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The Complexities of Kurdish Secession

Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

Statehood, however, will be not the end of the story but rather its beginning, both within Kurdistan and in the region.

Within Kurdistan, Kurds will have to address a government which is both disorganized and often acts in its own self-interest rather than that of its supposed constituents. That can be dismissed as an internal matter. Ultimately quality of government is an internal Kurdish matter, though, and one which Kurds will eventually resolve whether it takes months, years, or decades. Despite Kurdistan’s impressive development over the past decade, it still lacks basic financial infrastructure. That has helped ruling party members get rich because it enables them to better hide ghost employees or skim money from those under them who owe their jobs to their patron’s influence. Kurds might also need to standardize their language and alphabet, although that too is an internal issue.

Kurdistan’s formal birth, however, will also have international reverberations. While the West sees Kurdistan moving closer to Turkey, Kurdish leaders cultivate Iran as enthusiastically for balance. Whether the United States can sway the balance or not with bases of its own is an open question, although one which President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will defer given budget constraints and a lack of appreciation of American force projection abroad.

Then there’s water: The Euphrates bypasses Kurdistan, going from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq in al-Anbar. But the Tigris (or its tributaries) cuts across Kurdistan, traverses Turkey and forms part of the Syrian-Turkish border, before it heads into central Iraq. The negotiations over its flow were complex at the best of times, when the water only needed to be divided between three countries. A fourth will only add additional complexity. That’s not Kurdistan’s problem, as they get the water before the rest of Iraq does, but as one Iraqi told me in Jordan, “We Sunnis can make nasty neighbors if you make us mad enough.”

If Kurdish independence eventually spreads beyond Iraq’s current borders, the implications will be greater. Turkey, for example, is a NATO member. It hosts a major airbase in Diyarbakir, which many Kurds see as a future capital. Even if Turkey becomes a federal, biregional state, the implications are the same as Kurds there would seek a division of resources and infrastructure.

None of this is a reason for the United States to oppose Kurdish nationhood. But it should mean planning for the day, week, and months after. None of this planning or more than the most superficial considerations has apparently yet occurred.



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One Response to “The Complexities of Kurdish Secession”

  1. DAVID PATTEN says:

    The ISIS invasion of northern Iraq opened the door for the Kurds to take Kirkuk, which in turn has fast-forwarded the timeline for the Iraqi Kurds to formally declare their independence. So, unfortunately, I suspect Michael is right that U.S. policy makers have not yet begun to think through the implications of such an event. (Witness the unserious way in which experts still talk about Iraq: Just send the Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis to their respective corners since they can’t play nice with each other. Problem solved. Peace declared.)

    The Kurds should never have cause to doubt U.S. friendship, so I agree that it would be a mistake to stand in the way of their independence. But Kurdistan is a deeply troubled region that has held together since Iraq’s liberation largely on the basis of the KDP and PUK’s wise calculation to set aside differences and push a unified Kurdish agenda in Baghdad. (Contrast this course of action with the one taken by the Sunni Arabs who couldn’t unify and now have to choose between a central government they feel does not represent them and an Islamic caliphate that will destroy any hope for a better future.) But once the Kurds leave Iraq, what will be the unifying force keeping those tensions under control? There is a lot of bottled up intra-Kurdish animosity that will come to light. The Kurds have problems with corruption and terrible problems with freedom of the press. It is also unsettling that they will be dependent on the good graces of Tehran and Ankara. A robust U.S. presence will be necessary to help the Kurds transition to statehood. So we better start thinking about this now while we still have an opportunity to influence rather than just react to events.




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