Kurdistan Independence – A Regional Flashpoint

Kurdistan independence - Map of Kurdistan (derived from Central Intelligence Agency map dated 1986)
Map of Kurdistan (derived from Central Intelligence Agency map dated 1986)

Kurdistan Independence Referendum. Independence in the Middle East has been an elusive dream for many Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq believe the time has come to pursue the establishment of an independent state for the Kurdish people. The overwhelming majority of Kurds living in northern Iraq voted for independence in a recent referendum held in early October 2017. Over 70% of the eligible voters participated in the referendum with nine out of ten voters backing independence.

Iraqi Government Reaction. The Iraqi central government is not keen on losing a significant portion of its territory. In addition, it does not want to lose the revenue of the large oil reserves of the Kurdish region. The central government of Iraq responded quickly with statements opposing the vote for Kurdistan independence and actions limiting the autonomy of the Kurdish region. International flights were prohibited and some border crossings were taken over by Iraqi security forces.

Possible Military Action. The ability of the Iraqi security forces to take military action against the Kurds is questionable. Although threats of reoccupying the Kurdish areas of Iraq should be taken seriously, it is doubtful military action will be taken to wrest control of the entire Kurdish enclave. There is the possibility that Kirkuk could be the scene of violence. One cannot discount the possibility of the Iranian-back Shiia militias working in conjunction with the ISF to attempt to occupy Kirkuk.

Regional Implications. Outside of Iraq the neighboring powers also expressed their dismay. The nations of Iran, Turkey, and Syria all have significant Kurdish populations and they are worried that an Iraqi Kurdish independence movement will spill over the border into the Kurdish populated areas of their countries. There will be significant regional implications if Iraqi Kurds attain independence.

Regional Reaction. The Iranians have pushed a small number of tanks and artillery to border areas where Iran meets the Kurdish autonomous region. In addition, Iran ordered a fuel embargo stopping international movement of fuel products in or out of Iraqi Kurdistan. International flights are barred from landing at either the Erbil or Sulaymaniya airports and the regional airlines of other countries are complying with that request. Turkey has agreed to deal only with Baghdad on oil exports – putting a severe cramp in the revenue flow of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey. Lurking in the background is Russia – with a seemingly close working relationship with Iran, Syria, and Turkey.

Is There A Case for Kurdish Independence? The Kurds have a long history, a distinct national identity, common language, shared culture, ethnic identity, and defined geographical location. [1] At the conclusion of World War I an international agreement [2] provided a legal basis for statehood. This was never achieved but the Kurdish people have not forgotten what they almost attained. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, spells out some criteria that should be considered for the establishment of a new country. He believes that there is a persuasive case for Kurdish independence.

U.S. Support of Kurds. The United States has issued formal statements opposing the Kurdish independence movement. There are some observers of the Middle East who advocate a breakup of the Iraqi state into three separate nations – comprised of Sunni, Shia, and Kurd peoples. The U.S. opposes this construct as well as an independent Kurdish state. As this situation develops – Kurdistan independence – the U.S. will be put into a vexing situation. Despite being staunch U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State [3] the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq may find that the U.S. support of the Kurds is a temporary arrangement.

Unique Relationship of U.S. SOF with the Kurds. The Peshmerga have a long history with U.S. Special Forces. In 1991, shortly after the Gulf War, the 10th Special Forces Group deployed to southern Turkey and northern Iraq (Operation Provide Comfort) to set up administer refugee camps and facilitate the movement of Kurds from the Turkish border area back to a safe haven zone inside northern Iraq. Operation Provide Comfort would continue for a number of years with the establishment of a no-fly zone (and continued coordination with U.S. SOF). During the 2003 invasion of Iraq the 10th Special Forces Group linked up with the Peshmerga and conducted an offensive against Iraqi units in northern Iraq.

Viability of a Kurdistan State is Questionable. Kurdistan is a land-locked region. To travel from Kurdistan by air to international destinations you must overfly Iraq (to the south), Iran, Turkey, or Syria. If these four nations refuse overflights then the Kurds would have to move people and goods by ground movement. Once again this movement overland must be allowed by the four countries mentioned above. An independent Kurdistan would find trade with international partners to be heavily dependent on good relations with its neighboring countries.

Compromise in the Future. It is unlikely the international community will rally in support of Kurdistan independence. One way out of the current dispute is a negotiated settlement between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Baghdad central government. The major agenda topics would include how the territory would be allocated (Kirkuk comes to mind), how oil revenues are shared, and how much autonomy an Iraqi Kurdistan would enjoy.

Footnotes:

[1] A number of old maps provide insight into the historical lands of the Kurdish people. These can be viewed at “Atlas of Kurdistan”, Wikimedia Commons Atlas of the World.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Atlas_of_Kurdistan

[2] The Treaty of Sevres was signed on August 10, 1920 that formalized the conclusion of the Ottoman participation in World War I. The agreement took away all the lands of the Ottoman Empire not on the Anatolian Peninsula and provided for a possible Kurdish territory (that did not include Kurds from present-day Syria, Iran, or Iraq). However, the emergence of Mustafa Kemal and of modern day Turkey resulted in the cancellation of a Kurdistan referendum.

[3] In the early fight (2014) against the onslaught by the Islamic State it was the Kurdish Peshmerga that held the line against ISIS while the Iraqi security forces fled and left vast areas of Iraq under ISIS control. U.S. special operations forces (and SOF of other nations) worked closely with the Iraqi Kurds to fend of the Islamic State fighters. Of late, the Kurds in Syria have proven to be very valuable proxy forces for U.S. SOF.