being halted some 40 km outside of Baghdad — a la Moscow 1941. It is perhaps for this reason that thousands of Iraqi citizens have fled the turmoil, fighting, and political imbroglio in the country and have settled in Kurdistan. In some cases, bus travel between Baghdad and Irbil have risen by over 50%. With new oil reserves flowing from recently seized territory that had formerly been disputed between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad (including Kirkuk) the country has the best possible ability to break away from Iraq and use said oil reserves to develop the country further.
All of this supports what President Barzani of Kurdistan called “the new reality” in Iraq, during Secretary Kerry’s visit. To him and to Secretary Kerry it was clear that Kurdistan was the only regime in Iraq possible of providing stability and real power projection within its borders and even beyond (though it has restrained itself in fighting ISIS militants in any other manner beyond keeping the militia out of Kurdish territory). This leads to one main idea — the golden key to any independent nation — legitimacy.
All of this has led most recently to Barzani’s call for the creation of an independent electoral commission to carry out an official referendum on independence within the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. “Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” said President Barzani. “From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal…It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.” If all works out the Kurds may very well have an independent state very soon.
There are a few obstacles of course. The first obstacle is the acquisition of international recognition of independence in order to establish legitimacy which might be much harder to come by. The idea of an independent Kurdistan unsettles the United States because of the potential blowback that the creation of such a country might create with the large Kurdish populations in Iraq’s bordering countries including Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Of course the Kurds have had a special relationship with the U.S as we created a no fly zone to protect their citizens from Saddam Hussein, and were given a wide berth of support for self-determination especially under the George W. Bush administration. The Kurds also fought alongside U.S. forces in operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and was almost the spearhead in creating a new regime in Baghdad (similar to the U.S’ design of supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan) before the U.S. military brass rejected the idea in favor of a full-fledged invasion.
Turkey finds itself in a unique situation in that it has the most too loose in an independent Kurdistan, but also the most to win. In terms of territory, turkey would lose over 190,000 km of its territory in Eastern Anatolia if Kurdish-majority territory there was forfeited to the creation of a new Kurdish state. This stands little chance of happening as the Turkish government and military have successfully fought to keep the PPKs ambitions at bay (albeit through severe and violent measures). Furthermore, the Kurds in Iraq have not presented any idea of territorial ambitions outside of Iraq’s current borders and do not want to hurt their currently warm relations with Turkey.
On the other hand Turkey has a lot to gain from Kurdish independence in terms of trade and goods including the aforementioned oil deal that it recently struck with the autonomous government. The Kurdish government thus has significant leverage over Turkey in that the country desperately relies on foreign oil and has found a solid partner in Iraqi Kurdistan to supply its energy. Iraqi Kurdistan could thus toss recognition as part of its oil deal.
It is hard to believe that the Kurdish government would do anything to antagonize other Kurdish populations in neighboring countries to do the same. The government there had proven to be extremely practical and has been cautious not to provoke others or get too greedy. This includes the seizing of disputed territory and fighting with ISIS. The government also has not supported other independence movements with weapons, money, or alike.
In this line of thought Kurdistan needs to heed two warnings. The first is to not get too greedy. The Kurdish government has restrained itself from declaring independence for now. However that may be because it has larger designs on Iraq. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, similar to ISIS and the Sunni territory in Iraq. Together with the Sunni political bloc in Iraq, a joint Iraqi Sunni/Kurdish coalition could dominate the Iraqi political process for the rest of the county’s existence. It is simply a matter of sectarian statistics — the beauty of democracy. Of course, Iraq being a parliamentarian democracy the Shiite population would still have a voice over policy but would be significantly marginalized — I.e. They would have a voice but a very small one — a dangerous precedent that could lead to a dissatisfied Shiite population and even greater sectarian violence. The Kurds, however, are well aware that such an arrangement would be difficult to maintain.
The other issue is that of waiting until the window of opportunity has closed. The only reason why Kurdish forces were able to seize disputed territory in Iraq is because it had a trained and disciplined military force to do so and there was a corresponding power vacuum in northern Iraq caused by ISIS’ advance. The Iraqi government would have fought back if it wanted to but could not because it was preoccupied and unable to project its military power there. That does not mean that the Iraqi government does not want those areas back and if the government (with Iran’s help) manages to bring northern Iraq under control and push out ISIS then it will turn to Kurdistan next. For this reason it would be advisable for Kurdistan to act now while the Iraqi government is unable to react and the world is distracted with ISIS.
In all honesty it is not difficult to see justification in the Kurdish cause. Ever since the Kurds in Iraqi achieved autonomy in 1991 they have worked to participate in a successful and united Iraq. They set aside broader ambitions for full independence, choosing to work with the central government in Baghdad. They even struck a deal with Baghdad to receive a small percentage of Iraq’s oil exports (though it probably should have received more). But with the lack of statecraft and leadership shown by Prime Minister Al-Maliki, who no longer sits on his bayonet of thrones provided by the US taxpayer, the Kurds see no further reason to continue to engage in a relationship that is not worth their time, their money, or their freedom.
Finally, if we are to take away one broader lesson from this, it is that the global geopolitical shift from hard power and military projection to soft power, influence, and economic competition has not proven permanent in the wake of World War Two and even the fall of the Soviet Union. Power and security projection, along with corresponding power vacuums, stand to pave new and unforeseen political circumstances (like independence movements) that we are unable to predict. Perhaps the age of static borders is not yet among us. Perhaps the age of blood and iron has not yet met its end…