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The Kurdish Question in Iraq: Moving Forward

Austin Wayne Clark
Austin has matriculated at King's College London (Department of War Studies) for September 2015 and is the Horizons Senior Editorial Intern.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq is one of the most economically significant regions in the Mesopotamian basin, as well as one of the most crucial geopolitical theaters moving into the next decade. A lush region awash with vast oil reserves, as well as a significantly more stable security situation than its counterparts in the nearby provinces, Iraqi Kurdistan has a culture different than that of the remainder of Iraq. For instance, while transport in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, is recommended by route of helicopter for foreign workers between a few key safe zones (most notably, the Green Zone)—Erbil is a city where Lamborghinis can be found parked safely curbside. 

Although armed security forces can be regularly seen in military trucks, security incidents are isolated. This is especially impressive when one takes into consideration that until just a few weeks ago, the city center was just mere kilometers from territory held by ISIS. The planned construction of the Naze Tower, a 65 floor skyscraper, stands as a physical testament to this heightened sense of security. Heavy investment by foreign oil companies, including the Texas-based Hunt Oil conglomerate, sets forth the possibility of both job creation and revenue streams. While corruption does exist, and the profits are not always finding their way into the hands of locals; a stable security outlook as well as potential development of oil and gas reserves provides a much brighter future than other nearby cities—most notably Mosul, which stands almost as the antithesis to such positive prospects, highlighted by the burgeoning number of skyscrapers appearing on Erbil’s skyline.

Iraqi Kurdistan, while its history has been painted by oppression and even gas attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal Campaign, has a vibrant history of tolerance and religious coexistence. With a history of oppression by hostile Baghdad policy, combined with a stable economic and security outlook—it is of little wonder why there has been talk of federalization of Iraq, and even outright independence of the region from Iraq.

What then, are the options for an increasingly autonomous region which is already protected by forces that do not answer to Baghdad?

There are several issues that must be addressed when considering this question. Firstly, there is the hotly contested drawing of the Autonomous Region’s borders. Under Saddam, areas that were classically considered within the bounds of the “Kurdish Region” were harshly re-Arabized and culturally removed from Erbil. Thus, any attempt to neatly define this region well inevitably touch on the possibility of Baghdad and Erbil having to hash out what the future of an oil rich city like Kirkuk will be. Such a concept has already seen progress in the form of the Kirkuk Status Referendum, which stalled out in 2009.

Second, Kurds do not reside only in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds as a people have populations overlapping multiple international borders in Iran, Turkey, and Syria. This is particularly problematic to Turkey which has not only vehemently avoided granting the Kurds a region, but also has fought constantly with Kurdish groups such as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Thus any further definition of a Kurdish region opens the door to parts of neighboring Kurdish populations demanding similar accommodation from their respective governments. An independent Kurdistan would be a Turkish nightmare, and reopen old political wounds.

Furthermore, any further decentralization will also lead to debate about what to do with the stream of oil reserves from Kurdistan. Negotiations that were finalized in December 2014 put Kurdistan on its way to receiving nearly 17 percent of the Iraqi national budget in exchange for oil sent to the central government for export. While negotiations and the resuming of payments to Erbil shed positive light on the possibility of further discussion about the issue, it is hard to imagine Bagdad simply allowing 17 percent of its national annual budget worth of energy reserves to declare independence overnight.

With these issues taken into consideration, two major issues stand at the forefront of beginning a discussion about the future of the Iraqi Kurdistan. The geographic outlay of the region is disputed between the existing Kurdish Autonomous Region and areas beyond it in which Kurdish populations reside—which will apply international pressure to Erbil and Baghdad alike. Second, disputes over oil drawn from the region (and revenues from regions claimed by the Kurds prior to re-Arabization) will result in domestic pressure. While the existence of such hot-button issues already causes headaches for policymakers in Erbil, adding international pressure from a country so vehemently against the very notion of Kurdistan—such as Turkey (which has already spoken out against Kurdish independence)—would stand as grounds for heated international discussion.

With these internal and external pressures in mind, what are the potential avenues for rethinking Iraqi Kurdistan’s place in the world?

First, there is the very heated notion of Kurdish independence. Second, regions currently neighboring the Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah could be further officially integrated into the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Third, there is the possibility of federalizing the whole of Iraq—resulting in an arrangement where Kurdistan plays a partnership role. Fourth, there is always keeping with the status quo.

The prospects for outright independence, while logistically feasible since the Kurdistan Regional Government maintains security forces separate from the rest of Iraq, stands the highest likelihood of direct armed conflict. It is quite possible that given the right circumstances, Turkey could come to the aid of Iraq and possibly deploy military assets over the border. Irrespective of the arguments for and against an independent Kurdistan, this option poses an increased risk level for armed conflict.

Redefining the Kurdistan Regional Government’s authority in the constitution to include more of the disputed Kurdish regions could be done with less risk of armed conflict as opposed to outright independence. However any such redrawing of the map would have to be done in coordination with Baghdad. Not only must this be accomplished, but ISIS forces will have to be vacated from these regions. While this might appease some of the population on both sides, there is sure to be resistance internally from both Iraqi Arab Sunnis and Iraqi Arab Shia. This option likely could be carried out without excessive meddling from regional neighbors.

The federalization of Iraq, an option previously proposed by the United States Senate, poses an attractive option. Currently—at least on paper—Iraq is a federal state, although in practice the system is far from fully functional. Therefore a “federalization” solution proposes creating a fully functional and well regulated federal system. While such an arrangement could only be peacefully reached with extensive high level talks between the parties and external stakeholders, its results could stand more favorable for all parties involved. Iraq would not need to go under the knife, at least not formally, but the Kurdish side would gain a level of autonomy greater than what already exists. Domestic pressure regarding the splitting of oil revenues would stand as a stumbling block, but stands a still more attractive option for Baghdad compared to outright loss of the revenues. Giving the Kurds their own entity would not be the preferred outcome for a neighbor like Turkey, and the ensuing geopolitical battle could ensnare a vast diplomatic coalition of international governments. While federalization of Iraq would surely bring more international pressure than say, leaving the status quo as is, by avoiding outright Kurdish independence the path forward appears more politically feasible.

Thus other than leaving things as they stand—which would perpetuate a tense situation—a reasonable path forward that avoids military conflict whilst framing the contours of a political solution is the implementation of the federal model of governance in Iraq.

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