By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
Little watched through the past ten days’ advance of ISIS through Iraq toward Baghdad is the response – and the potential future independence – of the third large tribal or ethnic grouping that makes up Iraq, Kurdistan Iraq.
Kurds are an ethnic group controlling roughly 20 percent of the Iraqi state as a regional autonomous government, one that that straddles four nations, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and West Hollywood Congressman Adam Schiff worries about destabilizing them all.
A Kurdish nation could be a strong Western ally in the region along with Israel, but a state could also cause chaos in the four nations Kurds live in now.
Throughout the Iraq war and during the recent Syrian civil war, the Kurds’ army, Peshmerga, has held the territory carved out for the Kurds in 1991 in the aftermath of the first American invasion of Iraq.
They did the same thing last week when ISIS fighters faced off with Iraqi army troops at Kirkuk; when the Iraqis fled, the Kurds held their lines and the insurgents decided against engagement, leaving the biggest oil field in Iraq in Kurd hands.
With that oil revenue, the century-long yearning for a nation state, the foundation of a civil society already built over 23 years of autonomy, its powerful, well-trained military and the creative destruction going on around it, many with interests of the region are pushing for the Kurds to take the opportunity to declare independence.
Former-Ambassador Peter Galbraith is an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government and has had business and financial interests in Kurdistan who says, “three factors have kept Kurdistan in Iraq to date: a lack of sufficient financial resources, an unresolved dispute with Baghdad over territory and international opposition to the breakup of Iraq.”
He says that his talks with the Kurdish leadership tell him that an independent Kurdistan is inevitable.
On another hand, Prime Minister Maliki seems to wish the Kurds would depart from Iraq, as he recently withheld Kurdistan’s constitutionally guaranteed share of the Iraqi budget, enraged the Kurds who started discussing holding a referendum on Kurdistan’s future.
While not taking actual steps toward independence just yet, the Kurds are flagging it. Yesterday the Iraqi Kurdistan government completed their first successful sale and shipment of Iraq oil to Israel. A second shipment arrives on Monday.
Traveling through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, the oil delivered to the Israeli port of Askelon marks a key part of Western strategy to deepen relations with the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan. Kirkuk is considered by most Kurds to rightful part of Kurdistan, and most believe it to be their true capital.
Kurdistan was once
Rep. Adam Schiff, who sits on the House Select Intelligence Committee, told WeHo News, “It is difficult to keep a people’s national aspiration contained forever and amid the sectarian chaos in Iraq, the Kurds have slowly built a proto-state – economically and politically better off than the rest of the country and following an independent line, as yesterday’s oil shipment to Israel signifies.”
He made reference to relations with Israel, which have been excellent, although only on an informal basis. A pro-Western nation bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria would provide a helpmate to Western interests. Still, he is by no means sanguine about the subject of an independent Kurdistan,
“A Kurdish state that straddles the borders in the region would be economically viable and pro-western, but pursuit of such an objective by the United States or the Kurds themselves at this time would doubtless throw the region into even greater turmoil,” he said.
The dangers are many and the consequences not all apparent, he said. “How this all plays out is uncertain. In Turkey relations with the Kurds are improving, but that does not equate with any greater receptivity to a Kurdish state in Iraq as this would raise concerns that Turkey’s own Kurdish population would seek annexation to such an independent entity.
“In this respect, Turkey’s concerns dovetail with those of Iran which also has a large Kurdish population.”
David Hirst, writing in The Guardian in January, 2013, foresaw the Kurds taking independence if a neighboring nation fell apart; at the time he was looking at the possibility of a successful Sunni rebellion against the Shia Baathist regime of Bashar Assad.
He describes the desire of the Kurds for a nation of their own historically, “In the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement Britain and France promised them a state, but then reneged, and they ended up as minorities, more or less repressed,
He cites their overcoming obstacles and laying the groundwork for a solid government, saying that the only thing preventing the Kurds from now declaring themselves independent is a solid reason, as in the demise of one or more countries on their border and the need to cast a web of protection around their brethren.
One year ago, Mr. Hirst asked, “Are the Iraqi Kurds on the brink of a… break through, and the great losers of Sykes-Picot about to become, 90 years later, the great winners of the Arab Spring?” Today people are asking if the de facto three-way split of Iraq today should be allowed to settle into permanence.
The US Government, Congress in particular, caution against any abrupt moves that might embolden the Iranians or disrupt the region, but do seem resigned to a Kurdish state.
While, “the Kurds have wisely held off on pushing for full independence for now,” said Congressman Schiff, “…the forces of entropy, sectarianism and nationalism may catalyze their long-held dreams of statehood.”
It was easy for England and France to draw those lines on the sand making nations after the First World War; re-drawing them will be daunting, and probably bloody.