Set against the backdrop of complex geopolitical processes that are now taking place in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, there are complex trends towards the creation of new states. Most importantly is the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, where its leadership is constantly asserting its independence. As an example, very recently, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, told the BBC on its readiness to hold a referendum on the independence of the region in the coming months. According to the words of the politician, Iraq is already divided by the current crisis, and despite the willingness of the Kurds to participate in its peaceful resolution, the right to independence of the people is a natural and inalienable right. As the Associated Press reported, he called for “the establishment of an election commission and the preparation of a referendum for self-determination”.
Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to the Presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, quite clearly shed some light on the future policy of Irbil “Iraq is divided and we are dealing with a new reality. We are moving in the direction of self-determination and this process has already started”, said F.Hussein. He also stressed that the government of Nouri al-Maliki for many years has carried out divisive policies which have made current events unavoidable. According to him, after the extremist group of ISIS in June established control over the city of Mosul, the administrative center of the province of Nineveh, it has become obvious that the country is “broken into three parts”. The Kurd hinted that Kirkuk is now under the full Kurdish control and said that there is no need to discuss his transfer back to the Iraqi army. “The Iraqi army has disappeared, so for this reason we have filled the vacuum in order to protect Kirkuk and other areas …. The Iraqi army no longer exists …”
In many ways, the regions of Iraq that are under Kurdish control already feel like another State, separate from the rest of the country. The Kurdish north is an oasis of relative peace and secularism, Muslim and Christian communities living side by side, and where women play a prominent role in society and politics. Foreigners can obtain a 15-day “visa to Kurdistan” and on arrival there is no need for a preliminary visit to the Iraqi Consulate. Kurdistan, in the opinion of analysts, is intent on the broad construction and economic development rather than religious conflict. The Kurdistan Regional Government has reached further level of economic sovereignty, when the first deliveries of the Kurdish oil transported by pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and exported to international markets.
Since Iraqi Kurdistan received broad autonomy after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by American forces in 2003, the threat it posed to neighboring Turkey and Iran, who fear unrest among their own Kurdish population, forced the government of President Barzani to keep the idea of independence well in the background. But now, with new realities emerging in the Middle East, the Kurds are dreaming of independence; a dream for which they have fought for centuries, against the Ottoman Empire against the British and against the central government in Baghdad.
Quite naturally, the tendency of the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan to push for independence causes a confrontation among the various interested States. It is a rather interesting position by Washington that was announced in an interview with Fox News, the former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who openly stated, “Why wouldn’t we agree to cooperate with an autonomous Kurdistan … to ensure our presence in the region, where we can have a reliable base from which to operate and when necessary, carefully apply American power if we see a real threat to the United States?” According to M. Hayden, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are artificial states created by European diplomacy. He suggests that Iraq will be divided de jure between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lines. And for their part, the Kurds already realize that Iraq, as a unified country, no longer exists. “But just look at what the Kurds were able to do… They aligned their border. They managed to capture Kirkuk; they realized that it was the end game. They should now get the territory that they want, because everyone else will be frozen in its place, and the country, unfortunately, will cease to exist.
Although the former head of the CIA believes that the Kurds can ensure the interests of the U.S. in Iraq, Washington, which has lost an elementary understanding on the course of developing events, still calls on the Kurds to cooperate with the Iraqi army against the Sunni militias. And on this subject, the deputy press-secretary, Marie Harf said the United States will not have any direct support for Kurdish armed forces known as Peshmerga, if the latter will not cooperate with Baghdad. “We support the federal government of Iraq, with whom we have a relationship and to whom we give aid. But then again, we call on the Kurds, in particular the Peshmerga, to cooperate with the Iraqi army to jointly combat this threat”, she said. In turn, a Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby did not rule out that 300 advisers, rushed by the U.S. into Iraq to assist local security forces will cooperate with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, “As the president said, […] one of the joint operational centers will be located in northern Iraq. As far as I know the place has not yet been decided. But I think we hope that Peshmerga forces will contribute to this common effort”.
The Kurdish drive for independence is, quite naturally, actively supported by the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. It was not by accident that, his announcement came on the very day that the head of the terrorist organization waging war in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a statement on the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the occupied territories of Iraq and Syria. According to Netanyahu, to weaken the Islamists, Israel must support the aspiration of the Kurds for independence. This was the first public statement of the President in favor of Kurdish independence in recent decades.
“Kurds must have full independence in the near future, said political scientist, a Professor at the University of Salah al-Din in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in Erbil, Ali Radwan Badini. The – Islamists from ISIS just played the role of catalyst. But the Israeli Prime Minister wants another other force to oppose the Islamists, and therefore he expresses support for the Kurds”.
It is worth stating that the relationship between the Kurds and Tel Aviv has continued almost since the establishment of the State of Israel. According to some reports, Israeli instructors trained Kurdish rebels in Iraq, and in return they helped Tel Aviv in providing information about what is happening in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as well as on the internal affairs of Iran. Another remarkable detail, in late June Kurdistan for the first time delivered oil to Israel. And as was stated on June 26, by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “Iraq is disintegrating and it seems the emergence of an independent Kurdistan is a question for the near future”.
However, the Turkish government announced that it is not in agreement with any separation of Kurdistan from Iraq. Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Bulent Arinc, after a meeting with the head of the Turkish government, said: “The entire world knows our official position: Iraq cannot be divided, this weapon should be silent and no blood is to be shed, [militants] should not seize power in Iraq; we need to keep Iraq united”. The attack by ISIS militants has contributed to the growing fears of the separation of Kurdistan from Baghdad, as the areas controlled by Sunni groups, separated Kurdish lands in the north of the country from areas under the control of the Iraqi government forces in the south. B. Arinc completely rejected a call to Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to establish an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, stressing that “Iraq has the power and the constitution”. The Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan expressed his opposition to any form of an independent Kurdistan, but at the same time, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have established very strong economic and political ties.
Tehran is not pleased by the new plans of the Kurds, where with great caution all the developments in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan are monitored. The Ayatollahs are well aware that the trend for independence of Kurdistan, even if it only happens in Iraq will cause a chain reaction and instantly echo in Iranian Kurdistan. After all, no one nation in the Middle East, while not having its independence, has as many rights and opportunities for their own state, as do the Kurds. A single people, the size of which varies according to various estimates in the range of 30-40 million, with a common language, a common territory and access to rich mineral resources are all in line with any international laws for the establishment on one’s own independent state. Not surprisingly, Tehran with a special energy directs all its actions in order to strengthen the regime of Nouri al-Maliki.
It comes as no surprise that Prime Minister al-Maliki rejected the claim for Kurdish autonomy in the disputed territory and declared that holding a referendum on independence from Iraq would be impossible. According to the Premier, what is now the richest oil region of Kirkuk, being defended from the Salafi militants by Kurdish troops is really a basis for the transfer of territory to the Kurds. Earlier, according to Iranian media sources, the president of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, declared the possibility of autonomy. Also in his speech, al-Maliki categorically rejected any suggestion by the Kurdish leader on a referendum for independence in the coming months
It is indeed a difficult and thorny road to independence for the Kurds; something for which they have dreamed of and fought for centuries, and there’s no end yet in sight. The blood spilling events in the region and the policy of Kurdish leaders will show whether they will be ultimately successful in their drive for Kurdistan independence.
Viktor Mikhin, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.