An independent Kurdistan might still be a winning bet

By on September 24, 2017

As it finally approaches the end of the hijacking of its own territory and State prerogatives by ISIS, Iraq is soon to be challenged again on its territorial integrity – and this time, victory looks more elusive. On September 25th, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will convene a referendum on the region’s independence – a process whose roots date back from the aftermath of the first Gulf War and which has only been accelerated by the recent events in Iraq. As government forces crumbled down in front of the jihadist enemy in 2014, Kurdish Peshmerga stood as the only military able to resist the take over, soon becoming the only reliable Western ally on the ground, while Iran took the chance to exert an even stronger leverage on Baghdad and on Iraqi Shiites. The KRG and its leader Massud Barzani seized the opportunity to gain on the battlefield a wider acknowledgment of Iraqi Kurds’ right to their own State, as Baghdad showed to have almost nothing to offer them to stay in a united Iraq. Today, with ISIS almost wiped out from the country, Kurds are eager to cash in.

For more than two decades now, the United Stated and Europe have flirted with the idea of Kurdish independence to gain leverage within Iraq, falling short, however, of a formal endorsement to full independence – the same is happening today, as Washington is trying to persuade Barzani to postpone the referendum, with no avail. Concerns are real: in an extremely volatile region as the Middle East, Kurdistan independence might lead to further fragmentation, leave an even more Shiite Iraq in the hands of Iran and attract the ire of Ankara and Teheran, both challenged by the political agendas of their own Kurdish minorities. Kurdistan is definitely miles away from the romantic image portrayed by the international media, when the Peshmerga seemed the only forces able to counter ISIS; its political landscape is far from being a liberal democracy, with power essentially held by two families – the Barzani and the Talabani – and their political outfits – the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, respectively. Many doubts, too, arise on the future of Kirkuk and its oil-rich province, claimed by Baghdad but occupied by Kurdish forces since 2014. Nevertheless, an independent Kurdistan might still be a winning bet.

Kurds could better serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq from outside rather than within the country, considering how little power they yield today in Baghdad as a result of decades of political segregation. The traditional opponents to Kurdish independence – Turkey and Iran – are harshly criticising any move towards secession, but might keep their very pragmatic approach towards the region even if Barzani moves ahead with his plan: Ankara is among the main economic partner of Erbil, as the Kurdish leader became instrumental in aiding the Turkish in their campaign against the PKK (Kurdish insurgent groups and political parties in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran might share the same goal towards independence and unity, while differing substantially on how to get there, creating rivalries and enmities). A lack of full endorsement to an independent Kurdistan by the West might leave the new entity in the hands of more troublesome bedfellows: just a few days ago Russia’s Rosneft inked a billon dollar agreement with the KRG for the construction of a pipeline from the region to Turkey. Moreover, having a new Muslim, non-Arab regional partner in the Middle East might compensate the West for the loss of Turkey, now too much of an unpredictable player to be fully relied on. With proper assurances in place – like a pledge from Erbil not to turn into a beacon of irredentism for the whole Kurdish community and guarantees on a friendly divorce with Baghdad – an independent Kurdistan could provide some strategic relief to the region, as well as a reward to a historical injustice dating back from the short-lived 1920 Treaty of Sèvres.



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