It sometimes seems that Iraqi Kurds have no word with the urgency of manana but it hasn’t stopped Iraqi Kurdistan making tremendous strides in a few short years. The best start date for their renaissance is 2006, the first full year of the new Iraqi constitution, agreed by the people and which recognised Kurdistan as a largely autonomous region.
The constant of the Kurdish story is geography. The Iraqi Kurds are surrounded by what a senior diplomat calls a “ring of fire.” It underpins the oldest Kurdish saying that they have “no friends but the mountains,” where they have repeatedly sought refuge not least from Saddam’s genocidal campaign.
Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara used to co-ordinate their anti-Kurdish policies but are no longer united against the Kurds. Looking west, Damascus is consumed by war. Looking east, Tehran is a major trade partner though the position of its ten million Kurds is dire. Looking south, Baghdad has yet to accept the end of centralised rule.
Looking north to Ankara, reveals brighter prospects. The relationship with Turkey has been totally transformed and could be a game-changer for the Turks, more than 20 million Kurds within Turkey, nearly 6 million in Iraqi Kurdistan, and possibly those within Syria.
Geology and hard-headed commercial imperatives have reshaped the Kurdo-Turkish link. In 2006, there was much talk but little evidence of plentiful supplies of oil and gas. Since then, the Kurds have created an energy sector from scratch with proven reserves of 45 billion barrels of oil and an estimated century’s worth of gas. All next door to an energy-hungry Turkey with few such resources and a great demand for them. The road to and from the Turkish border is crammed with trucks. Turkey is the biggest investor and trader in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This also underpins the peace process between Turkey and the PKK. Greater trade could overcome poverty in the Kurdish areas of south eastern Turkey and undermine militarism.
The relationship need not be like that between the Elephant and the Flea because it is based on self-interest.
It is even driving a debate about whether Turkey could guarantee an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. The official line in Iraqi Kurdistan is that the Kurds exercised their right to national self-determination by opting to stay within Iraq in 2003 but have the right to change their mind if Baghdad becomes a centralised dictatorship again.
It is certainly best for Iraq if Kurdistan remains in the fold. Without the Kurds, Iraq would be even more sharply polarised by the Sunni-Shia split. But it’s impossible to visit Iraqi Kurdistan without hearing how many despair of Baghdad’s incompetence, violence and crises and yearn to be free of, or have as little to do with Baghdad as possible. The Kurds highlight the greater success of their economic model which delivers continuous power in Kurdistan compared to paltry levels in the south.
Emotionally, many don’t consider that they are part of Iraq at all. One Minister says that he does not feel any loyalty to Iraq, which “should beg Kurdistan to stay.” It is very easy to forget that you are in Iraq when you are in Erbil, just 200 miles from Baghdad but a world apart.
Some senior British figures believe that Iraqi Kurdish independence is near. I would urge caution rather than advocacy or opposition. Leaving Iraq could be pragmatically difficult at the very least. Without immediate recognition by America and Turkey and then others, Iraqi Kurds could be left high and dry in a landlocked country.
Baghdad could forcibly resist secession or cut its losses and say “good riddance.” Whether a violent or velvet divorce is possible, the big question is “what about the children?” The vexed issue of the disputed territories and the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region remains unresolved. The border was unilaterally imposed by Saddam when he was forced to quit Kurdistan in 1991 and excludes half of historic Kurdistan.
I don’t detect a grand plan to seek political independence but their clear priority is economic independence. The Natural Resources Minister, Ashti Hawrami says that “nowhere in the world does one million barrels of oil remain stranded.” The Kurds are taking the logical step of building an independent export capacity through pipelines that carry oil and gas to Turkey and beyond.
The Kurds should receive 17% of all Iraqi revenues and, however energy is explored, produced and exported, it remains the property of all Iraqis. The Kurds could soon become a net contributor to Iraq. The Kurds hope that this will bring Bagdad to its senses and end the cat and mouse game. One seasoned Kurdish journalist, Hiwa Osman even suggests that the Kurdish President Barzani could become the President of Iraq but others discount the idea.
The wider geopolitical context seems kinder to the Iraqi Kurds, whose prosperity, energy resources and confidence have turned them from an object of history to a subject that can make the weather.