The difference between the seething realm of Islamic State (IS) and the relatively safe and democratic region of Iraqi Kurdistan is a stark one. Assuming that the combined humanitarian and military reinforcements the West is mustering will repel the threat, what next? If the Kurdish region is to be more than a nation-sized refugee camp and if the West is to salvage any real toehold of security in the Iraq region, Kurdish independence is the only answer.
As well as ensuring its security from IS, the West should support the wresting of Kurdish autonomy from the tangled politics of Baghdad, where oil remains a principal point of contention. Extracting and exporting oil and gas has long been the cause of disputes between the Kurdistan regional government and the central Iraqi government.
The Kurdistan region is home to two large oil fields and produces about 10% of Iraq’s production, with the potential for more. The region is not reliant on Baghdad for processing and exporting its oil – the regional government can independently export oil via the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
This raises eyebrows among regional and international powers who fear the break-up of Iraq. But, while Russia and Europe struggle to find common ground to maintain energy relations and, more importantly, while US energy security is under threat around the world, Kurdistan can effectively improve energy security for the US and its European allies. In return, the Kurds seek international approval for their full independence from Iraq.
Western energy security
US consumption of oil is greater than anywhere else in the world. For its economy to thrive, it needs roughly 20m barrels of oil per day. To meet this, the US produces seven to eight million barrels domestically a day and imports more than 12 million, the majority of which comes from the Middle East. Fossil fuels remain the main source of energy, with alternative sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear power yet to overtake oil and gas.
Current tensions in the Middle East have created an environment in which maintaining reliable energy supplies is ever more elusive. Making matters worse and threatening Western influence in the wider region is the resurgence of Russia as a rival political and economic power, with leverage over the oil-rich countries of the Caucasus. Further exacerbating the situation are complicated relations with Iran, instability across the Middle East, and the emergence of China as a global, oil-guzzling competitor.
Islamic State threat
The Gulf countries, especially Iraq and Saudi Arabia, are still the major global oil suppliers. But turmoil in Iraq threatens continued oil exports. And, as Iraq’s central government struggles to stand on its own two feet in a volatile country shattered by ethnic and sectarian strife, the Saudis fear their neighbour’s instability will undermine their own.
Following the Iraqi army’s abandonment of the Iraq-Saudi border the Saudis deployed 30,000 soldiers to the area – an indication of how concerned the Saudis are about the menace spilling over from Iraq. If Saudi Arabia loses security and stability, the Gulf States will descend into chaos.
Equally, if Iraq falls, then terrorists can easily unsettle Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. Recently, Houthi militias in Yemen have also pushed towards the Saudi border and pose severe problems for the authorities there. The collapse of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a worst-case scenario.
A genuine friend
Kurdistan is not only well positioned to become a reliable buffer against jihadists in the region, but can also respond to energy shortages the West may face. Its projected production capacity of one million barrels of oil per day can supplement shortfalls in a precarious energy future. By supporting Kurdish independence and bolstering Kurdish-Turkish relations, the West can secure its energy supply, which will be of profound benefit to the global economy as a whole.
The political and security situation in Kurdistan differs from that of the Gulf States. Kurdistan has no connection with terrorist organisations, and the Kurds are the only genuine friend the West has in the region – a friendship that will only be strengthened with mutual military reliance in the present crisis. It is time for the West, for its own sake, to support Kurdish demands for independence.