The geopolitical dilemma facing Kurdistan begins in California but may end via Estonia. Last year’s so far failed attempt to seek statehood was scuppered by what I call the Hotel California doctrine of international relations – you can check out, but you can never leave.
The UN upholds sovereignty and also supports self-determination. All major powers opted for the former but the only parliament that adopted a formal motion on the issue is that of Estonia, a country that knows a lot about big bossy neighbours and achieving freedom from them. Its motion affirms that ‘…it respects the territorial integrity of the Republic of Iraq, as long as preserving it will not bring along violent suppression of the human and political rights of the Kurdish minority in Iraq.’
The Kurds have long been an involuntary part of Iraq and their few years of cordial relations with Baghdad – the golden decade, as they call it from 2003 to 2014 – were bookended by discrimination, genocide and blockade. A friend says that Iraqi Kurdistan is perhaps the only landlocked country to be surrounded by sharks or, to mix metaphors slightly, what are commonly referred to as the four wolves: Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
They chose to return fully to Iraq after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 but in negotiations with Shia opposition parties before and after the invasion made clear that this was conditional on Iraq being democratic and federalist. These aspirations were enshroned in the new Iraqi constitution and endorsed in a national referendum in 2005.
However, key provisions were ignored or flouted. The main example of this concerned the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk, an historically Kurdish city and province that had been forcibly Arabised and settled by Arabs from the south in the 1970s. These territories were not vacated by Saddam when his forces unilaterally left the three provinces and established the green line that currently defines the Kurdistan Region. One province has since been divided into two and Halabja was formally declared as a separate one but still within the Kurdistan Region.
Article 140 of the 2005 constitution outlined a process of normalisation of populations followed by censuses and referendums, all of which were to be carried out by 2007. It has not happened. The constitution also embraced revenue-sharing, and Kurdistan’s portion was agreed as 17% but was never fully paid, along with other sharing of medicines, and military training and equipment.
Nonetheless, Kurdistan received enough of then higher Iraqi oil revenues to create a boom that boosted living standards and infrastructure investment and was also able to attract substantial international investment in its brand new oil and gas sector. It saw itself as The Other Iraq and was not only a formal autonomous region but came close to being a nation in all but name. Its leaders expended their political capital on stabilising Iraq and supplied key leaders including the President, Foreign Minister, Army Chief of Staff and others.
There was no substantial appetite for formal independence until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki unilaterally and entirely cut all federal budget transfers to the Kurdistan Region in February 2014. This prompted a push for economic independence through exports of growing amounts of oil via a pipeline to Turkey, now an economic partner
Maliki’s actions were followed in short order by the capture of Mosul and a third of Iraqi land by Daesh. Kirkuk was saved by the Peshmerga when Iraqi forces fled. The Kurds acquired a 1,000km border with Daesh, which attacked Kurdistan in August and took Sinjar from where they enslaved Yezedi women and massacred thousands.
After the liberation of Mosul, which had involved unprecedented co-operation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, which was allowed through Kurdish territory, the Kurdish President formally announced a referendum on independence, which had been delayed twice while the fight against Daesh was at full throttle.
The US, the UK and the UN authored a deal that would mean negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad with the promise of a referendum down the line. But it was either too late or too vague to persuade many leaders. And the vote went ahead, including in the disputed territories under KRG control.
There was internal dissent but it was endorsed by most parties and the reconvened parliament and then the dissenting parties, one of whose leaders told me it was the national consensus. And the vote of 93% on a 72% turnout proved this.
Kurdish leaders insisted that it was a mandate for negotiation and did not mean an immediate and unilateral declaration of independence. Nor, they said, did it finalise the status and borders of the disputed territories.
The ferocity of the Iraqi reaction was unexpected. It blockaded the KRG’s two airports and forcibly seized Kirkuk and other disputed territories without any international opposition. Iraqi forces, substantially bolstered by Shia militia which had been incorporated into the Iraqi Army and some of which answered to Iran, also seemed intent on taking non-disputed Kurdistani land.
A mixture of belated Kurdistani military resistance to those incursions, international pressure, and internal divisions in the Shia house in Iraq stayed Baghdad’s hand and there are cautiously optimistic signs of a settlement between Erbil and Baghdad, although the KRG is diminished for now.
The Kurds had counted on more international support given their decisive contribution to defeating Daesh and their continuing capacity to help stabilise Iraq, assist neighbouring Sunni areas, and use their deep-seated secularism and pluralism to resist extremist ideology.
Kurds often see themselves as betrayed and disposable mercenaries for others which sustains the common phrase that they have “no friends but the mountains,” where they often sheltered. That is less true given new roads now reach the mountains more easily for tanks and troops.
But the other eternal truth is their own deep political divisions and related dysfunctional economics hold them back. They have to reform the Kurdistani house either to make the most of membership of Iraq or return to seeking sovereignty as circumstances change.
The Estonian formula, with its echoes of the UN’s sketchy Responsibility to Protect doctrine, offers Kurdistan some hope of external aid to block Arab chauvinism and perhaps one day bridge the path between imprisonment and statehood. The influential House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s impending inquiry into Kurdish aspirations and British interests can also illuminate these issues. Kurdish questions have not yet been answered and remain of geopolitical importance to the future of the Middle East.