In a region whose political lines were drawn by the arbitrary hand of imperialist powers, Kurdistan has remained a nation without a state, militarily powerful enough to ensure political relevance, but lacking the international support to achieve statehood. In the wake of recent victories by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), however, Iraqi chaos could provide a golden opportunity for Kurdish self-rule. Yet while the Kurds may have cemented their political foothold, prospects for independence still remain inhibited by uncertain international support and lingering territorial questions.
The Kurdish people have a long history of manipulation and failed attempts at establishing sovereign authority, traceable back to their 1923 partition between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. In the ensuing decades, nationalist Mustafa Barzani led several revolts against Iraqi authority, achieving autonomy in 1970 and receiving support from Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1990s, internal power struggles culminated in the creation of a Kurdish “joint higher leadership” in 2003, and following Hussein’s deposition, Kurdish leaders had success in national Parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, oil production restrictions and territorial disputes with Iraq and Turkey perpetuated regional tensions.
In June 2014, however, the sudden ISIS offensive, sparked by the fall of Mosul, began to transform the Kurds’ bleak situation. Suddenly, a jihadist blitzkrieg was threatening Baghdad, capturing wide swaths of land and major population centers while meeting negligible resistance from the Iraqi military. Yet in contrast to the helpless Iraqi forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga army demonstrated skill and discipline, protecting Kurdish territory so well that thousands of Iraqi refugees fled to the safer Kurdistan.
But rather than deploy their elite fighting force as a tool of Baghdad’s defense, Kurdish leaders instead set their sights on more practical objectives. Prior to the assault, Kurdistan’s military built a security belt insulating its borders but offering no protection to Mosul. Additionally, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) refused the send Peshmerga when asked to reinforce the besieged Fallujah. Ultimately, it was the seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk that illustrated the extent of Kurdish gains from ISIS advances. Occupation of the historic and cultural mecca symbolized the Sunni advance’s menace to precarious Iraqi unity and simultaneous opportunity for Kurdish expansion. As a KRG official acknowledged, “ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki has not given us in eight years.”
Moreover, Iraqi instability has enabled independent Kurdish economic expansion. On June 5, Kurdish leaders signed a fifty-year oil agreement with Turkey, embodying the maturity of a now $8 billion-per-year trade relationship. Additionally, while Iraqi authorities denounced a recent Kurdish oil sale to Israel as “illegal,” the KRG defiantly replied, “We are proud of this milestone achievement, which was accomplished despite almost three weeks of intimidation…from Baghdad.” Such overt disobedience has inspired talk of independence. “By all standards, the Kurdistan Region has the right to become a sovereign state,” one Kurdish leader stated.
Military gains and new trading partners, however, are not to be confused with political progress. Internally, Iraq remains a war zone, and while the Military Councils of Iraqi Revolutionaries, which claim to represent the majority of Iraqi opposition forces, has promised to respect KRG borders, ISIS cannot be counted upon to honor such an agreement. Furthermore, the Kurds risk a backlash in Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs and Turkmen have threatened revolt if oil revenue is not fairly distributed. And even if al-Maliki relinquishes power, it remains to be seen whether a new inclusive government would accept significantly greater Kurdish autonomy.
Yet perhaps the most important factor in Kurdistan’s future is international support. Turkish oil imports and condemnations of al-Maliki’s sectarianism have proven a source of optimism for self-rule proponents. But while Turkey may consider Iraqi Kurdistan a bastion of stability, it concurrently fears the possibility of Turkish Kurds demanding greater autonomy within its own borders. Israel, the Kurds’ other trade partner, has maintained a robust covert relationship with Erbil, but blatant Kurdish cooperation could incur the wrath of Tehran.
Ultimately, however, it is American ambitions that will likely determine the success of any push for statehood. The US remains committed to a united Iraq, not the partition into a Sunni North and Iran-dominated Shia south that could occur were Kurdistan to secede. Such a potentiality could threaten regional American interests, namely oil resources and the security of Sunni Gulf allies. And while KRG President Massoud Barzani may have telegraphed his intentions in telling John Kerry, “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” Kurdish leaders, too, understand the strategic necessity of avoiding rapidly altering the regional status quo. As assistant foreign minister Dindar Zebari noted, “we believe…self-independence will only be achieved, when an atmosphere of coexistence in the Middle East, in the neighboring countries, provides that room.”
Note: This was originally written on June 21, 2014, and may include details that have become outdated.