June 20, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Questions About an Iraqi Kurdish Nation

• The internal and external environments have never been so conducive to the establishment of an Iraqi Kurdish nation

• Turkey’s recent support for Iraqi Kurdish self-determination removes a significant barrier, with focus now on the US stance

• Important questions remain, including oil, the status of Kirkuk, deep resistance from Baghdad and international reaction.

The title of “world’s largest ethnic group without a nation” could pass to another group sooner than many expected if the Kurds of Iraq decide to press for their long-elusive independence. It is by no means certain that they will do so, but the internal and external environments have never been as conducive to an Iraqi Kurdish nation as they are now.

As the Nuri al-Maliki-led Iraqi national government grapples with terrorists and insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and former Ba’athist groups, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is contending with a far different issue: whether the time is now to press for full independence, and whether the rewards outweigh the risks. If they decide to press for independence, Iraq Kurdistan would be the world’s 196th country—but there are several questions the Kurds will consider before making the decision.

Do They Wait to See if Prime Minister Maliki is Replaced?

Relations between the Kurds and Maliki are bad, marked by mistrust on both sides.  Maliki has gone out of his way to portray the Kurds as disloyal to the nation of which they are only one federal part, with what he deems illegal oil deals with foreign governments. Even in the face of the greatest challenge to his eight-year rule, Maliki is still not working effectively with the Kurds. The recent talk from Iraqi and US officials of replacing Maliki might improve Kurdish relations with Baghdad but serious obstacles would remain regardless of who is prime minister. Oil is at the heart of much of the recent tension between both sides, with KRG signing contracts with Turkey that Baghdad considers illegitimate. Any successor might be more amenable to concessions, such as providing more revenue to KRG and pay for the Kurdish security force, the Peshmerga, as if it were truly part of the national defense, in order to keep the nation from partition. Since Maliki has demonstrated an inability to work effectively with non-Shi’a groups, it might make sense to wait to see if he is replaced and by whom.

What to Do About Kirkuk?

After the Iraqi army dissolved in the face of an ISIS assault on the vital oil city of Kirkuk, the KRG Peshmerga filled the vacuum and currently are in control of the city. Kirkuk has long been a contentious issue in Iraq, with the half the population Kurdish and the other split between Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmen. A 2005 referendum to determine to which federal region the city belonged was never held. Ignoring the wishes of half the population would invite persistent strife and tension that the Kurds have largely avoided in their areas up to now. Responsible for almost half of the country’s oil output, Kirkuk is hugely important to both Baghdad and Erbil (the Kurdish capital). Will the Kurds cede military control over to the Iraqi army in the near term or will they hope for a de facto annexation before proclaiming national independence? Regardless of who is prime minister, Baghdad will fight to keep Kirkuk.

How Will the International Community React?

With a large and restive Kurdish population of its own, Turkey has long opposed the idea of an Iraqi Kurdish nation, fearing that it would lead to increased calls for Turkish Kurds to follow suit. In a significant change, Huseyin Celik, a spokesperson for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, said Iraq is on the verge of partition and “the Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in.” Turkish support is hugely significant. The US, which has very friendly and effective relations with KRG, has also opposed an Iraqi Kurdish nation, primarily because its opposition to the partition of Iraq after dedicating so much effort towards keeping it together, with lesser but meaningful concerns about destabilizing the region through which Kurds are spread. Given the current chaos in Iraq and Syria (home to approximately two million Kurds), with the success and stability of KRG, and accompanying Turkish support, fears of additional instability might be misplaced.

The US position on the issue will weigh heavily in any decision by the Iraqi Kurds but relations between the two will continue to be strong even if the Kurds push forward in the face of US opposition. Chronically looming in regional actions is Iran, Baghdad’s biggest supporter, which also opposes Kurdish independence. The KRG will need to consider Iranian concerns and reaction in its decision.


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