This Is Not the Time for an Independent Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurds have enough problems. Breaking away from Baghdad would just make things worse.

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Many have wondered when Iraqi Kurdistan, which already enjoys broad autonomy from Baghdad, might finally declare independence. The present moment doesn’t seem particularly auspicious for a separation: War with the Islamic State, low oil prices, sclerotic governance, and near-bankruptcy have caused political and economic turmoil as severe as any that Kurdistan has faced over the last decade.

Nevertheless, for some months now, Masoud Barzani, the president of the region (which is also known as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, or KRI), has been pushing for outright independence. Since late last year, he has directed his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to work with its political counterparts to prepare for a referendum on the question.

Meanwhile, just to the northwest, across the border with Turkey, the Turkish state and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have revived their longstanding conflict. Since peace negotiations collapsed last fall, the PKK has entrenched its forces in urban areas, attacked military and police forces, downplayed civilian casualties as collateral damage, and sabotaged valuable pipeline infrastructure. In return, the Turkish military has waged a bruising counterinsurgency, exacting a massive toll on life across southeast Turkey.

The PKK has little in common with Barzani’s conservative KDP, which in recent years has pursued a policy of close relations with Ankara. Yet the Kurdish militants in Turkey have a profound impact on the political fortunes of their fellow Kurds across the border. The Iraqi Kurdish economy, which is heavily dependent on the export of natural resources, needs Turkey for access to international markets. If it splits from Baghdad, an independent Kurdistan would rely on its Turkish benefactors even more than it already does. As long as the violence in Turkey continues, the oil and gas pipelines that are the backbone of KRI-Turkey economic relations remain insecure — and the primary vehicle for KRI’s economic solvency operates only with the continued benevolence of the PKK. Instead of politically expedient campaigning for independence, Barzani and his party would do well to focus on the KRI’s daunting challenges: economic reform, military strategy, and a renewed relationship with Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s dependence on Turkey is the direct result of its steadily worsening relationship with Baghdad. From 2007 through 2010, the KRI sought to oversee its own oil exploration and production, but selling it autonomously was an impossible dream. The KRI was perfectly content to sell its oil through Baghdad and receive its negotiated 17 percent share of the Iraqi state budget.

Over the years, however, the Kurds’ relationship with the central government became ever more mistrustful and transactional. The KRI stopped selling oil through Baghdad when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ceased payments to international oil companies working in the region. The Kurds and Baghdad resolved to resume sales in early 2011, but the relationship remained unstable. Maliki refused to fund Kurdish Peshmerga forces out of the national budget, and repeatedly cut the Kurds’ 17 percent payment.

The failure to enshrine a national hydrocarbon law led the KRI to explore autonomous sales and export, and in late 2013, a new export pipeline finally enabled it to do so. When Baghdad retaliated against the first autonomous oil sales in 2014 by ceasing all payments to the Kurdistan region, Turkey became an indispensible partner. The Iraqi Kurds sold oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan and a Turkish state-owned bank processed the transactions.

In parallel, the relationship between Masoud Barzani and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan deepened. Building on the economic ties cultivated since 2007, Erdogan attended the opening of the Turkish consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan and of the Erbil International Airport in 2011. In 2013, Barzani and Erdogan made a historic joint visit to Diyarbakir — the sentimental apex of revived negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK.

The Turkish government and Barzani’s KDP also found a measure of alignment in the Syrian conflict, since both opposed the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK’s Syrian affiliate. Where Erdogan viewed the PYD as a mere extension of the reviled PKK, Barzani’s KDP clashed with both groups over political influence in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq. It also feels threatened by U.S. support for the PYD — which, in Barzani’s view, jeopardizes the KRI’s preeminence as the only Kurdish entity that has a strategic relationship with the U.S.

Thus, under the leadership of Barzani’s party, Iraqi Kurdistan has made Turkey its foremost partner. What would have shocked many as recently as 2009 has become simple fact in 2016.

Yet all is not well in the KRI. The mid-2014 tumble in oil prices exacerbated the region’s economic turmoil. Having never remedied its overreliance on oil profits, its overweight public sector, and corrupt political patronage, the KRI hurtled toward insolvency. Delays and cutbacks in public sector salaries engendered widespread resentment, resulting in periodic street protests in Sulaimani, which turned violent last October.

The government in Erbil instituted austerity measures and began much-belated talk of structural reform. But the economic crisis is accompanied by a political one. Last August, Barzani’s term as president legally ended, with no succession plan in place. His term had already been extended in 2013 through a political compromise between the KDP and its foremost political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Since the extension, though, the Gorran Movement ( “Movement for Change”), a reformist group opposed to the two main parties’ hold on power, had supplanted the PUK as Iraqi Kurdistan’s second party.

The KDP argued that the extenuating circumstances of war with the Islamic State and economic crisis merited another extralegal extension, but Gorran proved less accommodating than the PUK. With equal measures of principle and grandstanding, parliament speaker Yusuf Mohammed and his Gorran parliamentarians insisted that any further extension would be illegal. Gorran proposed early elections, despite the Kurdish elections commission’s insistence that it would need six months to prepare. With Mohammed unwilling to assert his own claim as acting president per the Kurdish constitution, negotiations offered the only way forward.

The KDP raised the stakes in October when its security forces barred Mohammed from entering the capital and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani sacked Gorran’s ministers from the coalition government. Gorran remains steadfast against an extension of Barzani’s presidency, and the political crisis has remained deadlocked ever since.

Meanwhile, President Barzani has renewed calls for a referendum on independence. In KDP leadership meetings in December, he instructed his party to work with the other parties toward a referendum, and he has reiterated those calls since. Barzani’s timing seemed convenient enough that veteran journalist Amberin Zaman asked him in a recent interview whether the referendum call was sincere or a mere gambit to leverage nationalist fervor and distract from domestic crises. Barzani countered with pathos. “Do you really believe that I would instrumentalize such a critical issue … just to advance my own political future?” One might be forgiven for making just that assumption.

Though independence would satisfy the Iraqi Kurds’ ardent nationalism, it would create a host of new challenges. Disputed territories, contested resources, devolution of Iraqi power and responsibility, and a redefined relationship between Baghdad and Erbil are only the top of a long list. Kurdistan will also face a radical shrinking of its domestic market — from more than 35 million Iraqis to just its own citizens, who number 6 million. Baghdad and Erbil might divorce harmoniously, but it is at least as likely that the separation would produce internal barriers. In the near term, Kurdistan would become even more dependent on its natural resources and its cross-border trade with Turkey for solvency and survival.

While Turkey’s negotiations with the PKK progressed, the KRI benefited immensely. Both formal and informal trade flourished. By September 2015 — just before Turkey’s clashes with the PKK resumed — the KRI was pumping more than 600,000 barrels per day to Ceyhan.

But goodbye to all that. PKK affiliates entrenched themselves in urban areas of southeastern Turkey, and the government countered with a grinding military counterinsurgency that has displaced populations, razed towns, and disrupted every aspect of daily life in the country’s heavily Kurdish southeast.

On February 18th, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline that transports Iraqi Kurdish crude was sabotaged. The pipeline would remain offline for weeks, costing the KRI — already reeling from low prices and near-bankruptcy — huge sums of money. The PKK denied responsibility, but the KRI and Turkey believe otherwise. The attack does have the look of an old PKK tactic revived.

It is hard not to see the PKK as sending a message to the KRI and Turkey. The militants have long opposed friendlier relations between the Barzani and Erdogan governments. The attacks are a reminder that the PKK — and its local supporters — remain entrenched between the KRI and Turkey, making life potentially difficult for the Iraqi Kurds.

It is fair to question what KRI independence would mean in the context of this enduring violence. How viable is a landlocked state that is dependent on exporting natural resources through a corridor plagued by violent conflict? An end to the clashes between Turkey and the PKK and the two sides’ return to the negotiating table are squarely in the KRI’s interest. Yet by investing only in its relationship with the Erdogan government, the KRI has reduced what little sway it might have had in brokering an end to the violence that undermines its objectives.

The KRI can take important steps to better position itself as a facilitator in the Turkey-PKK conflict. Barzani’s government should acknowledge the PYD’s preeminence in Syrian Kurdistan to diminish mistrust between the parties. The KRI should deescalate its overt hostilities with the PKK and seek opportunities to encourage both the militants and the Erdogan government to resume peace negotiations. Barzani should also consider reengaging with the government in Baghdad, which must remain an essential regional partner. Instead, he has pressed forward with his call for independence — a move that necessitates hewing close to the Turkish government.

The irony is that Barzani has long fantasized of becoming a leader who inspires the reverence and admiration reserved for his father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the founding father of Kurdish nationalism. How better to attain that hallowed stature than by helping achieve historic agreements among Turkey, the PKK, and the PYD — instead of chasing hasty, misbegotten dreams of independence?

In the photo, a member of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces stands guard in a post bearing the colors of the Kurdish flag in Khazir, in Iraqi Kurdistan, on April 12.

Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Dov Friedman is a specialist on Turkey and Kurdistan. He serves as U.S. director for Middle East Petroleum, a British-Turkish energy company. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the positions of his employer. Follow Dov on Twitter: @dovsfriedman.