It is no surprise that the recent referendum in Kurdistan produced a crushing majority in favour of independence; no more is it surprising that the government in Bagdad refused to accept this result or even the principle of a consultation, as it said it would, and has begun taking measure against it, most recently by shutting off Kurdish airports from the rest of the world. On the one hand, the Kurdish claim has perfect legitimacy from a moral point of view no different than when Iraq and other Arab nations sought freedom from the Ottomans, then the Europeans; on the other hands the power play and stakes in energy supply make it all but fanciful that this will happen easily, or at all.
First to look at why Kurds are so adamant and so unanimous in their collective aim for secession. The obvious answer would be that Iraq despite being officially a multinational country is resolutely Arab demographically and culturally and that from a sectarian point of view, most Kurds are sunni when shiism is the dominant cult in Iraq generally. However the roots of disunity run deeper than this, especially in the memory of previous persecution by the Iraqi government, like the massacre at Halabja in 1988. More importantly the recent war with IS has shown that Kurds even as part of Iraq pretty much had to look after themselves; even the Iraqi forces fighting IS were actually divided up by religion. What is the point of being merged with a country that can barely show any national unity at the worst of times and can provide no more security than we can provide for ourselves? If that is the question, is it any surprise virtually every Kurd arrived at the same conclusion?
On the face of it this conflict, if there is one, should be short lived when one considers the relative strengths of Kurdish fighters, skilled though they are, and the much larger Iraqi army. But with civil conflicts, outside forces often play a larger role than domestic ones. So far, Israel is the only country that has taken a firm position in favour of independence. Russia’s position is less clear with vague and sometimes contradictory messages from Russian officials. The US, on the other hand, has joined Turkey and Iran in condemning the referendum outright.
The Israeli position is not surprising. It has been its policy to weaken Arab nations as much as possible and this is consistent with its involvement in deciding on the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and supporting insurgents in Syria. More specifically, the Peshmerga have been known to fight Hezbollah and to act as a sort of roadblock on the way from Iran to Syria and Lebanon.
Let’s not forget that Kurdistan is both relatively small and totally landlocked. This makes it practically impossible for it to survive against its neighbours’ will on its own strength. If it did become independent, with the help of foreign countries, it would effectively be a client of those states as long as it is threatened from outside. As it happens, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is implacably hostile to this move as part of his policy of containing Kurdish demands in Turkey itself and Iran is not about to accept an Israeli satellite on its borders.
This could explain Russia’s wavering stance. On the one hand, another armed conflict would not do any good to the investments made by its national oil companies there; on the other hand Kurdistan being a client state to it could be useful to its interests, given at the moment Iraq is much closer to the United States. What’s more there is the issue of competing pipelines in the Orient. A line starting in Iran and connecting with the Russian system (the “Islamic Gas Pipeline”) through Syria rivalling another project connecting Qatar to the western market. One of the reasons for Qatar’s policy of destabilisation in Syria was Assad’s selection of the Islamic Gas Pipeline over the other to which the alternative to rival Russia as a supplier of natural gas to Europe would go from Qatar to Turkey through Iraq. That means going through Kurdistan.
So clearly Russia’s energy interests are not so clear on this point. In addition, one can see how important it is for Putin not to put too much weight behind a doomed secession and because of the military difficulties Kurdistan would face in protecting its independence in the long run if the price to pay for betting on it is to chill relation with Turkey, Iran and Syria that is a lot to lose for a lost cause.
This is probably also why the United States, which does not have those energy concerns, has been opposed to the vote much more clearly. Not to mention that the most adamant enemy of Kurdish movements, Turkey, is the only Oriental power who is an American satellite as part of NATO and nobody there wants a fight within NATO.
Each side’s position are as rigid as they are incompatible so it is difficult to see how any compromise could be reached to avoid conflict. If there is a conflict, it will not simply be Kurds against Iraqis, which would have meant a short one, but a proxy war between the great powers of that region.
The curtain is not about to come down on Iraq’s tragedy.