The failure of Iraq, breakdown of Syria, and changes in Turkey have created opportunities for Kurds in all three countries. They are not quite the regional kingmakers that some Kurds have boasted they might become, but Kurdish political and military power is now a growing factor in Middle East geopolitics. This has produced not only unique challenges, but also new possibilities for U.S. policy in the region. As President-Elect Donald J. Trump shapes his administration and officials look at the Middle East beyond the battles against the so-called Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa, they will have to come to terms with the Kurds, some of whom are intent on using their new clout and political developments around them to push for a sovereign Kurdistan.
It is unlikely that Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), or Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will realize their objectives of statehood, but Iraq’s Kurds may be in a far more advantageous position to press for independence. Significant obstacles remain for Iraqi Kurds, but the combination of regional instability, the coming liberation of Mosul, and the state of Iraqi politics may help advance the historic goals of Kurdish leaders.
The Kurds of Iraq
In the two-and-a-half years since the Islamic State overran Mosul, Iraqi Kurdish leaders, especially the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, have spoken openly about “Iraq’s failure” and signaled their intention to move forward with independence for their three provinces, which would be governed from the KRG’s capital, Erbil. In February 2016 Barzani declared, “The existence of the Kurdish people in the Middle East is a reality and the Kurds can, like all other nations, achieve their rights and benefit from them. These are natural and God-given rights and can under no excuse be denied.” Of course, the referendum on independence that Kurdish leaders have promised has never materialized. And although Barzani’s statements often seem forthright, they are often full of caveats and short on details. This suggests that he and his advisors may be more interested in brandishing independence to advance other interests.
Foremost among them is placing rivals to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on the defensive. The two other main political movements within Iraq’s predominantly Kurdish region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, or the Movement for Change party, on the defensive. The KDP and PUK are longtime rivals that cooperate with one another, albeit often uneasily, to administer the KRG. Gorran, an offshoot of the PUK, emerged out of frustration over alleged corruption in the KRG and the dominance of the two better-established parties. All three have been locked in a confrontation over Barzani’s extended presidential term and unfulfilled promises of political reform. When Barzani calls for independence, he is goading other Kurdish politicians to oppose him, a stand that would cost them politically. Neither the PUK nor Gorran are against independence, but the PUK in particular differs with the KDP over the conditions of the Kurdish region’s independence. This is because the PUK’s leaders do not want Barzani and his party to dominate a new Kurdish state.
The Kurds have also raised independence to gain leverage with Iraq’s central government on a variety of issues, including oil exports and the KRG’s share of Iraq’s revenues. Iraqi leaders have long resisted Kurdish independence, especially since the Kurds want the oil-rich region of Kirkuk to be incorporated into their state. Baghdad has also opposed Kurdish independence on principle, regarding it as an affront to Iraqi and Arab nationalism.
For all of Barzani’s declarations about independence, the fight against the Islamic State has actually driven the KRG closer to Baghdad, if only out of necessity. Throughout the conflict with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fighters, the Kurds have complained bitterly—and erroneously—that they have done the bulk of the fighting. In fact, the Kurds have needed Iraq as much as Iraq has needed the Kurds. Without each other, they would both find driving the Islamic State from Mosul and northeastern Iraq significantly more difficult. Despite the mistrust between Erbil and Baghdad, Iraq’s progovernment Arab forces and the Kurdish peshmerga have bolstered each other in terms of manpower, fighting skill, and weaponry.
After the Islamic State is wrested from Mosul, however, the Kurds may have less reason to remain within Iraq. Kurdish officials maintain that Iraq’s political system will continue to be dysfunctional, and thus incapable of ensuring Kurdish rights. Still, the Kurds have shifted their position on how the KRG should secede from Iraq. Rather than pressing for the unilateral approach implicit in Barzani’s declarations during the summer of 2014 and spring of 2015, Kurdish officials now indicate that they prefer a negotiated exit, reasoning that good relations with Baghdad will be critical to securing a prosperous and stable independent Kurdistan.
A negotiated route to Kurdish independence does not seem as unlikely as it once might have been. Voices within Iraq’s governing bloc have indicated that they might prefer allowing the Kurds to go their own way, which would allow Baghdad to keep the 17 percent of the central government’s budget that would otherwise be sent to Erbil (the KRG has never received the full amount). This is not the official position of the government of Iraq, but it nevertheless would be a new and potentially fruitful means of addressing the Kurds’ long-term desire for independence. If this were to become Iraqi policy, Kurdish independence would likely not be as destabilizing as is often feared. Still, negotiations would likely be difficult given Kurdish insistence on holding on to Kirkuk and other contested territories the KRG has acquired since the summer of 2014, when Iraq’s security forces collapsed upon encountering Islamic State fighters.
Should Erbil and Baghdad agree on a negotiated break, the benefits to the United States would be clear. U.S. policymakers have opposed Kurdish independence on the grounds that the breakup of Iraq would spill more Iraqi bloodshed, undermine Turkey’s security, and provoke conflict with Iran. Many analysts have also contended that a Kurdish state would not be economically viable, though this condition is not itself a barrier to statehood. These are real risks, but under a negotiated KRG exit from Iraq, Washington would be freer to develop ties to Kurdistan without antagonizing Baghdad. An independent Kurdistan would require significantly more U.S. military aid than current training and equipping. It would also need economic assistance, given the heavy burden of caring for large numbers of Syrian refugees and the exposure of Kurdish finances to booms and busts in energy markets. Nevertheless, the exigencies of this support would be greatly diminished without the threat of an Iraqi backlash and given cooperative KRG-Iraq economic ties. Moreover, the United States would be gaining a partner that can contribute to U.S. security interests in a manifestly unstable region.
In the three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Turkey became, after Iran, the outside power most likely to intervene in Iraqi affairs to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Since 2007, however, Ankara has developed strong political, diplomatic, and economic ties with the KRG. Turkey’s dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the KDP have also cultivated ties. Because Turkey is the largest investor in the KRG, the region’s largest trading partner, and a beneficiary of Kurdish oil exports, it no longer defines its relationship with Iraqi Kurds solely in terms of potential threats. It has signaled, albeit implicitly, its willingness to accept Kurdish independence from Iraq.
Ankara sees Iraq’s Kurds as a buffer against the instability spinning out of Iraq. Also, Barzani and the KDP have a testy relationship with the PKK, which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, as well as its Syrian affiliates, the PYD and YPG. The PKK, meanwhile, has enjoyed support from the PUK. Because of these dynamics, Turkey’s leadership has invested significant political capital in the KRG and Barzani. For Turkey, the KRG’s independence would pose far less a threat than the terrorism of the PKK and the territorial ambitions of the PYD and YPG.
Iran, with a population of between five and seven million Kurds, may remain an obstacle to Iraqi Kurdish ambitions. Until the battle for Mosul is over, Tehran and Erbil will have a common interest in fighting the Islamic State. They diverge on the rightful status of the KRG, however. Iran, echoing the central government’s official position, supports Iraq’s unity and has sought to mediate disputes between Erbil and Baghdad. Iran worries about the effect an independent KRG might have on its own sometimes-restive Kurdish population, as well as how a U.S.- and Turkey-aligned Kurdish state would diminish its regional influence. But it seems unlikely that Tehran would oppose the KRG’s secession if Iraq dropped its objections to Kurdish independence and negotiated a settlement with its Kurds. Like Turkey, Iran would likely accommodate itself to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan and seek ways to profit from it.
The complicated relationships between Iraqi Kurds and the governments of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, as well as their ties with Kurdish groups in all those countries, are on one level significantly destabilizing. And while Kurdish independence from Iraq remains fraught with risk for the United States, on another level an independent KRG would present opportunities for Washington in a dramatically changed Middle East. At the very least, it would provide Washington with an alternative partner to Baghdad and Ankara, both of which have proven to be reluctant or uneven allies in the conflict with the Islamic State. The Kurds would welcome additional American investment in the development of Kurdistan’s oil and gas resources, which would be free from the threat of sanctions from Baghdad. Independence would also deepen U.S. ties with a society that generally welcomes a relationship with the United States, in a region where few hold Washington in high regard. The KRG’s independence might make Iraq more politically manageable as well.
The doomsday scenarios that have often been conjured by opponents of Iraqi Kurdish independence are no longer as likely as they once were. Kurdish independence from Iraq was not the United States’ intention during the 2003 invasion, but more than a decade later it may prove to be an opportunity for U.S. policymakers to secure American interests in a turbulent region.
About the Author
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Cook is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s gold medal in 2012, and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. His new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2017.