Is Kurdish independence out of the loop?
It was June when Kurds came closest to gaining their dream of independence. Northern Iraqi Kurds captured the oil-rich Kirkuk following the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) assault on Mosul on June 10. Following this, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, declared they would hold an independence referendum soon.
However, all of the calculations have turned upside down since ISIL attacked northern Iraq last week. Even though Hemin Hawrami, the head of the foreign relations committee of Barzani’s party, said this week that the recent developments have not changed their agenda of independence at all, at first glance it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Kurds in the region have united their forces in their fight against ISIL. Arbil, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliate in northern Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are now all fighting together against the terrorist organization, which certainly boosts Kurdish nationalism.
The direct arms delivery to Arbil will also have a similar effect. Following the United States, United Kingdom and France, now other European countries seem to be content with providing military aid to the Kurds fighting against ISIL, which would strengthen the Kurds’ position. Moreover, the fact that they are receiving the aid directly, and independent of Baghdad, could trigger their autonomy. This is why U.S. officials stated this week that the direct aid delivered via the CIA will be expanded in the future only in coordination with Baghdad. No need to mention that the U.S. is still advocating Iraq’s integrity.
However the picture is bigger. The Kurds’ top priority is now to defeat ISIL and secure their existence. Hence their independence project will be in cold storage for a while.
In addition, today Arbil needs Baghdad and the regional powers as never before. Barzani’s chief of staff, Fuad Hussein, who I had interviewed one month ago, made this claim. He said they need to cooperate with Baghdad, Turkey and Iran in their fight against ISIL and hence would not take any step without their consent. It is more than obvious that under the current circumstances, Turkey and Iran would not give them the green light to independence.
Moreover, Arbil could not do anything “despite the U.S.” If it wants to be independent, it first needs international recognition which means: American recognition.
Arbil desperately needs Baghdad’s consent, too. Northern Iraq’s main life source is the oil revenues it shares with Baghdad. This sharing has lately already become more than problematic. If it breaks its ties with Baghdad, the sale of oil will become just impossible.
This has all been only a short term projection though. In the mid-term, right after the new government in Baghdad is formed in one month and the acute ISIL threat has been overcome, this picture will change. The U.S. could convince Baghdad and Arbil to a compromise and make Baghdad apply the federal Iraqi Constitution. This means that Baghdad would agree to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, which would enable them to sell their oil without Baghdad’s consent, buy their own arms and control their airspace.
Baghdad could not resist these demands since it needs Kurds as much as they need Baghdad. This is exactly why it has not objected to direct arms sales to Arbil. Moreover, northern Iraq could emerge out of this war much stronger and resilient compared to Baghdad.
This mutual dependence could make both sides compromise, which would in turn postpone the target of Kurdish independence a bit further. However, if the new government in Baghdad pursues similar policies as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it would become nearly impossible to stop the Kurds any longer. If you ask me about the long term projection, well, it is already in sight. Right?