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A Fleeting Glimmer of Kurdish Independence

By Patrick Balbierz

Thanks to a counteroffensive on two important fronts, one with Peshmerga forces fighting off ISIS in northern Iraq and a social media campaign through #twitterKurds, hope for an independent Kurdistan has never been greater. The international community praised the efforts of the Kurdish militias, both on and offline, in helping Iraqi forces halt and repel IS’s offensive. Now, as these forces look to retake Tikrit and eventually Mosel, questions arise as to what the Kurds will be holding when the threat from IS subsides.

Professor Ofra Bengio, of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv University, notes there are three prerequisites for the Kurds to move for full independence.

“The Peshmerga receive heavy weaponry, a deterioration of relationship with Baghdad, and a change of heart in the American administration,” Professor Bengio tells World Policy Journal, illustrating why Kurdish independence is difficult for a multitude of reasons.

Despite their large presence in the Middle East, ranging from 25 and 35 million, Kurds have no independent state, instead finding homes primarily in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. The prospect of independence concerns their three host nations, both in terms of the Kurdish movements that they openly oppose within their borders, and the land that would be contested in the event of an independence declaration.

“Baghdad and the international community, including Iran and Turkey want the Kurds to remain in the Iraqi state’s framework,” notes Michael Knights of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. With vested interests in retaining current international borders, the Kurdish independence movement is lacking a major component for success—international support and recognition.

Support from the global community is key to the Kurdish independence movement. Their valiant efforts in halting the IS threat in northern Iraq, and perhaps most famously in the drawn out battle of Kobani in Syria, won praise and acclaim from abroad, particularly in the U.S. Yet their demands for heavy weaponry, particularly mechanized fighting vehicles, have been ignored.

Knights notes that despite the Kurds’ success, the U.S. still sends all military armament through Baghdad, allowing for the national government to control its distribution. This limits the Peshmerga to a militia-based, albeit effective, fighting force that the U.S. views as a component of Iraqi defenses—hardly the groundwork of a revolutionary force.

However, it isn’t just America that holds such an attitude, as on one of the few objectives in Iraq that Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. can all agree upon is keeping the Kurds within the current international framework, which benefits them all. Iran, which contains a Kurd population of over 8 million, around 13 percent of its total population, hopes to retain Kurdistan as it represents both a strategic place in Middle Eastern politics and is home to valuable natural resources.

Historically, Turkey struggled with indigenous populations, particularly Armenians, but the Kurds have not faired much better. They hold an even larger 18 percent of the Turkish population, but have found themselves at odds with Istanbul as several of their political movement organizations are deemed terrorist groups. The long-standing struggle merely intensifies Turkish reluctance for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

As a NATO member state, the U.S. will unlikely support any action by the Kurds to absolve a portion of a member state’s territory, regardless of their credentials. In addition, no regional force will find interest in arming a group that may one day turn around and attempt to secede territory from their host nation.

Monetarily, calls for full independence seem short sighted. As Knights notes, “the Kurds are spending $700 million in salaries and subsidies a month, but don’t have the revenue to do so.”

Despite early optimism for a booming Kurdish oil economy, both the plunging price and a lack of legal international markets for oil have caused a significant loss in the revenue into Kurdistan. Answering calls from Baghdad—who sees the oil as Iraqi, not Kurdish—countries in the region bowed to its demands not to accept illegally exported Kurdish oil, seeing it as a violation of trade agreements. Recent bargaining saw funding from Baghdad return into Kurdistan to pay salaries, but the agreement is fragile and viewed more as a collective effort to deter IS than as a deal both parties are committed to long-term.

Though the actual global politics of Kurdish independence involves greater complexities than a effective paramilitary force with a social media campaign, their efforts against IS have given many great hope in the possibility of their own sovereign state. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, it may not be even within the next several years—but perhaps for the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the glimmer of an independent Kurdistan is within sight, however fleeting.

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Patrick Balbierz is an editorial assistant for World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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