The secession of the Kurdish Autonomous Region from the Iraqi state increasingly appears to be a matter of when, not if. It is already essentially de facto independent, as the Kurds conduct their own foreign policy and trade deals from their capital in Irbil with little regard for Baghdad’s wishes.
It is therefore unsurprising that early last month, Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, reiterated calls he previously made in 2014 for a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan.
While there are no immediate plans for actually carrying out such a referendum, it is worth considering the impact that an independent Kurdish state would have on the Middle East.
The formal independence of Iraqi Kurdistan would effectively signal the end of a unified Iraq. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Sunnis have been worried that they would be dominated by the Shia population. These fears intensified under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who sought to secure power for his Shia party and the resultant friction directly contributed to the defection of many Sunni leaders to the Islamic State in 2014.
An independent Kurdistan would overwhelmingly shift the population balance inside Iraq in favor of the Shia, making reconciliation with the Sunnis next to impossible. Short of a massive and unending occupation of the Sunni provinces, it is unlikely that Baghdad would be able to control western Iraq, leading to the breakup of Iraq in all but name.
Similarly, the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to inspire other Kurdish groups in the region which are seeking independence. This would probably lead to an intensification of the violence in southeastern Turkey, although it is unlikely that this heightened violence would succeed in taking and holding territory due to the strength of the Turkish state and military.
More important would be the effects in Syria, where the Kurdish PYG militia has carved out an autonomous enclave in the northeast of the country. The independence of their Iraqi brethren would likely encourage the Syrian Kurds to fight on for formal independence as well, thereby lengthening the Syrian Civil War and helping to prevent a negotiated reunification of that country.
Finally, it should also be noted that a full entrance onto the international stage will not solve Kurdistan’s historic domestic divisions.
The Kurdish Autonomous Region is split between two parties which control different areas and maintain separate Peshmerga militias and which fought what amounted to a civil war during the mid-1990s. While these two parties are currently in coalition as the government of the KRG, they are facing resistance from the Gorran opposition movement, which has staged protests over government corruption and President Masoud Barzani’s utilization of the fight against ISIS to justify extending his term by mandate.
A longer-term view
In the long run, the real question is how the Kurds will align themselves regionally. While Irbil and Ankara have maintained good relations in recent years, Turkey’s ongoing and historic problems accommodating its Kurdish population will make these relations hard to maintain indefinitely. This is especially true given the resumption of violence between the PKK and Turkey, which could serve to inflame Iraqi Kurdish sentiment against Turkey.
The other potential regional partner for the Kurds would be Iran. Aligning with Iran would not require the same sort of historical blinders as an alliance with Turkey, as the Iranian Kurdish population is much smaller and better accommodated than the Kurds in Turkey. To be sure, there has been occasional violence between Kurdish separatist groups and the Iranian state, but these clashes are inconsequential when contrasted with the decades-long struggle between the PKK and Turkey, which has cost upwards of 30,000 lives.
These systemic factors will likely slowly drive Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran closer. Iran already has a fairly positive relationship with Kurdistan — it maintains two consulates in the region and enjoys a fair amount of trade with Irbil.
Presently, any further improvement in relations is somewhat undercut by Iran’s support for the Iraqi government. However, following a Kurdish declaration of independence, this support would cease to be an obstacle, paving the way for closer relations with Tehran.
An alliance with Iran would benefit both parties. The Iraqi Kurds have been one of the most effective groups in combatting the Islamic State and would be valuable allies to Iran.
For its part, Iran has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use foreign aid to reward its regional allies, which would be especially attractive if continued low oil prices perpetuate the current Kurdish budget shortfalls. This sort of working relationship has already started, as Iran was able to provide the Kurds with additional weaponry to fight ISIS in 2014.
It may seem strange for the Kurds to abandon a decades-old arrangement with the United States to work with Iran, but it is important to remember that the historic cooperation between Iraqi Kurds and America has primarily been based on coincidental shared interests. American military aid during the Cold War waxed and waned relative to the fears of Soviet influence in Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively less important to the United States than it is to Iran, as the former has a host of other regional allies to call upon and is preoccupied by the need to confront other pressing problems around the world. As such, Iran should be able to provide more support to Kurdistan than the United States.
Given these changes in regional geopolitical dynamics, it would be strange if the Kurdish Regional Government did not reevaluate its priorities post-independence and ultimately move closer to Iran.
Thus, while Kurdish independence sometime in the near future seems likely, it is unlikely to result in a more stable Middle East. An independent Kurdistan will precipitate instability domestically and regionally in both the short and long terms by making extant states untenable and altering long-standing alliances.
This story first appeared at Global Risk Insights, March 16, 2016.