Walking around in Ebril, Iraq, you can easily come across cues of a coming of a new tiny nation. There is an imposing Parliament in the center of the city, diplomatic missions of foreign states, soldiers sporting a non-Iraqi national flag and a separate national anthem. This is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, under Baghdad’s writ.
And the winds of change have never been stronger here.
In early February, President Masoud Barzani called for a referendum on Kurdish independence. “The time has come and the conditions are now suitable for the people to make a decision through a referendum on their future,” Barzani said.
The Kurdistan region gained autonomy within Iraq in 1991 after US intervention and was officially recognized by the Iraqi Government in 2005. The turmoil brewing in Iraq and Syria and the shifting borders may eventually come to fulfillment of a dream of Independent Kurdistan region that has remained shattered for a century after the signing of Sykes-Picot agreement (by which most of the Arab land after the fall of the Ottoman Empire was to be divided between France and Britain).
The neighbouring voices
Turkey has taken a stand against the Shiite Asaad regime in Syria and is a key supporter of rebel Syrian groups, and it has also been critical of support for the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) – an affiliate of the banned Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, back in Turkey, President Erdogan is trying to bridge the political and diplomatic isolation Kurds have faced in the country, as more of a politically correct move to assuage the growing domestic turmoil.
In Syria, the Kurdish faction is a divided house, divided in opinion and methods and united in cause of gaining autonomy.
This has both concerned and cornered Iran as an extended autonomous Kurdish region would block the trade channel that Iran uses to send arms and amenities to Syria and Lebanon.
The third major player in the region Iran, probably the only backer of Asaad Government, along with Russia, which wants to protect a key naval facility leased at the Syrian port of Tartous, which serves as Russia’s sole Mediterranean base for its Black Sea fleet. Both Iran and Russia had been critical of PKK’s activities in Syrian Kurdistan.
Birth of Kurdistan
For the birth of independent Kurdistan the omens have never been better. When ISIS raced across the Syrian Desert to capture the city of Mosul, barely an hour long drive from Ebril, it declared effacing the century old Sykes-Picot agreement, thereby diluting the boundaries between Syria and Iraq. This presented a ripe opportunity for the Kurdish Government and the Pashmerga militia to strengthen its borders and its claim on autonomous Kurdish region.
Unaffected by the Shia-Sunni divide which plagued Iraq, Kurdistan established itself as a more stable, prosperous and democratic region of Iraq. Kurdistan has established diplomatic and trade relations with major Arab nations including Turkey and Iran, along with United States.
The Turkish move of allowing the passage of two oil pipelines and one gas pipelines from Kurdish soil to its territories without taking Iraq into confidence, pave way for Kurdistan’s economic independence to metamorphose into political independence.
This was further strengthened by the Kurdish army take-over of the oil rich city of Kirkuk, a city long hailed as the Kurdish Jerusalem, the spiritual and political focus of a new state. Meanwhile, the collapse of large swathes of Iraqi army in Northern regions, created a vacuum which the Kurdish army Pashmegra, filled, thereby gaining 40% more territory than their original.
At the same time, the Iraqi-led Kurdish faction is patching up its differences with the Syrian cousin faction called Rojava, in the NE Syria. Rojava is in sway with Turkey based Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK). This reconciliation between the two factions, together with a ceasefire called between Turkey and PKK has improved Kurdish fortunes. This has also helped make Kurds emerge a stronger and a more united force.
The underlying fears
The climate of uncertainty prevails in the region and creation of a new state in the region could invite more voices of independence and could also prompt a complete fall of the Iraqi state into three factions – the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunnis, further intensifying sectarian conflicts.
Kurdistan is still far from economic independence; being a land-locked region it is completely dependent on Iraq or Turkey for shipping oil.
Any event of separate nationality will come with unwanted truce with Iraq; and Turkey with its long history of Kurd suppression may anytime turn its back. Since Kurdistan economic backbone is oil, this could take a hitting on nation’s prospects and dipping oil prices with no external support from Baghdad may sound a death bell to Kurdistan liberation.
Any given day, Kurdistan will have to prepare itself to take in the population of Christian Yezidis, Zeonists, Alawaihate tribes and other war refugees, who would cross borders to Kurdistan.
A redrawing of the Iraq’s map, would have great impact on the region, an independent Kurd state in Iraq (with huge oil reserves), could spark further calls of a greater Kurdistan. Turkey and Iran would be wary of these developments. Or this could bolster Iran’s move to get the Shiite part of Iraq integrated with Iran, and with that would come huge oil reserves to increase political dominion in the region. This would concern US and Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, the independent Sunni region, not under the whims of a Shia Government, would find a common cause with Syria’s Sunnis. This could restrict ISIS to Syria and to an extent make it vulnerable to International action.
Iraq was always a group of ethnicities put together in a box, the current violence has opened this closed box. The historical injustice was done in the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, when nations were invented and borders drawn in a conference, without appreciating the ethnic complexity in the region. Today’s war is a consequence of that injustice.
*Aakash is a social researcher working on development policies in developing nations across South Asia and Africa and has keen interest in political developments shaping the global landscape. He is also a widely published travel writer @ handofcolors.me