The case for Kurdish independence amid ISIS gains

Today, in northern Iraq there is an economically-strong, politically-stable and a well-defended Kurdish entity, with a population of five million

Sinem Cengiz
Sinem Cengiz
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The unprecedentedly rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq is likely to change the course of history and reshape the regional map. With ISIS advances, Kurds, who have had ambitions of achieving independence for decades, now are closer than ever to creating a state of their own in the region.

Amid fears that the ongoing conflict might escalate into a full-scale sectarian war and lead to the partition of the country, Kurds have taken advantage of the chaotic situation by including the oil city of Kirkuk in the lands that they control.

See also - Counterpoint article: The case to deny Kurdish independence despite aspirations

While the Kurdish region has remained free from the spillover of the conflict, the rest of Iraq is embroiled in heavy fighting between the ISIS and government troops.

The al-Qaeda affiliated group has not only captured swathes of territory in northwest and central Iraq, including the second-largest city of Mosul, but has also seized large amounts of money and weaponry from banks and the fleeing Iraqi army.

In a surprise move, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recently announced the formation of a new government in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, after months of dispute between political parties. The timing of the announcement is significant as it came while the picture in Iraq is becoming more complicated.

Furthermore, KRG President Massoud Barzani hinted that the Kurdish independence from Iraq was a real possibility, saying “a new Iraq” will emerge as the country “falls apart”. In an interview, Barzani said: “It is the time now. The time is here for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”

Today, in northern Iraq there is an economically-strong, politically-stable and a well-defended Kurdish entity, with a population of five million

Sinem Cengiz

The Kurdish region in northern Iraq, today, is the only actor that acts as a state. Kurds have been in charge of their affairs since 1990s. Iraqi Kurds run their own relatively prosperous region in northern Iraq, have their own army, pursue their own foreign policy and likely to have the opportunity to realize their aspirations for complete independence.

The latest developments in the country has further improved the position of Kurds, who moved their forces into disputed areas and expanded the areas under their control by about 40 percent – a situation which enables Kurds to complete edifice of Kurdish independence.

More importantly, ISIS has created a new reality in Iraq. In face of this reality, international community lost its belief towards the territorial integrity of Iraq. ISIS has displayed to the international community the fact that artificial borders in the region may change.

Although the international community has understood this reality, Kurds should not be expected to declare independence as they will avoid acting as a spoilsport but rather will wait till the country collapses. In such an event, there will be a fertile ground for Kurds to realize their years-long dream.

Preparing for independence

Kurds have been preparing for independence for long time. The KRG has already begun independently exporting crude oil, via Turkey, despite the opposing stance of Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. While the oil dispute between the central government and the KRG remained unresolved, ISIS emerged as a big headache for Maliki government and as a remedy for the KRG.

The wheel of history seems to have turned irreversibly in KRG’s favor as Iraqi forces fled from the ISIS advance, the Peshmerga forces swiftly moved into the long-disputed town of Kirkuk. Needless to say, taking the oil-rich Kirkuk will boost Kurds economic power and will pave the way for outright independence for the Kurdistan region.

Oil trade

Kurds, who are taking decisive steps to advance the dream of an independent state, consider the oil under the areas they control as an essential factor in consolidating Kurdish independence over the region and a chance to rewrite Kurdish history in the region. Oil has always been central to the Kurdish aspiration for independence. Kurds consider oil a crucial element for international trade in the future; therefore, they are struggling over the control of the oil-rich areas in Iraq.

Also, the opening of the pipeline to Turkey that will allow 400,000 barrels per day to flow to the Turkish port of Ceyhan will further strengthen the hands of Kurds. As Maliki struggles with ISIS, the business is on track for Kurds with KRG ramping up oil exports.

This situation reveals one reality: Today, in northern Iraq there is an economically-strong, politically-stable and a well-defended Kurdish entity, with a population of five million.

Turkey has also hinted at its support for the possibility of Iraqi Kurdistan independence with the surprise remarks of Hüseyin Celik, spokesperson for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). In an interview, Çelik stated that in case Iraq gets partitioned, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan “would have the right to self-determination like other nations,” adding however that Turkey would rather Iraq stay united.

Turkey enjoys close diplomatic and economic ties with the Kurdish region with several energy deals inked by both sides. Turkey no longer sees Kurds as a threat; but as an asset.

Whatever the future may hold, the developments seem to play into the hands of the Kurds, who have emerged as important Middle East players .


Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the most circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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