Kurds gain from regional tectonic shift in northeast Syria following the Assad regime’s retreat back to Damascus.
This emergent reality is raising again a question long dismissed from serious strategic discussion: namely, that of the establishment of a Kurdish state.
However, the obstacles on the path to Kurdish sovereignty remain formidable, and the geo-politics of the situation are fraught and complex.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, led by Massoud Barzani, possesses its own armed forces, political system, capacity for oil production, public services and Kurdish-language education system and media. Its capital, Erbil, has the feel of a boomtown, with construction cranes along the skyline and new malls and hotels emerging from the dust.
The quasi-independence of northern Iraq is leading to increasing tensions with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. In the course of the last year, the autonomous Kurdish region cut off oil deliveries to the center of the country in a dispute over payment. The KRG’s providing of refuge to a fugitive former Iraqi vice president, Tariq Hashimi, also raised Baghdad’s hackles.
The KRG’s efforts to boost its oil production capacity and infrastructure are viewed with suspicion in Baghdad, which sees these as a possible prelude to a bid for independence.
The latent tensions came to a head in November, with clashes between the Iraqi army and the KRG’s Pesh Merga forces along the poorly demarcated line dividing the Kurdish autonomous zone from Iraq. The two forces remain deployed in large numbers on either side of the “border.”
In October 2011, the KRG signed a contract with US oil giant Exxon-Mobil for exploration of areas on the southernmost tip of the KRG area. The Baghdad government has made clear that it considers such deals to be illegal and that Exxon-Mobil will be making a “grave mistake” if it begins the exploration next year, as scheduled.
The dispute remains unresolved. Yet the KRG is finding an unlikely ally in its face-off with the authorities in Baghdad.
That ally is Turkey. Ankara needs a source of crude oil. The Erdogan government is worried at the Shi’a Maliki government’s Baghdad’s increasing closeness to Tehran. The KRG offers a potential alternative source. In the course of 2012, Erbil announced the signing of a deal with Ankara for the construction of a new cross-border crude oil pipeline (which would rival the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, under the Baghdad government’s control). Oil consignments are also making their way in trucks across the border.
Ankara, which once viewed the development of a Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq with extreme suspicion, now appears to see Erbil as a possible ally against Baghdad and Tehran.
But at the same time, Turkey has signally failed to develop any coherent policy able to satisfy the aspirations of its own 18 million-19 million-strong Kurdish minority. Instead, Ankara remains committed to a brutal counter-insurgency against the PKK guerrilla movement, which is demanding autonomy for the Kurdish majority areas of southeastern Turkey. More than 700 people died this year in the fight between the PKK and the Turkish armed forces.
The main headquarters of the PKK, meanwhile, are in the Qandil mountains area of northern Iraq, adjoining the border with Turkey. There is no love lost between the PKK and the Barzani government in Erbil. But the KRG draws the line before taking aggressive steps against the PKK militants in Qandil. So while Ankara, for its own reasons, is now a near-ally of the Kurds of northern Iraq, it remains opposed to the aspirations of its own Kurdish population.
This picture is further complicated by the situation in Syria. There, the de facto autonomous Kurdish region is dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), which is the Syrian franchise of the PKK. This situation derives from the reality of PYD strength on the ground. But it has also been uneasily accepted by Barzani and the KRG and their local allies. The result is that these forces are today nominally in alliance in the Kurdish area.
With the Assad regime looking increasingly beleaguered further south, it is possible that this Kurdish unity may shortly be subjected to a harsh test, as it seeks to secure its future against a resurgent Sunni Arab, Islamist (and Turkish-supported) attempt to maintain a unitary Syria.
So an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq has built close relations with Ankara on the basis of shared interests. But this region harbors Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy and rights in a struggle against Turkey.
At the same time, the rulers of this Kurdish region and the anti-Turkish Kurdish rebels are in alliance in a third country – Syria – where they may shortly be defending themselves against a Turkish-supported attempt to reunify Syria.
All this means that while the Kurds have made real and impressive gains over the last year, an imminent bid for statehood remains unlikely. The Kurds have one of the most obviously deserving of causes on an ethical level. In northern Iraq, they have laid much of the basis for sovereignty.
But they still lack a unified national movement.
And they are faced by a tangle of rival interests – in Baghdad, Ankara and Syria, not to mention Tehran – which each have a reason for opposing the emergence of full Kurdish sovereignty. So the odds remain steep.
The Kurds may console themselves, of course, by noting that the Middle East and the wider world today boast a number of examples of partially sovereign quasi-states, which lack full sovereignty but seem fairly durable nonetheless.
The Hamas entity in Gaza is one such example; Hezbollah-dominated south and east Lebanon (at least before May 2008) another. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank offers a third variant, and the Syrian Alawis may be in the process of carving out a fourth.
It may be the fate of the Kurds in the period ahead to carve out a similar such space, albeit with vastly more historical grounding on its side than any of these other examples.
Although they do not have a state just yet, the Kurds have already established themselves as among the unexpected winners in the tectonic shift currently under way in the Middle East.