Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region is now looking to begin dialogue with Baghdad and has offered to ‘freeze’ the results of the independence referendum held in September after a string of violent clashes between Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish militias.
The diplomatic crisis between the central Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) had escalated into a physical conflict after the Iraqi Government, in a re-deployment military movement, reclaimed the all-important Kirkuk Governorate. Iraqi Kurds have seen a loss of half their controlled territory and their vital revenue source of Kirkuk oil.
For years the Kurds and Iraqis have disputed the right to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The constitution of Iraq does not include it as part of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, yet the Kurds insist that the central government relinquishes their claim; this is because Kirkuk’s nine billion barrels of oil would be the economic lifeline for an independent Kurdistan.
Kurdistan’s economy is cemented on oil, as they have been unsuccessful in diversifying their economy in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing, so instead depend upon oil for about eighty percent of their total revenues.
However, more than 500,000 barrels per day of KRG oil are piped almost exclusively through Turkey to the port of Ceyhan – this means Turkey holds overwhelming power over the Kurdistan Region. Many a time have Turkey threatened to pull the plug on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline if the Kurds break away from Iraq.
There is another problem Kurdistan would have to face: its heavy reliance on imports. Nearly ninety percent of all its goods and services are imported, mainly from its neighbours. A landlocked Kurdistan would see sharp spikes in prices and even shortages of basic necessities if its borders with Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq are shut.
Kurdistan’s status as an independent country would rest upon the military support of powerful allies such as the United States - Kurdistan’s enemies will be fearful to launch war if Washington is backing a Kurdish State. Yet the US has shown no signs of support for either side, with President Trump stating in a press conference that “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.”
This is more than a conflict between Kurds and Arabs. It’s an opportunity for Iran to expand its ever-growing sphere of influence in the region – a sphere which jeopardises America’s Arab allies and puts Israel at risk of a three-front war which Iran can trigger at any time it chooses.
Iran’s intervention in the many conflicts in Syria and Iraq and has allowed it to acquire a political and physical land bridge to Lebanon, where its Hezbollah auxiliaries operate, and offers access to the Mediterranean sea and therefore the many oil consumers in Europe.
A US-backed Kurdistan would put Iran on the defensive, giving ample leverage for a new nuclear deal to be struck and would see the decline of Iran’s over-extending influence. This may bring peace and stability back to the Middle East playground for years to come – that is, until the next pretender for regional supremacy rises.
The power-squeezed, cash-strapped KRG was a beacon for more than twenty-five million Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, but it will now have to answer to its people for the dismantlement of the century-old Kurdish dream of self-determination. Unless the United States formulates a strong pro-independence policy, a sovereign Kurdish state will never see the light of day.