June 22, 2014

The Kurds and Kirkuk - prelude to partition?

Following the June 10 fall of Mosul (al-Mawsil), Iraq's second largest city, to fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iraqi Army forces deserted their positions in the mixed Arab-Kurdish-Turkoman city of Kirkuk. Rather than allow ISIS fighters to take the city, Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga ("those who face death"), mobilized and took control of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas.

It was a godsend for the Kurds.

Kirkuk has always been regarded by the Kurds as their capital city. When the Kurdish Autonomous Region was established in 2005 - in accordance with the Iraqi constitution - the Kurds hoped to include the city of Kirkuk in that area. They have sought control of the city for decades, but have always been denied by the central government in Baghdad for several reasons.

The city has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs (Sunnis) and Turkomans. The Turkoman minority in Iraq has always enjoyed the moral support of neighboring Turkey, who have often threatened intervention in the north - which they have done at times - to protect the ethnic Turkic people from what they believe might be discrimination by either the Kurds or Arabs.

One cannot overlook the other reason the Kurds have been denied possession of Kirkuk - oil. Although the bulk of Iraq's oil fields and production facilities are located in the southern, Shi'a-majority, portion of the country south of Baghdad, there are significant oil fields in the Kirkuk area. Some of these oil fields are in the Kurdish zone, but a large portion are not - they are in or near the city of Kirkuk. (See my 2009 article, The Kurds make a play for Kirkuk.)

Now that the Kurds have taken possession of the city of Kirkuk, I do not see them giving it up. They believe they "saved" it from the ISIS onslaught as the Islamist forces moved east and south through Iraq, taking Mosul and rolling down the Tigris and Euphrates valleys toward Baghdad. The Kurds have finally achieved a long-time goal, and unless the Iraqi government in Baghdad wants to come north and try to take it back, it will remain in the hands of the Kurds. I don't see that happening anytime soon - the Iraqi government in Baghdad has its hands full trying to regain its composure after being battered by ISIS in the Sunni heartland.

By way of disclosure, I spent a significant period of time (was that sufficiently vague?) in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s working with the Kurds. I am a huge supporter of their efforts to gain Kurdish independence. The Kurds, all told, comprise about 30 million people spread out in northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. They are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country.

That does not mean that they have failed to plan for a future that leads to an independent state. Despite admonitions from the central government in Baghdad, they have negotiated international contracts for the oil produced in the autonomous region.

Realizing that the main pipeline for the oil production in the north runs through the Iraqi Arab areas south and west of Mosul - areas which will likely never be included in the Kurdish area - they built a pipeline to Turkey that ties into the existing pipeline to the oil terminal at the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The expected output from this pipeline should adequately fund the Kurdish region.

That addresses the Kurds in Iraq. What about their brethren in Iran, Turkey and Syria? Given the situation with ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, it would not surprise me if the Kurds in Iraq and Syria attempted to link up and create a state that includes both areas. Iran has not yet faced any crisis in the region in which its Kurds reside, so I doubt that Tehran will look favorably on an attempt to incorporate that area into a new Kurdish state. Also, that area in Iran is not exclusively Kurdish - many Persians and Azeris reside in that area as well.

Turkey is another matter. Over the last four decades, the Turks have been combating Kurdish efforts to gain autonomy or independence. Surprisingly, they have recently been involved in talks with Mas'ud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region. The Turks want a stable presence on their southern border. An agreement with a Kurdistan in what is now northern Iraq would provide that stability.

The Kurds want an independent state - the current crisis in Iraq may provide the opportunity to create one. I wish them success.