Kurdish crescent on the horizon

A book on the Kurds, published in 1978, has on its cover a photograph of a Kurd soldier in his distinctive national dress, a weapon on his back; all around him is a limitless, barren plain, while far in the background are massive snow-capped mountains. The title of the book is as bleak as the photograph: People Without a Country . Now, this could change: as Iraq is breaking apart and is convulsed in sectarian conflict, the Kurds in Iraq have moved towards independence, a dramatic culmination of long-held aspirations.

The Kurds are a culturally distinct people, with their own ethnicity, language and dialects, who reside in the mountains of northeast Iraq, northwest Iran and much of eastern Turkey, with a small community in Syria at the Turkish border. Racially, the community has kinship with the Iranians; its language is also closely related to Persian. The 25 million Kurds worldwide are Muslim, and most of them are Sunni. The mountains that made them hardy and warlike also divided them into fiercely independent tribes and clans. Hence, they have never had a homeland of their own. Till the end of the last century, the Kurdish story consisted of persistent uprisings, consistently crushed; of short advances and harsh retreats; of small victories and major setbacks; of promises made and quickly forgotten, a narrative of defeat, exile, betrayal and bloodshed.

Kurdish politics

However, the decades of struggle did have some positive implications. One, over time, the diffused Kurdish aspirations and sporadic uprisings acquired a “national” character that transcended tribe, clan and interpersonal differences among the chiefs. Two, the struggle imparted a clarity to Kurdish aspirations, defining their collective security, economic and cultural interests. Above all, the assaults upon these people, particularly the genocidal violence of the 1980s and the use of chemical weapons in 1988, were sufficiently dramatic and heart-rending as to place Kurdish aspirations at the top of the allied agenda after the 1991 war, leading to the setting up of no fly-zones and safe-havens that consolidated into territorial autonomy after the 2003 conflict.

The Iraqi Constitution of 2005 recognised Kurdistan as a part of the Iraqi federation, with three of Iraq’s provinces — Arbil, Dohuk and Sulemaniya — which together have an area of 40,643 sq.km. and a population of a little over four million. But, the Iraqi Kurds have much larger claims, which would boost their territory to over 78,000 sq.km. and population to well over eight million. The two traditional Kurdish leaders — Massoud Barzani, son of the legendary Kurdish leader Mulla¯ Mustafa¯ Barzani, and the great rival of the Barzanis, Jalal Talabani — now hold major positions in the new political arrangements: Mr. Talabani is the president of the Iraqi Republic, while Mr. Barzani is the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani represent rival parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The third principal Kurdish party is the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been in conflict with successive Turkish governments; it has been declared a “terrorist” grouping by Turkey’s western allies and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in a Turkish prison since 1999. Iraq’s Kurdish scenario has been complicated by the emergence of a new party, the Gorran (Change) Movement that emerged in 2009 to challenge what it saw as the nepotism and corruption of the two traditional parties.

For the last 10 years or so, Mr. Massoud Barzani has been a central figure in Kurdish affairs across the region. He has engaged closely with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an, helping the latter to reach out to the Kurds in Turkey. In return, Mr. Erdog˘an has boosted political and economic ties with the KRG, achieving bilateral trade of $8 billion in 2013. More importantly, Turkey is central to KRG’s oil exports, with the old Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline now being supplemented by a new pipeline that goes directly from Kurdish territory to Turkey. Mr. Barzani is also active among Syrian Kurds, seeking to wean the popular Democratic Union Party (PYD) away from the PKK.

Towards a sovereign state

Following the ISIS’ successes, the Kurds took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces and seized the “disputed” territories in the neighbouring provinces of Nineweh, Diyala and Kirkuk, including the oil-rich town of Kirkuk itself. Mr. Barzani explained that Iraq was already partitioned and the Kurds “can no longer experiment with their fate indefinitely.” He then announced that a referendum would be held among the Kurds in a few months to decide whether to seek full “independence”. These Kurdish aspirations pose new challenges to regional players.

As of now, Turkey seems to be relatively comfortable with the emerging scenario. It believes that the KRG will be able to effectively balance ISIS and will also be able to restrict PKK influence at its Syrian border. Turkey would like to see a unity government in Baghdad, but failing that, would support Kurdish independence in Iraq as a buffer against ISIS.

Iran’s position is more complex. While it would prefer a Shia-dominated administration in Baghdad, it recognises that its sectarian approach is no longer viable. It may, therefore, back a “unity” government in Baghdad. Iran would however not like to see a sovereign Kurdish state on its border since a truncated Iraq would dilute its influence in Baghdad and possibly encourage its own Kurds to pursue aspirations for freedom. Again, Israel has maintained close links with the Kurds in Iraq for the last few decades, building up their security forces. Its leaders have welcomed an independent Kurdistan, viewing it as an ally in a hostile environment. This has further alarmed Iran, encouraging it to use the PUK, which it has cultivated over several years, to oppose independence.

This seems to be paying off; Mr. Barzani’s call for full independence has created divisions among Kurdish parties. The PUK has raised constitutional, political and economic issues to oppose full sovereignty, backing a united Iraq against an independent Kurdistan that in its view would be a Turkish puppet. Gorran has argued that independence should go beyond mere rhetoric and should be based on strong institutions that provide for transparency and accountability in the polity.

Domestic and regional concerns

The immediate concern relating to independence is linked to the borders of this new entity. Kirkuk and other territories captured recently by the Kurds are mixed in ethnic and sectarian terms. Thus, a united Iraq would provide a much more congenial a place to accommodate such mixed communities than a new state whose origins lie in ethnic exclusiveness.

Independent Kurdistan would also face the serious challenge of economic viability. It is at present crucially dependent on budgetary support from Baghdad; with cash transfers from Baghdad having been recently curtailed, the KRG already finds itself in difficulties, given its serious refugee problem and the need to fund its armed forces and pay for imported gasoline. The state, being landlocked, would always be subject to the vagaries of its ties with its neighbours.

Again, the KRG has found it difficult to sell its oil in foreign markets; in the absence of international recognition, such difficulties would continue, particularly since the United States, Russia and China are firmly opposed to the division of Iraq. While Russia and China are against the break-up of states in principle, the U.S. fears that a rump Shia state in southern Iraq would be under Iranian influence and hence an abiding threat to Saudi Arabia with which it would have a long border.

Mr. Barzani understands these difficulties. It is possible he has played the independence card to obtain Baghdad’s recognition of the Kurds’ capture of Kirkuk and other “disputed” territories. He is also upset with the Al-Maliki government, which he blames for the ongoing violence. In a recent interview, Mr. Barzani has affirmed his commitment to a united Iraq, saying he is “keen to protect the country against collapse”; he has also spoken of the need for a new vision, a new administration, and joint action to maintain Iraq’s unity.

Mr. Barzani can be expected to make every effort to maintain a united Iraq. However, this is an unprecedented historic movement for the Kurds. The de facto foreign minister of the KRG, Falah Bakir, has reminded us: “The border has changed. The political reality has changed. The power balance has changed. And … Baghdad is far away.” It is just possible that the Kurds may reject caution and seize their destiny with both hands.

(Talmiz Ahmad was India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.)

Till the end of the last century, the Kurdish story consisted of persistent uprisings, consistently crushed; of short advances and harsh retreats; of small victories and major setbacks; of promises made and quickly forgotten, a narrative of defeat, exile, betrayal and bloodshed.

After decades of struggle, the diffused aspirations of the Kurds have acquired a ‘national’ character. As Iraq is thrown into a convulsion, it has made the dream of a Kurdish nation a possibility