Kurds unlikely to announce independent state soon

Although the advance of ISIS in Iraq has allowed Kurdish forces to enter Kirkuk and weakened Baghdad's role in some disputed areas, it appears that the Kurds will not announce an independent state very soon.

al-monitor Displaced families from Tikrit make their way to Kirkuk, June 16, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/ Ako Rasheed.

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united states, oil & gas, kurds, kurdistan regional government, iraq, iran, independence

Jun 30, 2014

With the tremors caused by ISIS in Iraq, speculation has become rife that the Iraqi Kurds are on their way to independence. Since they have also taken over Kirkuk, the independent Kurdistan they have been craving for years could be in the making. Kirkuk's oil will be more than enough to finance the new state to be set up. All they need do is connect the Kirkuk oil to the newly built Kurdistan-Turkey pipeline.

Statements by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG prime minister, have contributed to predictions of a state in the offing. Nechirvan Barzani said: “There will be no return to pre-Mosul days. It is difficult for Iraq to stay unitary.” Massoud Barzani declared his readiness to fight for Kirkuk and said: “We have to listen to our people. Our people want independence.”

The aspiration for independence by the Kurds who for years have been suppressed, massacred and described as the “world’s largest ethnic group without a state” is legitimate and justified. Iraqi Kurds under Barzani's leadership made excellent use of opportunities offered since the first Gulf War. They skillfully managed their politics between Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran and Washington. Statesmanlike handling by uncle-nephew Barzanis helped them come so close to independence. But it's because of their pragmatism one should not expect them to declare independence any time soon.

Why not?

  1. Economy: Kurds have very rich oil and natural gas resources. But because of US and Baghdad’s opposition, they can’t sell much of them. It is still a mystery whether their oil, loaded onto tankers at Ceyhan, has found any buyers yet. Moreover, the Kurds cannot yet produce enough oil to finance themselves because they don’t have adequate infrastructure. The Iraqi central government has not been paying the 17% share of the Kurds from the national budget for some time. It is widely reported that Turkey has come to the assistance of the KRG, which has been struggling with financial hardship. Iraqi Kurdish officials I spoke with in Erbil confirmed that Turkey had extended “substantial” loans to the KRG, reportedly to be paid by future oil shipments. No matter how admirable such gestures are, they are not sustainable.
  2. Turkey: A Kurdish state cannot be established without Turkey’s approval. If for nothing else, the only exit route for Kurdish oil and gas is through Turkey. Is Turkey ready for this? Some Iraqi Kurds believe that at least Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ready, but their taking over Kirkuk has suddenly reshuffled the cards. The opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) has been voicing concern for Kirkuk, in which Turkmen and Sunni Arabs also claim rights. Turkey's coming presidential and general elections make the issue even more complex, especially when there are concessions to be given as stipulated by the peace process.
  3. Iran: Tehran, which can always put up obstructions and can manipulate the parties opposing Barzani, has to give its blessing as well. For the time being, Iran is not looking favorably on an independent Kurdish state next door.
  4. ISIS: The new neighbor of the Kurds, has created a new and massive obstruction. ISIS is already staging suicide attacks in Kirkuk and clashing with the peshmerga. It doesn’t look feasible for the Kurds to achieve lasting stability without reaching an accord with Sunni Arabs. Instability will scare off investors, above all oil corporations.
  5. The United States: It is not realistic at all to expect an independent Kurdistan without the approval of and guarantees by the United States. The United States is not yet supporting an independent Kurdistan. To the contrary, it is trying to keep Iraq unified (which seems unlikely without the departure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki). Although the United States appears to give priority to the sensitivities of its close ally Turkey, it can’t move without keeping Iran in mind.

In short, it is not yet time for an independent Kurdistan.

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