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For Iraq’s Kurds, independence can wait

ISIS leadership did not foresee how big an obstacle the Kurds would pose to their campaign

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

When ISIS launched the big military offensive this summer, their leadership probably did not imagine the Kurds would prove to be such a force to be reckoned with. For 12 weeks now Syria’s Kurds, backed by the U.S. air force and more recently by Iraqi Kurdish Pershmerga and the Free Syrian Army, have held their positions in the northern Syrian town of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) despite being greatly outnumbered by the radical group. Last week in northern Iraq, ISIS's latest attempt to capture the key oil-rich city of Kirkuk was repelled by the Peshmerga and Iraqi military also supported by anti-ISIS coalition’s air strikes.

If ISIS leadership did not foresee how big an obstacle the Kurds would pose to their campaign, the independence plans of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) running the semi-autonomous region have also been put to test by the sudden ISIS military offensive.

Looking back, the Kurds’ strategy should not have come as a surprise

Manuel Almeida

In June, Kurdistan’s break away from Iraq seemed both inevitable and fast approaching. Iraq’s military and security forces (which the U.S. dismantled and then spent more than $25 billion over a decade to rebuild) vanished in the face of ISIS advance. With ISIS threatening Kirkuk, KRG’s President Masoud Barzani ordered the Peshmerga to intervene to take control of the city and most of the long-disputed territories between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad.

Internationally applauded

This move was internationally applauded as a sensible and much needed military step to curb ISIS’s advance and protect local populations. But many in Baghdad saw it as opportunistic for the Kurds to push for independence when Iraq seemed to be disintegrating. These concerns were vindicated in early July when Barzani downplayed the constitutional principle of unity of the Iraqi state and renewed the pledge to hold an independence referendum within a couple of months. Aiming at independence was also seen as an intentionally overambitious claim to use as a bargaining chip in the talks with the central government over the undefined status of Kirkuk.

Looking back, the Kurds’ strategy should not have come as a surprise. Used to brutal repression from successive governments in Baghdad, the Kurds have always tried to advance their autonomy and independence goals whenever there was a crisis or power vacuum in the Iraqi capital. This was the case during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, or in the post-2003 period following the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Yet the magnitude of the war against ISIS and the likely formation of a new government in Baghdad changed the equation for the Kurds. They had long been at odds with the authoritarian and sectarian government of Nouri Al-Maliki over oil wealth and national budget distribution, as well as the status of the Peshmerga forces and disputed territories.

Positive prospects

Facing the positive prospect of seeing Maliki replaced, the KRG acquiesced to the requests of Shiite and Sunni figures not to let their independence claims undermine the formation of a new government. This understanding was confirmed in August when Maliki was replaced by the more consensual figure of Haider al-Abadi and a few weeks later by the KRG decision to postpone the independence referendum.

Another factor slowing down KRG’s independence ambitions is the concern about its economic viability. Kurdish independence would mean losing access to central budget revenues that are key to pay salaries to government employees and the Peshmerga. It is one of the main reasons the two main parties in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have not been in the same boat when it comes to the timing of the independence move. Barzani’s party has been bolder while the PUK has called for caution. Certainly related to the PUK’s stance is also the fact that Fuad Masum, the current president of Iraq, is one of PUK’s founding members.

With estimated oil reserves of 45 billion barrels and over 110 trillion cubic feet of gas, Kurdistan is energy rich. However, selling oil and gas against the will of both Baghdad and the U.S. has also proved a serious challenge for the geographically landlocked Kurdish region. KRG did grant oil and gas concessions to leading international energy companies (Total, Chevron, ExxonMobil). To export its energy KRG needed a partner. A marriage of convenience was forged between a Turkey eager for new sources of energy and a Kurdish region desperate for a market. Over the last few years, Ankara and Arbil signed deals to build multi-billion dollar pipelines to export Kurdistan’s oil and gas to world markets.

Maliki’s departure

Maliki’s departure has changed things. Under his rule, Baghdad was withholding KRG’s 17 percent slice of Iraq’s oil wealth and taking legal action to bloc Kurdish international oil sales, while the Kurds were not sending any oil to the central government. Earlier this month the deadlock was undone, with an initial $500 million transferred from Baghdad to KRG and the KRG starting to pump oil to the state-owned Iraqi Petroleum Company in Turkey’s energy hub of Ceyhan. Talk of further collaboration between Arbil and Baghdad raises the possibility of a longstanding solution for the sharing of oil income among different regions, with great benefits for all sides.

The new Iraqi government and the preliminary agreement between KRG and the Iraqi government also opened the door to improved relations between Ankara and Baghdad. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Baghdad. A few days later, Iraq’s new oil minister Adel Abdul Mahdi praised the new pipeline linking Kurdistan to Ceyhan in Turkey.

With the changes in Baghdad, the ongoing threat from ISIS, falling oil prices and the financial cost KRG has had to bear with the refugee wave, the timing is far from ideal for KRG to hold an independence referendum of which there can only be one outcome. In 2005, 98 percent voted in favour of independence in an informal referendum held simultaneously with the first democratic parliamentary elections in Iraq.

In a recent event I attended, former President of Turkey Abdullah Gul’s answer to a question about Kurdish independence in Iraq summarized the international and regional mood about the matter: “it would be another source of instability in the region and it is positive that is not in the agenda for now.”

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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