Kurdish-Arab tensions have increased in recent weeks as a result of political differences between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government in Baghdad. Disputes over oil and gas resources and the 2013 budget have undermined stability in Iraq and exacerbated the security situation in the country. More broadly, regional upheavals, including the conflict in Syria, threaten to upset the power-balance in the region, as shown by Turkey’s support for the anti-Assad rebels, shifting Ankara’s previous alliances with Iran and indeed Damascus.
At the heart of these regional changes are the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, who have become important players necessary to ensure the changing dynamics in the region are sustained and stable.
But whilst turmoil in Iraq (which includes the Anbar protests and Sunni demands for federalism) as well as the regional changes taking place might undermine national unity and undermine the stability of Iraq, an independent Kurdistan is still not a viable outcome. Kurdish autonomy in recent years has increased, thanks to its oil wealth and effective management of Kurdistan’s oil and gas resources. Kurdistan is now considered the oil exploration capital of the world.
Geostrategically, it has and will continue to play an important role in the Syria conflict, where the KRG has assisted Syrian Kurds and could soon be playing a role in developing an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As a result of the Syrian conflict, Turkey too has had to modify its policies toward its Kurdish population, who number more than 14 million. Domestic politics, along with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s ambitions to become president and exercise effective power, require Kurdish support.
The Kurds, therefore, have lots to gain. But, at the same time, they may have a lot more to lose.
Fundamentally, an independent Kurdistan is not a likely possibility in the near or distant future because it lacks sufficient resources and allies.
Firstly, Kurdistan remains economically dependent on Arab Iraq, which contributes more than USD 11 billion every year to the Kurdish economy. The importance of this contribution is signaled by the fact that, without it, Kurdistan would implode. If Kurdistan were able to survive without this contribution we would be seeing a far tougher position from the KRG on existing disputes with Baghdad. In addition to not being able to pay local wages, expand its economy, and sustain development projects crucial for the survival of the region, without the contribution from Arab Iraq Kurdistan could find its politics coming under intensive strain, as the local population will demand greater economic development and protection.
If Kirkuk and other disputed territories are taken out of the equation, then the amount of oil Iraqi Kurdistan could export may never match up to the 17 percent of the budget that they are currently getting.
The question, of course, is whether Kurdistan could depend on its allies, allies like Turkey and the US for example. But whilst changes in Ankara might be encouraging it would be foolish to assume that Ankara will continue its friendly relations with the Kurds. History has already shown that the Kurds have seldom had a reliable ally, as with countless US betrayals. Turkey, on the other hand, has become a partner of convenience, not one for the long-term. It remains an unreliable partner. As the recent Turkish rapprochement with Israel shows, as well as Turkey’s decision to move against (former allies) Syria and Iranian interests, Ankara creates and changes its allies on the basis of its own geostrategic interests—the KRG would easily be expendable. At the same time, Ankara continues to support Kurdish rivals in Iraq, including the country’s ultra-nationalist Sunni politicians like Osama and Atheel Nujayfi.
Turkey will support Kurdish objectives in Iraq but it is not ready for Kurdish independence. It will not support any Kurdish independence in Iraq because this will encourage unrest and Kurdish separatism in Turkey. Turkish-KRG relations have improved and the KRG will be an important energy supplier. But as a regional power and important member of the international community, Turkey is unlikely to become dependent entirely on Kurdish energy. Despite its tensions with Baghdad and despite the improvement in relations with the KRG, Turkey is still yet to support the incorporation of Kirkuk into Kurdistan.
The argument will be made that, in time, the KRG will develop the necessary economic conditions and infrastructure to build an independent state. Further, it might also be argued that the KRG and Turkish relationship will grow to the extent that the latter will become increasingly reliant on Kurdish oil and gas. But whilst there may be time, the unpredictability of the Middle East means that alliances with former enemies can be compromised and undermined. Regional dynamics will continue to be dominated by Iran and its allies in the region like the federal government in Baghdad.
Furthermore, Kurdistan will not emerge independent without Kirkuk, both because of its necessity and the demand among the Kurdish population. Arab Iraq will not accept the loss of Kirkuk without a war, and is likely to be backed by Iran in this respect. The US, meanwhile, will continue to favor its Arab allies and the Arab world ahead of the Kurds. The Arab world too would fear the formation of new independent states, as a result of the sectarian unrest that exists within their own territories.
In short, Kurdistan has more to gain as a part of Iraq, unless the above restrictions can be resolved, which is unlikely in the near or distant future. Being part of Iraq allows it to develop and expand Kurdish wealth and influence, with the benefit of both Kurdish resources as well as resources from Arab Iraq.
Strategically, this will remain the better option that allows Kurdistan to gradually improve its position domestically and in the region so that it becomes a crucial regional player in the next 30 years. Perhaps then an independent Kurdistan might be possible.