Turkey has become the outlet for Kurdish oil to world markets. This may well contribute to Ankara’s ambition to become an energy hub. Moreover, a stable Kurdistan could serve as a buffer between Turkey and the chaos in Iraq.
An oil tanker at anchor just outside US territorial waters off the state of Texas is an omen of the new Middle East dynamics. The tanker United Kalavryta is laden with $100 million worth of oil from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) it loaded at Turkey’s Ceyhan terminal. The buyer is waiting for the tanker to come into port to discharge its oil but the ship cannot enter US territorial waters. A judge in Texas has decided that if the ship enters US waters then its oil cargo will be seized and handed over to the Baghdad government.
New dynamics generated by the Arab uprisings has placed the status of the Kurds on the world agenda. The process that began with the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State (IS) has added to more vocal debates on Kurdish independence in many platforms, from the US Congress to the Israeli parliament.
The core of the debate is how best to confront the IS threat. Iraq is, de facto, divided into three. The north of the country is controlled by the Kurds. The strip from Aleppo to Diyala northeast of Baghdad is in the hands of IS. Maliki rules Baghdad and its south. In this chaotic environment Kurdistan appears to be the calmest part of the country. Kurds see this as an opportunity to achieve their aspiration for independence. Barzani is getting ready for a referendum while keeping his hand on the pulse of Washington and the region.
Turkey appears to have come to terms with the idea of living with a Kurdistan reality in its south. Ankara thinks it could even profit from it.
Israel, too, supports an independent Kurdistan. From the 1960s to the '90s there was a discreet alliance between Israel and the Kurds. Israel eased its support of the Kurds because of good relations it had set up with Turkey. Today Israel is no longer worried about angering Turkey as their relations are going through a tense period. Netanyahu is supporting the emergence of an independent Kurdistan from Iraq.
In recent times, there has been increasing support for Kurdish independence in the US Congress. A bipartisan group in Congress says that Iraq is already divided, that an independent Kurdistan could be more effective against radical jihad groups and that this has to be supported by Washington.
All this is good news for the Kurds, but they still face formidable barriers. The Obama administration favors preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity, believing that only a strong central Baghdad government can block IS advances. That is why the United States, while on one hand speeding up the delivery of weapons to the Maliki government, is also trying to persuade the Kurds not to secede.
Iran also opposes a Kurdish independence. Tehran doesn’t want its own Kurds to get similar ideas. It also fears the friendly Baghdad government may lose ground and worries that a new Kurdistan may place itself in spheres of influence of Turkey and Israel. Of course, Egypt and Maliki are also against Kurdish independence.
These are only a few of the impediments to independence. There is another major barrier and that is the KRG’s lack of economic independence. The KRG imports 80% of the goods it consumes. For Kurdistan to be truly independent, it has to diversify its economy and revitalize its private sector. It has to sell its oil to world markets, hence the need. That is why tankers loaded with Kurdish oil have been sailing the seven seas to find a country to buy their cargo. Opposition by Baghdad and the political pressure by Washington on countries that may want to buy that oil make it difficult.
The new calculus in the region following the IS capture of Mosul could actually be conducive to Kurdish independence. But I think the Iraqi Kurds have decided to slow down, be prudent and put pressure on Maliki to agree on distribution oil revenue. Kurds are hoping to forge an economic infrastructure that will not upset Iran while cooperating with Turkey and lobbying in Washington.
In the meantime, the United Kalavryta is waiting, anchored in international waters, just like the Kurds' dreams of independence.
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