‘Independent’ Kurds need Baghdad more than they’d like

Kurdish Peshmerga forces now control their long dreamt-of capital, Kirkut, but the euphoria at the prospect of independence ignores the real practical challenges of statehood. AAP/Newzulu/Guillaume Briquet

Iraqi Kurds are in a unique position to declare independence in defiance of a seemingly powerless central government in Baghdad following the rapid disintegration of Iraq in the face of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) onslaught. But is independence as simple as that, a fait accompli resulting from a series of unpredictable events?

Intense nationalists under normal circumstances – the kind of nationalism that only a people with existential angst can express – this sentiment has been ratcheted up exponentially since Kurdish armed forces or Peshmerga (“those who march unto death”) seized Kirkuk on June 12. Many Kurds in the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) believe their hour of independence is finally at hand. They are likely to vote overwhelmingly to declare independence in the referendum their president, Massoud Barzani, has proposed.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which created artificial states in the Middle East to serve French and British imperial interests, is unravelling at startling speed in Iraq and Syria. The long-oppressed Kurdish population, divided between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, cannot but welcome this. They, along with the stateless Palestinians, were the ultimate losers of the post-World War One carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.

No-one can deny that the Kurds of Iraq suffered horribly under Saddam Hussein. The Anfal campaign in the late 1980s, in particular, is reputed to have killed over 100,000 Kurds, destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and created millions of refugees.

Can a Kurdish state support itself?

Amid the euphoria of seemingly inevitable independence, however, there seems to be surprisingly little public discussion about how everything might work in practice after independence. And what might be the consequences? This is especially the case given the parlous nature of governance in the KRG before the present crisis in Iraq, let alone the problems that might follow independence.

First, any attempt at secession will inevitably lead to conflict with Baghdad, possibly of the armed variety. It is difficult to recall any peaceful secessions in recent memory, even for emergent sovereign states that had legal referendums and UN endorsement. The examples of East Timor and South Sudan are not cheery prospects to countenance.

Baghdad may be at the nadir of its power, but the central government could yet reassert itself and be none too pleased about the KRG’s opportunism. This is a strong possibility given the resources available to Baghdad and international aid forthcoming from actors with a vested interest in a unified Iraq.

While the Kurds will not face the formidable army of Ba'athist-era Iraq, the Iraqi army has historically had little trouble repeatedly crushing Kurdish insurrections. Let us not forget that the KRG was established on the back of NATO, not Kurdish, arms in 1991 and protected by a no-fly zone until the toppling of Saddam in 2003.

At the very least, Baghdad will look to reclaim Kirkuk and its oilfields. Again, think of the conflict between North and South Sudan over the oilfields straddling their new border.

Another distinct possibility is that, with time, the Arabs and Turkomen living in Kirkuk province will rebel against Kurdish rule. A recent show of force by Shi'a militia marching through the streets of Kirkuk could merely be the beginning.

Second, the KRG is not financially viable in its present state. It is almost totally dependent on the 17% of Iraqi revenue guaranteed to it under the constitution.

The KRG has faced a financial crisis since January when it decided to export a comparatively meagre amount of oil to Turkey against Baghdad’s will. Baghdad demands that all oil exports be managed by the central government, lest the north become financially independent and thus liable to declare full independence. In retaliation, Baghdad has repeatedly withheld the Kurdish budget. Most KRG government employees have not been paid for months and are living on the brink.

This leaves the KRG in a catch-22 situation whereby it is unclear how a newly founded Kurdish state would fill the monetary void.

It is true that large deposits of natural wealth lie under the soil of the Kurdish north, especially the oil wells around Kirkuk. These will, however, take years to develop and the Kurds lack the means to refine the crude oil into a consumable product.

The KRG has had a petroleum crisis since Islamist militants took Iraq’s main oil refinery at Baajii. The KRG can only provide 60% of the region’s needs. Every petrol station in the KRG that still has petrol has hundreds of cars lining up outside. People camp out overnight or leave their cars in line and return at opening to acquire some of the coveted fuel.

It is telling that the Turkish government – that is to say, the country that the KRG is supposed to be exporting oil to and the reason for the budget impasse with Baghdad – has offered to export petroleum to the KRG, albeit at a grossly inflated price.

The Kurdish autonomous region’s fuel shortages forces drivers to queue for hours, even days, at service stations. EPA/Khalil Al-a'Nei

A new nation would need reliable allies

Third, any emergent Kurdish state would be almost totally dependent on Turkish goodwill due to opposition from Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus. Turkey’s Erdogan government predominantly sees the current situation as an exceptional business opportunity. Given Turkey’s fractious relationship with its own Kurdish minority, goodwill could be withdrawn at any time – especially should current negotiations with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fall apart.

This would leave the KRG surrounded by hostile neighbours. More to the point, almost no-one will buy Kurdish oil at present for fear of legal challenges from Baghdad. Thus, not only does the KRG lack the means to develop its resources, but it also lacks a stable export route.

It is similarly telling that the KRG has refused to recognise the self-declared Kurdish autonomous enclaves in Syria at the Turkish government’s behest.

Fourth, it’s difficult to see what kind of international support the KRG would be able to muster for this endeavour despite the justice of their cause. The US government, for instance, is bound by treaty to guarantee a unified Iraq. Washington also still lists the two main KRG parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as terrorist organisations so it is in a legal straight-jacket.

The KRG’s neighbours, moreover, would not recognise the new state, leaving it landlocked, isolated and impotently sitting atop its proverbial golden egg.

Finally, all of this ignores the threat of ISIS, which controls almost all of the territory on the KRG’s southern border. While relatively little conflict has occurred between ISIS and the KRG thus far, it is entirely possible that the Islamist movement will turn its guns north. Flush from its capture of heavy weaponry in Iraq, ISIS is already bombarding the Kurdish enclaves of Syria, so there is little reason to expect otherwise in Iraq.

Unpalatable as it may sound to Iraqi Kurds, the KRG needs Baghdad far more than it is prepared to admit. By all means, the KRG should seek to leverage a better deal out of Baghdad – the peshmerga are vital to the fight against ISIS. In terms of full independence, though, the costs seem to outweigh the benefits at present.