The Kurds’ endeavours for a national home may be reaching culmination, but the future remains uncertain, writes Salah Nasrawi
Over the last few weeks, Iraq’s Kurds have been consolidating their power by grabbing more land and oil resources in northern Iraq, taking advantage of the political turmoil and an escalating Shia-Sunni conflict.
The Iraqi Kurds have also withdrawn their ministers from the national coalition government, severing their only remaining political ties with the Baghdad government and capping their struggle with the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi leadership to reestablish themselves as a free nation.
In a fresh sign of a breach with Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region has reportedly now started printing its own national currency to be used in Kurdistan once the enclave is officially declared a separate state.
By any standards, these measures demonstrate that the Kurdish moment has finally arrived and the long-awaited dream of setting up an independent Kurdish state is becoming a reality.
Yet, there are still tremendous doubts as to whether the Kurdish goal is achievable and sustainable.
The escalation comes amid fears that Iraq will head further towards chaos if leaders of the country’s divided communities do not soon make progress towards naming a new government following the 30 April elections.
Iraq’s parliament failed this week to reach an agreement on who would be the country’s next president and prime minister.
The Kurds have already seized the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in addition to vast territories in three provinces, nearly doubling the size of the land they have controlled in their self-ruled region since 1991 when the United States and Britain imposed a no-fly zone to protect them from the army of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
With Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani calling on the Kurdish parliament to prepare a referendum on independence, the vigorous new acts have put into perspective the Kurdish strategy of breaking away from Iraq by exploiting the country’s woes and whenever possible triggering a larger national conflict.
A closer look at this approach, however, reveals that the Kurds are using Iraq’s political chess game to capitalise on their opponents in Baghdad by imposing their rules for the endgame.
This strategy is clearly backed by cunning tactical and long-term planning to exploit post-Saddam conflicts to push the independence scheme forward.
In the latest phase of the recent crisis, Kurdish ministers said they were boycotting the national government after Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned the Kurdish Regional Government in Arbil for allegedly giving refuge to “Islamic State extremists” and Baathists.
When al-Maliki named his deputy, Hussein al- Shahristani, to serve as acting foreign minister in place of Hoshyar Zebari, one of the Kurdish ministers walking out of the cabinet, the Kurds seized two oil-production facilities in Kirkuk province and expelled the Arab staff while keeping the employees of Kurdish and Turkman ethnicities.
The two fields are among the main wells producing oil in Iraq, which now produces 400,000 barrels a day.
Last month, the Kurds sent their troops in to capture Kirkuk and vast amounts of land in three provinces that they claim are part of their autonomous region. The moves came following the collapse of the Iraqi army after Sunni rebels led by Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) militants seized large swathes of territory.
Like in any tug of war that aims at capturing hearts and minds and diverting attention away from a drive to seize land and resources, the Kurds have tried to justify their moves by putting the blame squarely on al-Maliki and inflating his mistakes.
When they seized Kirkuk, the Kurds’ pretext was to fill a security vacuum after the Iraqi army had abandoned its posts, and when they seized the oil fields they were acting pre-emptively to stop the government from destroying the installations, they said.
Zebari was removed from his post by al-Maliki and did not walk out in protest against the prime minister’s remarks as he had claimed, demanding an apology from al-Maliki.
On Sunday, Kurdish lawmakers stayed in Arbil and did not attend a parliamentary session scheduled to name new leaders who could help to hold the nation together and confront the Sunni onslaught that has overrun much of the country.
They claimed that an Iraqi Airways plane which should have carried them to Baghdad had remained grounded by the capital’s aviation authority.
The Kurds may be trying to make a case for their statehood, but such moves raise the question as to whether they are using cloak-and-dagger diversionary tactics in order to put al-Maliki and the Shia leadership in the dock while taking the aggressive steps needed to jump-start their project of a national homeland.
The approach of holding al-Maliki responsible for Iraq’s current crisis is a foregone conclusion. The Kurds have also long complained that they are the “victims” of the Arabs and the central government in Baghdad.
What is important this time round, however, is the timing of the triggering of the stand-off, which has seemed to be determined by political expediency as Iraq has gone up in flames.
The Kurdish strategy for post-Saddam Iraq was to keep the central government in Baghdad weak. During discussions with the Pentagon on the role of the Iraqi army before the US-led invasion in 2003, Kurdish leaders insisted on a small and a lightly armed defense force following Saddam’s fall.
Later, they pushed the US occupation authorities to dissolve the Iraqi army and snubbed attempts to provide the new army with sophisticated weapons. The pressure seems to have worked, since some 11 years later the poorly armed and trained Iraqi army was not able to withstand two offensives, one by the Sunnis and the other by the Kurds.
The Kurdish strategy is well-known, and its success in changing reality on the ground has been predictable as Iraq’s political and security crises have continued to spiral and the Kurds have done nothing to stop the country sliding into the abyss.
As the Baghdad government has remained trapped by the raging Sunni rebellion, the Kurds have continued to gain strength and build their national enterprise in what they may want to call the “State of South Kurdistan.”
Barzani last week called on the Kurdish parliament to make preparations for a referendum in the territories captured by his troops in order to annex them to the Kurdish Region.
He also said a referendum on Kurdish statehood was expected within months. Leaks from media close to Barzani have suggested that the design of a new Kurdistan currency has been finalised and is ready for printing.
The Kurdish leadership’s determination to expedite the declaration of a national state continues to capture newspaper headlines. Ham-fisted analyses have also appeared in the western media in support of the “moral” claims of a Kurdish state.
Yet, even sympathetic allies who believe the Kurds have powerful points to make for self-determination have been reluctant to endorse Kurdish statehood.
The question of how a Kurdish state could undermine stability in the region has vexed successive generations of historians, politicians and diplomats. Such geopolitical objections still exist, and redrawing maps of the region would certainly unleash a geopolitical earthquake that could have far-reaching implications.
The idea of statehood is tempting, especially for nations that have suffered under foreign occupation and domination or do not want to be ruled by others. A Kurdish state separated from northern Iraq is a very different process from decolonisation, however, or even separatist moves in Scotland in the UK or Catalonia in Spain and Flanders in Belgium.
A Kurdish state would be a geopolitical firebomb that would necessarily explode into a raging regional conflagration.
Kurdistan already has many of the trappings of an independent nation, such as its own flag, government, parliament, army, sports teams, and distinctive national identity, following decades of rivalry with the central government in Baghdad. Going the whole way now may not be politically and economically feasible.
With the Kurds spread out over Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, an independent Kurdish state would have two painful paths to pursue: either to trigger pan-Kurdish national ambitions for a Greater Kurdistan, or seek protection from a powerful neighbouring nation to safeguard its territorial integrity.
While the first option would trigger the turbulent fragmentation of three other key Middle East nations, the second would just be a change to the name of foreign subjugation. This would hardly be an “independence” that was truly worth the trouble.
*This story was first published at Ahram Weekly