The near collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the onslaught by jihadists has given the Iraqi Kurds a powerful position to exploit, Alan Philps writes
Kurds emerge as key players as Iraq continues to smoulder
Since losing their chance for a state of their own almost 100 years ago, the Kurds have been the great losers of the Middle East region. And none have had a more painful history than the Kurds of northern Iraq, who were in more or less constant conflict with the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Now the wheel of fate has turned. The near collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the onslaught by jihadists fighting under the black banners of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has given the Iraqi Kurds a powerful position to exploit. For the first time, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has already carved out wide powers of autonomy, has spoken of creating his own breakaway state from the ruins of modern Iraq.
A few years ago, the mere hint of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would have united Iraq and its neighbours in opposition. Turkey, Syria and Iran all have significant Kurdish minorities, which they see as a threat to the integrity of their states. But Syria is engulfed in civil war and the chaos in Iraq has presented the Turkish government with more serious problems to solve.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visited the KRG this week to appeal for “statesmanship” from Mr Barzani in order to save the Iraqi state. Mr Kerry could hardly have done otherwise. Some 4,500 Americans lost their lives in the war that was supposed to create a strong, stable and democratic Iraq. The administration of President Barack Obama is considering how to prevent the collapse of the state that Washington spent so much energy trying to midwife, without sending the US armed forces back to Iraq less than two years after their withdrawal.
Mr Barzani has given no sign of backing down under US pressure from his suggestions of statehood, insisting that the Kurds faced “a new reality and a new Iraq”.
In fact Mr Barzani’s task at the moment is to sit tight and ensure that the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, who unlike the Iraqi army are professional and have a cause to fight for, can defend their territory. As the Iraqi soldiers threw down their weapons and fled before the ISIL onslaught, the Peshmerga moved into the disputed city of Kirkuk and are now in control of it. Kirkuk is seen by the Kurds as their rightful capital, from which Saddam Hussein exiled a quarter of a million Kurds in order to Arabise the city. It is also the traditional centre of the oil industry in northern Iraq.
Significantly, neither Turkey nor the US has called on the Kurds to withdraw from this flashpoint city. Such silence is likely to encourage Mr Barzani to play a long game, since events are conspiring to promote his people’s goals.
It is widely predicted that the Iraqi state put together by the British at the end of the First World War is finished and will be divided into three sections – a rump Shia-dominated state in Baghdad and the south, with the Kurds in the north and a Sunni area in the west and north-west, contested between local tribes and the ISIL jihadists.
There can be no doubt how bloody such an outcome would be, or how much instability it would cause, not least to Iran, which has a major stake in the preservation of Iraq.
On the other hand, calls for the embattled Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, to change his sectarian ways and form a new “inclusive leadership” bringing in the disaffected Sunni parties and the Kurds are just empty words. Mr Al Maliki sees himself as fighting for his life – literally – against foreign plots, rather than engaging in an experiment in grand coalition building.
The Kurds have made clear they are not going to help the prime minister. This is no empty threat. They are the kingmakers who have the power to resolve battles between the Sunni and Shia communities, in return they would get the post of president, a ceremonial but still important position.
If Mr Al Maliki were to step down in favour of a less tarnished candidate, the Kurds’ demands for rescuing the country would be steep – the right to export their own oil and receive payment for it (currently the oil receipts are required to go to the central government, which then returns a portion to the KRG).
The Kurdish government has a pipeline to Turkey to export oil, and Ankara is keen to use the KRG as an energy partner.
But the Baghdad government is challenging the legality of the export contracts and has stepped up the pressure by failing to pay the KRG its monthly budgetary allocations.
To concede the principle that the Kurds have a right to their own oil revenues would be humiliating for Baghdad, but arguably it would be a necessary cost to preserve the Iraqi state.
It is against this background that Mr Barzani’s talk of independence should be understood – as a bargaining position. What has changed the balance of power further in Mr Barzani’s favour is the fact that the KRG is now seen by Turkey – historically a denier of the existence of a Kurdish people – as an island of stability in a region in flames.
For that to continue, Mr Barzani would need to continue to prove his usefulness to Ankara. This involves acting as a moderating influence on the Kurds in north-eastern Syria, who have taken advantage of the civil war to declare their part of the country “Rojavo”, or western Kurdistan.
Similarly, it requires Mr Barzani not to inflame Kurdish nationalism in south-eastern Turkey, the focus for many years of an armed insurrection by the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party.
It may be too late to save Iraq. But for once the Kurds are key players in such a big decision, not mere victims of more powerful actors.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps