THEY are questions that no politician can avoid in what the international lexicon calls the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Is Kurdistan going to be independent? And, if so, when? Virtually all Iraq’s 6m Kurds would give an emphatic yes to the first question. But most would wobble and waffle on the second. Nor do they know exactly where the borders of the new state would run.
Many nations have declared independence in the past century: after Africa was decolonised; as the Soviet Union splintered; and often after civil wars (witness the countries that once made up Yugoslavia). And the Kurds have several advantages: a well-defined identity and language (close to Persian); a lack of religious strife (most adhere non-fanatically to Sunni Islam).
For the birth of an independent Kurdistan, the omens have never been so propitious. “We have waited long enough,” says Sirwan Barzani, a grandson of Mustafa Barzani (1903-79), the Kurds’ legendary leader whose descendants are in the vanguard of today’s fledgling state. “It has been a hundred years since we were divided between the four devils,” he says, referring to the regional carve-up of Kurdish lands after the first world war between the rump of Ottoman Turkey, Iran, Syria (then run by France) and Mesopotamia (run by Britain, and soon to become Iraq). “We will be independent within two years.”
Last June the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) raced across the Syrian desert and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second city, barely an hour’s drive from the Kurds’ capital, Erbil. IS declared that it had effaced the colonial-era Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria to create a new caliphate. But in seeking to break the states of the Arab world, IS may be helping the birth of a Kurdish one. The president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, a son of Mustafa, declared that independence was around the corner. For Iraq, he argued, had ceased to exist. “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us,” he declared. Masrour Barzani, the president’s most powerful son, who runs the security council and the pervasive intelligence service, is also thought keen to hasten towards independence.
“The situation after Mosul is completely different,” agrees Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister (and the president’s nephew). “You can’t go back to the same structure, the same system, because Iraq is now a failed state. There is no Iraqi nation. But independence won’t be offered to us, we’ll have to take it.” If the Kurds are diplomatically skilful, it could be achieved, he reckons, “in five or six years, maybe.”
Yet he is acutely conscious that a stable, independent Kurdistan can emerge only with the co-operation of its neighbours, especially Turkey, and with the agreement of the government of Iraq, such as it is. “The first country to talk to is Baghdad itself,” he says. “We have to convince them.”
His canny predecessor as the Kurds’ prime minister, Barham Salih, is looking forward to a time when IS has been pushed back. Baghdad must be “the anchor” of a new structure that would give the Kurds independence, he says. “The minute Mosul is liberated we’ll need to sit down and sort everything out.” The disputed borders between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq have been redrawn in the Kurds’ favour since the Iraqi army fled before the jihadists, letting the Kurds fill the vacuum (see map). Other leading Kurds vary over tactics and timing. But all think Kurdistan should, and can, become independent in the end.
The Kurds’ immediate priority is to fend off IS. When nearby Mosul fell overnight on June 9th-10th, a frisson of horror rippled across Kurdistan. The jihadists, rolling southward towards Baghdad, were soon up against a border with Kurdistan that stretches for more than 1,000km (621 miles), coming almost within artillery range of Erbil. In August and September they took the Sinjar mountain area, home to 200,000-plus terrified members of the esoteric non-Muslim Yazidi sect, and made assaults along the border with the Kurds.
The Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga (“those ready to die”), fought indifferently. They had not been seriously tested in battle for two decades, their equipment is out of date, and they are anyway better suited to guerrilla warfare. “It was a shock,” admits a former Kurdish minister. “Our morale was badly hurt.” Only speedy action by the American-led coalition, which bombed IS forces relentlessly, kept the jihadists at bay.
Even so, IS is still a menace, recently surprising the Peshmerga with a series of attacks along the front line near Gwer (half an hour’s drive from Erbil) and Makhmour. The Kurds, who secured the area thanks in large part to American and allied bombing, admit to at least 24 dead; the true figure may be far higher. More than 800 Peshmerga have been killed and 3,600 wounded since IS took Mosul—a heavy toll for a fledgling state.
The plain between Gwer and Makhmour is spookily desolate, save for the odd herd of goats and sheep. Arabs have been driven out of the villages they once inhabited. The town of Makhmour, retaken from IS by the Kurds, is devoid of life. Shops are shut, cars are few, walls are pockmarked with bullet holes. At the ubiquitous checkpoints surrounding the town, no one has bothered to paint over graffiti that still say, “Welcome to the Islamic State” and “Long Live al-Baghdadi”, IS’s “caliph”.
Holding the line
The Kurds have had notable successes. In the mountainous Sinjar area in the north-west, they have retaken the town of Zumar and the border town of Rabia, and have recaptured most of Sinjar city. IS may lose control of the road westward from Mosul to its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa, which is a lifeline for the jihadists. In the south-east, close to the border with Iran, the Peshmerga have consolidated around Jalawla and Saadiya, which they recaptured from IS in the autumn. And they have tightened their grip on Kirkuk city and the northern half of Kirkuk province (Tamim to the Arabs), which they seized in the summer after the Iraqi security forces fled.
But few independent observers think Mosul will be recaptured soon. Unless the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi, a Shia, can persuade Iraq’s alienated Sunni Arabs that they will be given a fairer deal, it will fail to motivate a retrained national army to retake the city. Despite reports that IS is losing popularity in the city as supplies and services begin to dry up and its brutality palls, the Sunni majority in the city is unlikely to welcome as liberators the Shia militias, still the basis of Mr Abadi’s armed forces, which they consider to be just as murderous as IS.
As for the Kurds, they say they will back up Iraqi forces seeking to retake Mosul but will not be the spearhead. Their aim is defensive: to secure their borders with the rest of Iraq, especially those they have expanded since the summer, but not to help Baghdad restore the status quo ante.
The Iraqi Kurds also want to bolster their cousins in what they call Rojava, a Kurdish-populated north-eastern salient of Syria. Rojava is under the sway of a party with links to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has recently been patching up long-standing differences with Iraq-based Kurdish parties. And they are keen to help Kurds farther west in Kobane, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, from which IS has recently been ejected. A rapprochement between Iraq’s Kurds and the PKK, together with the current ceasefire between the PKK and Turkey, has improved Kurdish fortunes elsewhere (see article), though tension between the Kurdish rivals persists in parts of Rojava and in the Sinjar area.
The Kurds’ most pressing military needs, apart from Western air support against IS, are training and equipment, especially anti-tank weapons and artillery. France and Britain have sent advisers. Germany has provided some MILAN anti-tank guided missiles and has promised hundreds more. The Americans have promised 25 Humvee armoured vehicles. But, as a Western official puts it, “Our job is to prop up the Kurds but also to stop them from becoming independent,” while urging the Baghdad government to put Iraq together again. Arming the Kurds too well might egg them on, once IS is defeated, to attack Iraqi forces in a bid to secede for good.
Hence all new arms to the Kurds must go via Baghdad, since Western governments accept that Iraq’s government still has sovereignty over the Kurdish region. “It’s ridiculous,” says Nechirvan Barzani. But even a modest roundabout supply is a lot better than nothing.
In another respect, however, the Kurds should get their own way—over oil, which could enable economic independence. For ten years the regional government in Erbil has argued bitterly with the authorities in Baghdad over how to share the revenue from oil and what laws should apply to old wells and new ones. A year ago the Baghdad authorities stopped sending Erbil its 17% share of the national budget, a portion roughly commensurate with the Kurds’ share of the total population, which had been agreed to long ago.
But in December, thanks in part to Baghdad’s dire need for Erbil’s military help against IS, a deal was struck that lets the Kurds export oil from their own territory through a new pipeline connecting to an old one to Turkey, as long as they send the revenue from 250,000 barrels a day back to Baghdad. The Kurds hope to be producing 800,000 barrels a day by the end of this year, and 1m by 2017. They should profit handsomely—though they complain that the government in Baghdad has been slow to honour the deal, as falling oil prices play havoc with its budget.
Put that in your pipeline
The Baghdad government seems also to have accepted that the Kurds can sell their oil on the open market via the Turkish terminal at Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean. For years its oil ministry had refused to let them do so. At first Baghdad tried to sue oil traders who sold Kurdish oil this way, but at least 40 tankers have now taken on the stuff at Ceyhan and have sold it on, a lot of it via the Israeli port of Ashqelon. (The Israelis have long regarded an independent Kurdistan as a useful potential ally.) Moreover, since the Peshmerga expanded the Kurds’ zone of control deeper into Kirkuk province to the south after the Iraqi army fled from IS, they are now upgrading a pipeline to pump Kirkuk’s abundant oil northward to join the flow to Turkey.
But Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy is still a rentier one, based almost solely on oil. It sorely needs to diversify. Banking, commercial law and basic services such as the post are all rudimentary. Corruption is rife. The two families that dominate the two main political parties, the Barzanis and the Talabanis, dominate business, too. Sirwan Barzani owns Korek, the main cell phone company. The prime minister owns Rudaw, the main television channel.
Nonetheless, the Kurdish economy is incomparably livelier than that of the area controlled by Baghdad, let alone Mosul. The Kurds welcome foreigners. Above all, it is far safer than the rest of Iraq—though a suicide-bomber blew himself up, killing five other people, opposite the Erbil governor’s office in November, and there are worries that several hundred Kurds have gone to Mosul and may return as jihadists.
Moreover, despite corruption, nepotism and feudal habits, Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys a level of democracy that should be envied in most of the Arab world. The two main parties—the Barzanis’ Democratic Party and the Talabanis’ Patriotic Union—currently rule in coalition, but remain rivals for power and influence. A third party, Gorran, meaning “Change”, which recently emerged from the Talabanis’ party, promises to increase choice, though it has now joined the ruling coalition, somewhat blunting its purpose. Two Islamist parties have been brought into government too, further emasculating the opposition.
In 2005 Kurds were asked in a referendum to opine on two statements: “I want Kurdistan to stay as part of Iraq,” and “I want Kurdistan to be independent.” Nearly 99% voted for the second. It is hard to believe the verdict would differ today.
Will the neighbours be nice?
If the landlocked Iraqi Kurds are to win statehood by peaceful means, plainly they must reach an accommodation with their neighbours. Their biggest new hope on this score is the transformation of their once-scratchy relations with Turkey. Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister, emphasises friendship with Turkey and Masoud Barzani, the president, gets on well with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president. Annual bilateral trade now exceeds $8 billion and 100,000 Turks are reckoned to be working in Iraqi Kurdistan. They built the snazzy new airport in Erbil, where Americans and Europeans, among others, can enter without a visa. Turkey is easily the region’s leading investor. “It’s amazing,” says Mr Salih. “Who would have thought it five years ago?”
But of course things could still go wrong. Mr Salih also notes that Turkey has “golden handcuffs” over Kurdish oil exports. “We must not exchange one dependency for another,” he says. “We need three pipelines.” The Kurds must square the governments in Iran and Baghdad as well as in Turkey if they are to fulfil their dream. He and other Kurdish leaders still doubt whether Turkey would let them break entirely free. Hence some of them talk of confederation with Baghdad, perhaps as a way-station to independence.
Syria and Iran, the Iraqi Kurds’ other neighbours, are less predictable. But their co-operation, though it would be useful, is less vital. Whatever kind of country emerges from the wreckage of Syria is unlikely to let the Kurds of Rojava, in the north-east, break off or join up with Iraqi Kurdistan. But they are not bidding for that. They, too, want autonomy. When peace eventually returns to Syria, Rojava could perhaps be part of a Syrian federation.
As for Iran under its ayatollahs, it has perfectly good relations with Iraq’s Kurds, warmed by discreet diplomacy and brisk cross-border trade. At the same time the ayatollahs still suppress the PKK’s currently quiescent sister-movement, known by its Kurdish initials, PJAK, which has a haven in the mountain borderland of north-eastern Iraq. Like its Syrian counterpart, PJAK tends to echo whatever the PKK says, so it too now demands only autonomy.
Iraqi Kurdistan exists, in whatever form, in dangerous and shifting surroundings. But that has been the case since 1991, when it first got extreme autonomy, thanks to the no-fly zone imposed by America and its allies. Since then, it has steadily entrenched itself as the rest of Iraq has fallen apart, especially after IS grabbed a chunk of it. Never before has Turkey been so friendly to Iraq’s Kurds. Never before has the government in Baghdad needed the co-operation of the Kurds in Erbil so badly. Now, surely, is the Kurdish moment.