Monday, 7th July 2014

Kurdish future depends on slow political ratchet

Violence is once again tearing Iraq apart. The fall of Mosul did not just mark the terrifying rise of jihadists from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL – now calling itself the Islamic State), but also the beginning of a wider Sunni insurgency which has been long in the making: GSN has been writing about Baathists and Salafis pooling resources to fight the government in Baghdad since 2009 (GSN 852/5, 852/7, 885/1, 885/6, 917/3), in a series of sadly prescient analyses which even anticipated co-operation with Sunni insurgents in Syria.

The sudden and violent eruption of the Sunni insurgency has presented an opportunity for political gains to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whose steadily escalating differences with the Shia majority GSN has also been tracking for years. Erbil is used to exploiting Baghdad’s weaknesses and has generally picked its fights carefully. But the current crisis presents it with problems as well as opportunities and any benefits are far from guaranteed. In recent years, the Kurds have more than once seemed on the brink of achieving strategic objectives such as a referendum on the status of Kirkuk or the unilateral right to export oil, only for commitments secured in times of crisis to be withdrawn once security has returned.

What exactly it is the Kurds want depends on who is waging the public relations campaign. On 23 June, as ISIL advanced, headstrong regional president Massoud Barzani came close to an open call for independence. “Iraq is obviously falling apart…” he told CNN. “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.” His nephew Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, meanwhile, has a considerably more nuanced position, telling NBC on 22 June: “We have to be realistic … We have to find a formula how to live together. I think the best formula for Iraq is to have federalism.”

In reality, with so much undecided, the KRG leadership is most likely to keep ratcheting up advantages where it can, and dealing with setbacks as they come. Taking Kirkuk was a major symbolic gain. “Taking into account they took Kirkuk without losing a single soldier, this is like Christmas come early for the next decade,” editor-in-chief of Inside Iraqi Politics Kirk Sowell told GSN. But the flip side of the territorial gain is having ISIL on the KRG doorstep. “The Kurds face a greatly complicated security situation, which is terrifying for an FDI-led economy,” research fellow at the Washington Institute Michael Knights said. “They have now inherited a lot of hotly fought-over terrain and tens of thousands of new Sunni Arab subjects.”

A key determinant in the KRG’s relationship with the rest of Iraq will be whether Baghdad renews monthly budgetary payments (GSN 967/12). The KRG also needs the Ministry of Oil to drop its arbitration against Turkey so that the KRG can start to sell oil with less subterfuge than has so far been employed (GSN 972/12, 971/12). Following a 23 June Federal Supreme Court decision on the oil export issue which fell in the KRG’s favour, minister of natural resources Ashti Hawrami wrote to federal oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi demanding that the ministry confirm by no later than 15 July that it would cease all interference, or face legal proceedings.

With Peshmerga forces already controlling Kirkuk and other disputed territories, the Kurds are already part of the military solution to the ISIL threat. But the political reality is that an independent Kurdistan born out of the violent sundering of the Iraqi state will be considerably less secure than one which wins its autonomy while, if possible, helping to prevent regional meltdown.

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