As the Erbil-Baghdad crisis reached new lows, Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani warned that the actions of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amounted to “a declaration of war against the people of Kurdistan.”
With an increasingly independent oil infrastructure, all that remains between practical independence is control of oil revenues. Baghdad knows this very well and has displayed this leverage it still possess by refusing to pay share of Kurdistan national budget and even refusing to let two small airlines operate from Kurdistan, until Kurdistan agrees to Baghdad control of revenues.
This shows that while the rise of Kurdistan, particularly since 2003 has been phenomenal, until the Kurds can truly control their own destiny and become self-sufficient, they will always be at the mercy of Iraqi and regional rulers.
The famous Kurdish saying once reverberated that “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. While this saying doesn’t hold true as before, after all there are dozens of consulates, hundreds of foreign companies and several oil majors operating in a booming area with Kurdistan enjoying growing strategic importance, it does remind the Kurds to keep their guard up, not take anything for granted and hold the view that the first friend and guardian is the Kurd himself.
This is certainly true of ties with the US, who under Barrack Obama has not only taken a step back but has hastily retreated from Iraq and the region. As events in 1975 and 1991 have shown the Kurds, US foreign policy (and indeed foreign policy in general) can be fickle and cruel.
Kurds sought strong ties with Washington and the US was all for working with the Kurds but with their focus on Iraqi sovereignty and not alienating or upsetting Baghdad. The US is no stranger to resolving many crises since 2003, many with the help of the Kurds, but has stayed out of recent disputes between Erbil and Baghdad even as the Maliki’s economic siege on Kurdistan threatens the livelihood of Kurdish families and the region.
The Kurds believed that the strategic relationship with the US was there to stay but ironically Washington hasn’t even removed the KDP and PUK from their terror list. With an obsession of keeping a united Iraq, the US has grown uneasy at the new closeness between Erbil and Ankara – yet they initially encouraged stronger ties after years of tension and mistrust between the two sides.
As for Baghdad, the Kurds regrettably endorsed a second term for Maliki in 2010 in spite of numerous failed promises. The fact that many of the 19 points of the Erbil Agreement that allowed Maliki to come to power remain unresolved tells its own story.
With the Iraqi elections just months away, Maliki wants new leverage among defiant Sunnis and disenchanted Shiites and the show of strength against the Kurds is one tactic. But let it be no doubt that sooner or later, Maliki will need the Kurds and once he has finished his sabre-rattling, he has to reconcile with the Kurds and seek a resolution for the current crisis.
In return, Maliki is attempted to politically blackmail the Kurds into a third term. But the Kurds have to wisely avoid repeating the mistake of trusting Maliki or any other power in Baghdad.
The Kurds must show that they are not at the mercy of Baghdad, if Maliki wants to play hardball and hold the region to ransom, then the Kurds must have and play their own card and leverage.
Kurdistan can ill-afford to have their future tied to the goodwill of Baghdad but even that of Ankara and Tehran. The Kurds have had their rights and a freedom abused and withheld and 2014 is not the time, with the Kurdish national renaissance and newfound prominence, to be revisiting days of hold.
This is all the more reason for Kurdish leaders to finally form an elusive new cabinet, work in unity and put aside individual interest for the sake of the greater nation – after all, if the Kurds won’t help themselves, then certainly external forces cannot be trusted to come to their rescue.