By Patrick Balbierz
In the face of the growing ISIS threat in the Middle East, the international community called upon Iraqi politicians to reform their government. In response, the Iraqi government appointed Fouad Massoum to the presidency. A dramatic move to say the least, as the Kurdish politician and former foe of Saddam Hussein represented hope for a future Kurdish state. While including the former Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister in Iraqi politics is a promising move for the incorporation of Kurds in a multi-ethnic Iraq, it could also compromise the independence movement in Kurdistan, which has been pushing for autonomy for decades.
Kurdish nationalism is rooted in the early 20th century, when the Treaty of Sevres divided the defunct Ottoman Empire into the nation states we see today. The treaty mentioned the possibility of establishing a Kurdish state, something Iraq and Iran quietly agreed not to implement. From the onset of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Kurds have been repeatedly attacked and mistreated. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kurds became the victims of chemical weapons. The growing sentiment with Baghdad’s failure to address their concerns and demands has capitulated with today’s organized and vocal movement for independence.
The main factions within the movement have at times fought with one another. Numerous violent outbreaks have divided the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurds, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Some argue Kurdistan can operate within the federal system of Iraq, while others consider complete sovereignty the only real way for Kurds to determine their own future. The selection of Fouad Massoum as President of Iraq has legitimized the wing of Kurds looking to realize Kurdish autonomy through a federal Iraq—at the expense of the forces in Kurdish politics advocating for full independence.
Iraq aims to keep Kurdistan under its control for a variety of reasons. First, the natural resources, which northern Iraqi Kurds claim, offer massive economic value to both local residents and Iraq as a nation. The major cities in northern Iraq under Kurdish control, Mosul and Kirkuk, are the main exporting sites for pipelines leading into Turkey. Going forward, these hubs offer a sizeable income source and infrastructure resources to the Kurds.
If the Kurds were to declare independence, it would not only cut off Iraq’s drilling in the northern fields, but also force them to either export through a newly-found Kurdish state, or ship the oil through the Dead Sea. With Europe shifting its demand from Russian gas and oil to new markets, this could be devastating to an already weak Iraqi economy. Despite protests from Baghdad, Kurds recently exported one million barrels to Turkey in response to demands from Europe.
Secondly, Iraq needs Kurdistan for security purposes. With ISIS movements approaching key central Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad, Iraq needs the assistance of trained fighters in northern Iraq. Over the past three decades, Kurds have operated in guerilla warfare and received sophisticated combat training from the United States and Israel. Despite religious differences between northern Kurds and Iraqis, ISIS presents itself as a religiously-radicalized dictatorship headed by their self-proclaimed “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Neither the Kurds nor the central Iraqi government wish to ignore the advancing jihadists who seek to turn the Middle East into a radicalized Islamic empire from which it can launch attacks across the globe. It is in both their interests to combat ISIS and prevent further losses in western Iraq.
The alliance, nonetheless, comes at a cost. From the viewpoint of those advocating for complete Kurdish independence, Fouad Massoum’s ascendence into Baghdad’s higher political circles increases the unity between the semi-autonomous Kurds and Iraq’s federal government. While Kurdish forces regain key oil production facilities in Kirkuk from ISIS, their politicians are simultaneously gaining inclusion in a government which has delayed attention for both their call for autonomy and due revenue from oil production.
The appointment of Massoum further discredits the arguments from Kurdish revolutionaries about the lack of incorporation in federal decision-making, particularly concerning the issue of budget distribution. The danger is that the legitimate concerns held by Kurds regarding their status in a federal Iraq will be crowded out behind their representation in the presidency.
If there was ever a time for Kurds to establish their own national state it is now. Kurdish forces have largely held their own against ISIS forces despite a lack of assistance from the Iraqi military. In fact, the Kurdish forces recently appealed directly to the United States government for arms support and supplies. In addition, the Kurds in the north already have a semi-autonomous government, which has largely overseen its own governance and infrastructure development.
While central and south Iraq toil with a failing government and advancing ISIS forces, the Kurds have been negotiating for international oil pipeline contracts. Finally, the Kurds believe in their cause for a sovereign nation, and are largely grouped in northern Iraq where a much smaller disparity of Islamic religious sects exists in comparison to other parts of Iraq. The Muslim-on-Muslim violence has remained largely in the central and southern provinces where Sunni and Shi’ite groups struggle for regional power. A Kurdish state could solidify cultural and religious unity in the north.
The bright future of the Iraqi Kurds demands a state in which they can have a recognizable voice to shape their own future. That state does not exist in a larger, federal Iraq. While Iraq toils for stability and borders on anarchy with threats from ISIS, Kurdistan could establish itself as an autonomous state. Kurdistan is on the brink of disconnecting from Baghdad, to the point where being pulled back into the central Iraqi government threatens all they have worked for in the past three decades. At a time where graver threats face the Iraqi government, now may be the time to cut their losses and allow the Kurds to gain independence.
Patrick Balbierz was an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. He is now an Associate Editor at Seton Hall University’s Journal of Diplomacy.