With the “wolf at the door”, what does it mean for Kurdish independence?

Fast approaching 100 years since the Middle Eastern landscape was carved leaving the Kurds as the largest nation without a state, the Kurdish dreams for an independent homeland never wavered.

However, with ubiquitous disputes over oil revenues, disputed territories and share of the national budget already leaving Erbil-Baghdad relations at a new low, the onslaught of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq transformed the dynamics with the Kurds sharing a 1000km border with a new reality.

The Kurds have picked up the mantle in the fight against IS but for them IS was a product of marginalisation policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that fuelled another Sunni revolt and years of Western dithering in Syria that helped create the IS phenomenon.

With thousands of Yezidis, Christians and other minorities brutally killed and thousands more taking shelter in Kurdistan, and the Peshmerga taking the brunt of the battle against determined IS forces, the United States and other Western powers finally agreed to arm the Kurdish forces and provide support with air strikes and humanitarian relief.

However, with the US and European powers tip-toeing the diplomatic line, their support has been on the basis of preserving Iraq’s unity and installing a new inclusive government. Do the Kurds forfeit any plans to exercise self-determination and place their faith in Baghdad once more? More importantly will the growing Western motion to arm and bolster the Kurds, lead to an eventual support for an independent state?

Whilst a highly sensitive issue, for many MPs and analysts, the question of self-determination is ultimately one that only the Kurdish people can decide. Rory Stewart, Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, told Rudaw “this is a highly sensitive issue. In the end this must be a question for the Kurdish and Iraqi people. And conducted as sensitively as possible, in a situation of extreme instability. The key question remains the long-term stability and welfare of the people of Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.”

Stewart, who recently spent time last week on the ground with Kurdish fighters and refugees, highlighted the apparent gulf between  what is needed to support the Kurdish army and to defend Kurdish refugee camps and what is currently been provided. He urged “There is a lot we can still do to provide further military equipment and training, as well as ensure essential supplies are reaching refugee camps to support those fleeing from IS.”

UK Labour MP, Mike Gapes, while pushing for support of Kurds “materially, militarily and politically”, stated “It would be better for the terms and timing and degree of separation to be negotiated and agreed but ultimately the Kurds have the right to self-determination.  The UK and US should respect the will of the people expressed in a democratic referendum.”

Angus McKee, UK Consul General to the Kurdistan Region, explained that the matter of any referendum is up to the Kurdish and Iraqi people to decide, not the UK.

Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, strongly hit out at the UK hesitation to arm and support the Kurds and urged on a more integrated strategy for containing a wider war that would involve Britain and the US acting as the “handmaidens to Kurdish independence”. Ashdown warned that the borders of the Middle East will be inevitably redrawn and “Sykes-Picot will be out the window and we will see a shape of the Middle East which is much more arbitrated by religious belief than by old imperial preferences.”

Ashdown added, “Support the Kurds by all means we can. They can provide rescue and refuge for the Yezidis. They are secular. They act as a northern bulwark against the advance of Isis.”

The Right Reverend David S. Walker, the Bishop of Manchester, commended the Kurdish role in the fight against IS and in humanitarian operations. Whilst noting the present national boundaries are largely the product not of individual peoples but of former imperial powers in former centuries, he told Rudaw, “I would feel that it is within my remit to say that I would hope and expect that the key issues around self-determination include, alongside economic and political viability, the extent to which there is confidence that a people would govern themselves in ways that protect and respect the rights of minorities – exactly the thing that IS is adamantly opposed to.”


Other analysts have warned of the dangers of any separation, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, stated “the Kurds are now in a situation where self-determination becomes less a function of their own course of action than Iraq’s general breakdown. This may reduce the price to pay for secession, ultimately. But that price remains steep given the remarkable benefits the Kurds currently derive from their relations with Baghdad, Ankara and Teheran. Actual partition likely would negatively affect all three.”

But for Steven Cook, an analyst at the US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, recent shifts in the Middle Eastern political landscape mean that Iraq’s Kurds will gain independence “sooner rather than later”.

Even as some major powers have slowly warmed to the idea if not inevitability of Kurdish independence, they have treaded carefully around the diplomatic line. As talk of Kurdish independence accelerated, Philip Hammond, UK Defence Secretary, towed the same line as the US, affirming that the government’s position was to keep Iraq as a unified state.

Germany was quick to support the Kurds in the recent crisis but Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned “An independent Kurdish state would further destabilize the region and trigger new tensions, maybe with the neighboring Iraqi state as well.”

US President Barack Obama somewhat reluctantly agreed to military intervention in Iraq but no doubt placed such support on preserving Iraq’s unity, seeing the ouster of Maliki and creating a unified and inclusive government. “The wolf is at the door…in order for them to be credible with the Iraqi people, they’re going to have to put behind them some of the old practices and actually create a credible, united government,” Obama said.

The Kurds are often warned that due to geopolitics considerations, their time has now come. Now Kurds wonder if in the volatile and explosive Middle Eastern plains, whether such a “good” time ever exists.

Even Turkey, who for years staunchly opposed any notion of Kurdish nationalism let alone independence, has slowly removed resistance to Kurdish aspirations.  A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman recently declared there was no “unease” about the weapons’ deliveries to Kurds or that it may boost their bid for independence.

In either case, under Western pressure, the Kurds may well have to shelve their plans for any independence referendum for now but either way the Kurdish position will never return to the pre-IS days.

The Kurdish demand for joining new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government will have grown stronger to include right to sell oil, purchase arms, measures to prevent any centralisation of power as was the case under Maliki and referendums on disputed territories that Kurds now control.

Kurdistan Head of the Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa Bakir, previously warned “there is a new reality and that requires a new policy and a new approach.”

The greater question for the Kurds remains not on their end of the bargain in keeping Iraq stable and united, but whether Baghdad will truly forfeit ministries such as interior and defense that the Sunnis crave. There is little the Kurds can do but to shut the door on Baghdad if the current Sunni insurgency cannot be quelled lest another deadly insurgency should rise in the future.

Iran has pledged support for al-Abadi and backed the unity of Iraq and the stabilizing of security, but it remains to be seen whether they will exert pressure on Baghdad to cede power to Sunnis.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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