Not so long ago, the Kurds would have been overjoyed to see the Kurdistan flag hoisted on a building in Iraq, let alone see it proudly flap in the wind as it overhangs the prestigious Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the visit of the head of a state.
The point is simple. The Kurds have come a long way, establishing themselves as a strong strategic power in the Middle East, influential components of the new revolution sweeping the Middle East and major actors in the new Iraq.
The Kurds have to be taken seriously as a major force with their demands and sentiments cajoled by global powers. Therefore, it is no surprise of the importance that the U.S. places on the alliance and partnership with the Kurds that resulted in the recent visit to the White House by Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani.
Barzani met U.S. President Barrack Obama, U.S. Vice President John Biden as well as a number of senior political figures in Washington.
Obama urged Barzani to re-engage with Baghdad amid growing tensions, a serious political crisis in Iraq and a collapse in the current power-sharing agreement.
The U.S. has long leaned on the Kurds in implementing their vision of the new Iraq and for their influential part in keeping Iraq together. The new Iraq was inaugurated including the constitution, pluralistic and democratic principles under the auspices of the U.S. government.
The U.S. formally withdrew at the end of 2011, and yet the new Iraq they left behind is as troublesome as the old Iraq they inherited.
While every Iraqi misfortune cannot be directly attributed to the U.S., after all the underlying Iraqi issues are historic and owed to its artificial inception, the U.S. must take firm accountability in guiding the new Iraq and appeasing all sides or bearing the consequences of failed policies and as such the collapse of the Iraqi state.
Kurdish weariness of Baghdad
Interfactional relations have hardly been great right across Iraq over the past several years, owed to deep mistrust, sectarian splits and stark political differences. However, relations between Kurdistan and Baghdad have been tentative to say the least, and the divide has been deepening year after year.
While Kurdistan has developed at pace with an economic boom and a new lease of life, Baghdad has been dragging it down. It appears that Baghdad policies are enacted to contain the Kurds and slow down their rapid rise and ensure that they don’t escape from the clutches of Baghdad. Without the bolt and chain that is Baghdad, Kurdistan would have developed at an even faster pace.
After the recent meeting between Barzani and Obama, the U.S. once again reaffirmed its support for a democratic and federalist Iraq. “The United States is committed to our close and historic relationship with Kurdistan and the Kurdish people, in the context of our strategic partnership with a federal, democratic and unified Iraq,” read a statement.
But how long can the Kurds continue to believe in this vision of the new Iraq, which is clearly miles away from reality?
Political power has been consolidated in the hands of Nouri al-Maliki, there is a great sectarian and political imbalance in the security forces, the power-sharing agreement has all but failed, constitution articles continue to be overlooked, and many key laws needed to bridge the national divide such a Hydrocarbon Law continue to gather dust on the political shelf; the list goes on.
The U.S. continues to pressure the Kurds to spearhead Iraqi reconciliation and re-engage with Baghdad, while over the past several years the Kurds have clearly been the main mediating party in resolving numerous disputes in Baghdad as well as helping pull Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war.
Barzani’s statement at his annual Newroz address and the reaffirmation of those views at a speech he gave in Washington (at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) must be taken with utmost seriousness. At the same time the Kurdish leadership must make clear to their U.S., Iraqi and international allies that their threats are not in vain.
Barzani reiterated that Iraq is facing a serious crisis and that all the current signs point to a one-man rule, referring to Maliki’s running as prime minister whilst simultaneously holding positions of the commander in chief of the armed forces, the minister of defense, the minister of the interior and the chief of intelligence.
Kurdish plan B
As the divide between Baghdad and Erbil grows, it simultaneously hastens the inevitable declaration of independence by Kurdistan.
Barzani pledged to continue to work toward a solution within the terms of the Iraqi constitution, but once again warned that should efforts to find concord fail that he will go back to the Kurdish people for their decision, in reference to a referendum on independence.
How can the U.S. or any international power deny the legitimate right of the Kurdish nation to self-determination and statehood, especially when the Kurds have done more than their fair share of protecting and promoting a unified Iraq?
The Kurdistan Regional Government and the remit of the Kurdish leaders are to serve the Kurdish people and not Baghdad. Therefore, when Baghdad renegs on the key points of the Erbil agreement, continues policies at the detriment of Kurdish growth, does not implement constitutional articles or continues to lean toward a recentralisation of power and dictatorial tendencies, how can Erbil remain idle?
The heated rhetoric between Baghdad and Erbil over outstanding oil export payments and the subsequent halting of Kurdish oil exports, over Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi who the Kurds housed before he fled to Qatar, over KRG oil contracts with Exxon Mobil and other companies, and over disputed territories is all proof that Iraq is already fractured in all but name and that reconciliation efforts with Baghdad will prove to be a futile exercise.
The U.S. may have officially withdrawn forces from Iraq, but their interests and stakes in the new Iraq are as great as ever. U.S. diplomats are as productive as ever in Iraq with top U.S. officials continuing to frantically jockey between factions. After billions of dollars of expenditure, thousands of lost lives and several years of efforts to promote unity and democracy in Iraq, the U.S. can hardly afford just to walk away.
The U.S. have been aiming to promote national reconciliation in Iraq for over nine years, but the Iraqi actors have continued to blight such efforts and failed to meet most of the U.S. benchmarks. It is unsurprising in the current political climate that the Iraqi government indefinitely postponed a national reconciliation meeting that was scheduled for this week.
The Kurds are no longer pawns of foreign powers on the Iraqi or Middle Eastern chessboard. The U.S. may want a certain outcome from Iraq or have a certain vision, but what if this never comes? Do the Kurds sit idle and indefinitely nurse a sick Iraq?
This is the same U.S. that fed the Kurds to the wolves to serve their own strategic purposes in the past. The Kurds can over-rely on Washington at their own peril. While the Kurds today have more friends than the mountains that were once the symbolic saying, it is still surrounded by enemies and parties that will do all they can to check Kurdish national advancement.
Moving forward without fear
When the Kurds had little more than fierce pride and passion and basic weapons against chemical weapons and some of the most powerful armies in the world, they still didn’t succumb to fear or subjugation in spite of all the odds.
Why then should the Kurds of today, with immense oil wealth, security forces, strategic standing, a booming economy and great regional influence, be fearful of upsetting or annoying the U.S. or other such powers when their own interests are at risk?
The Kurds chose to be part of a unified Iraq under a federalist banner that was enshrined by the constitution. They could have taken Kirkuk and other disputed territories by force and gone their own way, but with U.S., Turkish and international pressure and their endeavor for democratic solutions, they opted for a different route.
At the same time, the U.S., Turkey and some other global powers continue to warn Kurds not to proclaim independence. Baghdad and such powers cannot have it both ways, deprive the Kurds of legally enshrined articles and principles in the new Iraq and at the same time expect the Kurds to succumb to what best suits other powers.
In reality, the Kurds can declare independence. And in spite of threats and warnings from the likes of Turkey, there is nothing they can do to delay or prevent this eventuality.
First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.