Timing Ideal for Iraq’s Kurds to Declare Independence

Regional factors have arrayed in the Kurds’ favor. Things might not stay the same for long.

After almost a century of broken promises and political strife, the Kurdish population of the Middle East seems to be coming into its own. Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been essentially the only force to persistently enjoy success in combating ISIS and have provided enclaves of relative stability as their respective states have crumbled.

The Iraqi Kurds have been especially successful. Since the formation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region following the American invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds have essentially created their own state based around their capital at Irbil, complete with a largely autonomous income from oil sales and trade with Turkey. Due to a variety of domestic, regional and international factors, the time is now ripe for Iraqi Kurdistan to formally declare independence and sever the ties which bind it to Baghdad.

Domestic and regional disarray

Domestically, the Iraqi government has been hobbled by the corruption and blatant sectarian favoritism of the al-Maliki regime and further undermined by the collapse of the military in the face of ISIS. The Islamic State’s presence in the center of the country has further estranged it from Irbil as it is now impossible for the central government to project power in the country’s Kurdish North.

At the same time, regional powers are preoccupied by other issues and unlikely to intervene. The primary opponent of Kurdish independence has always been Turkey; however, Ankara is mired in a mix of domestic and external problems. The breakdown of the peace process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) poses a variety of threats to Turkey domestically even while the Turkish government faces a deteriorating security situation on its southeast border with Syria, where the fighting between the Syrian Kurds and the Islamic State threatens to spill over into Turkey proper.

These problems are compounded further by political and economic tensions with Russia stemming from Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last year and by the two countries backing opposite sides in the Syrian Civil War.

Turkish acquiescence?

It is also worth briefly noting that even if Turkey were not distracted by this host of problems, it is not clear that it would be in Turkey’s immediate interest to oppose the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Both Ankara and Irbil have benefited from good relations and increased trade, which have given Turkey access to Kurdish oil and provided the Kurds with a source of income independent from Baghdad.

There were even signs during last year’s election that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reconsidered his stance on Kurdish independence.

International preoccupation

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the main international factor which has worked against Kurdish independence is now less applicable. The United States, which has historically provided Irbil with aid and weapons, has traditionally encouraged the Iraqi Kurds not to seek outright independence due to Turkish opposition.

However, Turkey’s insistence on fighting the YPG instead of ISIS has placed Ankara and Washington at odds. This means that even if Erdoğan’s government should decide to oppose Kurdish independence, these strained relations would help prevent the Turks from using the United States to diplomatically pressure the Kurds.

Furthermore, should the United States decide to oppose independence for whatever reason, Washington would find it very difficult to impose its wishes. Even if the United States were not preoccupied with problems across the globe, the simple fact remains that Washington needs Irbil more than Irbil needs Washington.

In order to combat the Islamic State in Iraq, Barack Obama needs an effective local partner and the Kurds have repeatedly proven to be the best available option. Thus, while Washington may make some statements opposed to a Kurdish declaration of independence, they are unlikely to change their material support for Irbil.

Fleeting opportunity

Importantly, all of these conditions are transient. Given time, the Iraqi central government may yet regain control over much of the country and Istanbul and Washington will almost certainly mend the rift between them.

It is unclear when, if ever, a similar alignment of forces will be in effect to permit the low-cost independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Irbil thus has a powerful incentive to act soon, with important implications for regional security in the short and long term.

This story first appeared at Global Risk Insights, March 11, 2016.