A new non-Arab important actor may soon appear on the Middle East volatile map as the recent events testify. Only this month Kurdistan was visited by Ukrainian (headed by Foreign Minister), Armenian and Canadian delegations. The US team went there in October, Ni Jian, the Chinese ambassador to Iraq, was in Erbil by the end of August. Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a symbolic visit to Kirkuk on August 2, 2012, the first high level visit by Turkish official in 75 years.
Much to the chagrin of Baghdad, the visit consolidates Turkey’s acceptance of Kurdistan and the importance it now plays in stabilising the region. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry issued a sharp rebuke to Turkey for violating its constitution as they claimed that Davutoglu had neither requested nor obtained permission to enter Kirkuk. But with Syria provoked into turmoil and US troops out of the country, some believe that Turkey can offer the Kurdistan Region political protection, sufficient technical expertise and access to Western markets for its hydrocarbons.
On November 12, 2012 Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and a delegation of senior officials from the Kurdistan Region concluded a two-day visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran to promote greater cooperation in economic and trade relations. With the volume of trade between the Kurdistan Region and Iran estimated to be around $8 billion this year, both sides agreed to develop relations.
In early April, 2012 Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani visited the US to meet top officials, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Obama encouraged President Barzani to continue playing a “vital role” in the Iraqi political process… Barzani informed the US leaders about the current political crisis in Iraq and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s “disrespect” to the articles of the Erbil Agreement and the country’s constitution. He warned that if a solution were not found urgently, there was a threat that the country would head toward dictatorship. President Barzani also met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, no details released on the talks. He encouraged American business to invest in Kurdistan and launched the America-Kurdistan Business Council, which consists of American companies investing and operating in Kurdistan. Being a guest of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Barzani said in unambiguously that “if a solution to the increasing centralization of power in the prime minister’s hands cannot be negotiated, he may ask the Kurdish Region’s Parliament to consider a referendum to determine the way forward.” The fact that Obama received him alone and not as part of an Iraqi delegation significantly boosted Barzani’s stature as a Kurdish national leader.
Long before that, in January 2012 he made no bones about it in an interview with the BBC stating: “I like the Kurdistan Region to evolve day by day. But what I really wish is to see an independent Kurdistan”.
Kurdistan regional government (KRG) controls parts of Iraqi Kurdistan estimated to contain around 45 billion barrels of oil, making it the sixth largest reserve in the world. The prospects in Kurdistan have caught the attention of major oil traders, who are now prepared to risk Baghdad’s anger to gain a foothold in Kurdistan while the region heads towards greater autonomy. US ExxonMobil has made public its intention to sell off the Iraq’s West Qurna 1 oil field stake for the benefit of going to Kurdistan, where it had signed more lucrative oil deals. Chevron and Total oil majors have done the same. The move will exacerbate tensions between Baghdad and autonomous Kurdistan. Kurdish officials say they have a constitutional right to do so, but the central government dismisses the oil transactions as illegal. There is nothing to be surprised about because 60% of Iraqi oil is produced in Kurdistan. In October Kurdistan’s oil has begun to reach international markets in independent export deals that further challenge Baghdad’s claim to full control over Iraqi oil. The Kurds pay little attention to the Iraqi government protests, the real problem is infrastructure. In October trucks were used to transport oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan because the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline is unreliable often hit by explosions. So far, Kurdistan’s export volumes are tiny in comparison to its daily exports via national pipelines, moving around 1,000 tons of oil per day (about 8,000 bpd) to Turkey by truck, but deliveries are on the rise. According to Kurdish industry sources condensate volumes were expected to reach 1,500 tons per day (about 12,000 bpd) soon and more trucks would be made available towards the end of the year.
Military and political prospects
After the US invasion in 2003 Masoud Barzani took advantage of America’s support and refused to sign the Iraqi new constitution if the broad autonomy special status was not included. He managed to achieve his goal. The disagreement with Baghdad followed, especially related to the oil rich province of Kirkuk. Barzani warned he would struggle for independence in case no accord is reached. A clash bodes serious bloodshed; the Peshmerga’s strength is estimated to be around 200 thousand, a force to reckon with. So far all efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to bring the Kurds under strict central government control have failed.
There are 5.3 million Kurds in Iraq, about one sixth of the population of over 30 million, the majority living in Iran, Syria and Turkey with significant Kurdish diasporas communities in Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Russia, Lebanon and, in recent decades, some European countries and the USA. The situation in Iraq is quite different from what takes place in Iran, Syria and Turkey. For Instance Iran simply doesn’t recognize the very existence of Kurds as a minority, something aptly played on by the US and Israel.
Formed in 2004, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an Israel-supported Kurdish guerrilla group, wages armed struggle against Iran. The group had been carrying out attacks in the Iranian Kurdish Province and other Kurdish-inhabited areas, and is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party operating against Turkey. There were large-scale clashes with Iranian armed forces. In 2011 expected to reignite at any moment. Pursued by Iranian troops some armed formations crossed the Iraqi border with border tensions to follow. Like in the case of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, PJAK leaders say their long-term goals are to establish an autonomous Kurdish region within the Iranian state replacing Iran’s theocracy with a democratic and federal government, where self-rule is granted to all ethnic minorities of Iran, including Sunni, Arabs, Azeris and Kurds. The PJRK certainly doesn’t represent the majority of Iranian Kurds, at least not at present. But it’s a force to count with and it has destructive potential.
In Syria President Assad granted the Kurds citizenship and certain rights they hadn’t had before. The troops left the area where the Kurds live granting them a right to defend it. That’s exactly what they’re doing fighting back the anti-government Syrian opposition forces in the vicinity of Turkish border, something that evokes anger in Ankara. Turkey is waging an unrelenting fight against the PKK which is declared to be a terrorist, out of law organization there. The Turkish Kurds have no autonomy and have to fight for their rights. The Turkish tough stance against Syria has its ramifications. On July 30, 2012 Hurriyet published an article called ANALYSIS – Kurdish Nationalism on the Rise, by Semih Idiz devoted to the Kurdish issue in present day Turkey. It reads, “Prime Minister Erdoğan cannot have it both ways. Referring to Sunni Arabs who have risen against the al-Assad regime as “freedom fighters who are combating state terror,” but then turning and calling the equally oppressed Kurds who are making political headway now in the confusion that reigns in Syria “terrorists” is hypocritical.” The author adds as a wrap up, “”What makes it even worse is that Turkey will most likely be unable to do anything to prevent the emergence of an autonomous or independent Kurdish region in Syria, if developments in that country provide the Kurds with another historic opportunity, to complement the one they gained in Iraq.“
The question of Kurdish independence has always troubled the surrounding countries: none of them have ever wanted a Kurdish state. With war going on in Syria, tensions between the Kurdish minority may become a major geopolitical threat. As already mentioned Assad has transferred troops away from the Kurdish provinces. One should give the devil his due – so far Syria is the only state with significant Kurds population to achieve success while tackling the Kurds minority problem. If President Assad falls, Syria will splinter into religiously or ethnically homogenous mini-states, one of which will almost certainly be under Kurdish control. Coupled with the recent emergence of a relatively independent Kurdish region in Iraq, this would create something of a league of semi-autonomous Kurdish states between the northeast regions of Syria and Iraq. This combustible state of affairs alarms Turkey, which has waged a bloody, three-decade civil war against its 14 million Kurds. Although it has supported regime change in Syria, the Turkish government has fear of a greater Kurdistan, and can be expected to strenuously resist any attempt at Kurdish unification. Should that powder keg ignite, Turkey could very well drag NATO into a cross-border shooting war with Syria.
The US – Kurds come and go game has its own story. During the Richard Nixon’s tenure Iraq became friendly with the Soviet Union. The US began to fund and encourage the Kurds to fight for their independence against Saddam Hussein as part of a strategy to weaken the Iraqi regime and general policy aimed at containing the USSR. But just as the Kurdish independence movement was near to success it became clear that the stance was part of a political ploy, the United States didn’t really want independent Kurdistan, so the support was withdrawn. The story of US betraying the Kurds is described in the famous book by Stephen Hunter called The Second Salladin released in 1998. That’s a history lesson that should be remembered by Kurdish leaders dealing with the US.
The Turkish parliament’s refusal to join the U.S.- led coalition created to invade Iraq gave Iraqi Kurdistan a strategic boost. Rather than transit Turkey, U.S. forces parachuted into the Harir airfield, north of Erbil. The peshmerga participation cemented an enhanced relationship. Also enhancing Kurdish influence in Washington has been the KRG’s hiring of former U.S. military and political officials to represent them. The Kurdish participation alongside U.S. troops led the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to express a sense of entitlement. The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the new political tensions along sectarian lines have also raised questions over whether Iraq would split apart. Some experts believe that the US will only support an independent Kurdish state if Baghdad becomes hostile toward US interests in the region. The would support the Kurds if its relations with the Iraqi government worsened. If so, it would need the support of the Kurds as leverage against it.
In June 2006 the new Middle East map (1) prepared by retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters was published in the June 2006 edition of Armed Forces Journal under the title of Blood Borders: How a better Middle East Would Look. The map was a key element in Mr. Peters’ book Never Quit the Fight, which was released the same year. Although the map does not officially reflect Pentagon doctrine, it has been used in a training program at NATO educational centers like Defense College in Rome. Among other things it reduced Turkish landmass and featured a “Free Kurdistan” that included additional territory taken from Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Iraq was presented as just a fragment of what it is now, carved up to also include Sunnis Iraq and the Arab Shia State. The term New Middle East was introduced to the world in June 2006 in Tel Aviv by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in replacement of the Greater Middle East remaining much the same in substance. This project consists in creating an arc of instability, chaos, and violence extending from Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria to Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Iran, and the borders of NATO-garrisoned Afghanistan. The Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan appear to be stepping stones for extending U.S. influence into the former Soviet Union and the ex-Soviet Republics of Central Asia, the region termed as Russian “Near Abroad.”
Over the years, Israel has provided training, military hardware, and intelligence to Kurds in Northern Iraq, and since the 2003 Iraq war, relations between Israel and Iraqi Kurds have continued to grow, as both sides see that mutual cooperation to serve their best national interest. It is important to note that Israelis have generally demonstrated sympathy toward Iraqi Kurds, and historically there was hardly any enmity between the two sides. By and large, both Israel and the Kurds have at one point or another faced common hostility from Arab states. At present the Israeli army has stepped up its military activities in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region. In August 2011 Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles were stationed in Iraqi to operate against Iran (2). Barzani gave Israel the green light to deploy them in northern Iraq without gaining the approval of the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, which has no diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. Israeli intelligence agents and military advisers, equipped with special transmission devices, were reported to be sent to Mosul to train Kurdish security forces. President Barzani has reportedly agreed to the concession in return for the admission of a number of Iraqi Kurd students to Israeli universities. On March 25 the Sunday Times published the article called Israel Spies Scour Iran in Nuclear Hunt (3). As the story goes Israel is using a permanent base in Iraqi Kurdistan to launch cross-border intelligence missions in an attempt to find “smoking gun” evidence that Iran is building a nuclear warhead. According to Western intelligence sources, the Israelis have been conducting such operations for several years. These risky intelligence missions have been intensified to an unprecedented degree in the past few months. On January 9, 2012 in an the article called L’Iran défie L’Amérique (Iran challenges America) French Le Figaro ran a story of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad intensifying its activities against Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan (4). Former Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s father, was considered a friend to Israeli military and defense officials.
Kurdistan has all the trappings of a state: independent institutions such as the presidency, the parliament, the constitution and the armed forces (the Peshmerga – hundreds of thousands of seasoned troops) the flourishing economy and the diplomatic ventures. Real borders exist between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the Iraqi state. It also has the flag, the anthem, the language and a strong desire to create Greater Kurdistan independent from Arabs, Persians and Turks. But for that to happen Greater Kurdistan would also have to be a great unifier sharing power inside Iraqi Kurdistan and managing conflicting Kurdish aspirations in Syria, Iran and Turkey. This requires adroit diplomacy and long-term vision. The process of unification is a bumpy road. As mentioned above, the situation of Kurds in Turkey is different from that of Kurds in Iran which is different from that of Kurds in Iraq or Syria. There are also Turks, Arabs, and Assyrians to name but a few of the multitude of peoples in the region. There are also different religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Yazdani. Unification means getting together different groups with different backgrounds, cultures and visions. Besides the process has two options. A new secular, democratic non-Arab nation may appear to change the volatile Middle East picture. The other outcome is the emergence of a puppet on a string dancing to the tune of the USA, Israel and the West in general, an element the allies Great Game remix. Not all Kurds are adamant in their desire for cessation, there are those who find the very idea of cessation and partition of Iraq is a multifaceted problem with iffy gains.
1. The map published by Armed Forces Journal June 2006 edition as an illustration for the article How a better Middle East Would Look by Ralph Peters: http://www.oilempire.us/new-map.html
2. Israel Deploys Drones In Iraq. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bkVQh5CnRI
3. The Sunday Times. March 25, 2012, Israel Spies Scour Iran in Nuclear Hunt: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/sitesearch.do?querystring=”Israeli+spies+scour+Iran+in+nuclear+hunt”§ionId=7
4. Le Figaro, January 9, 2012, L’Iran défie L’Amérique: http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2012/01/09/01003-20120109ARTFIG00640-l-iran-defie-l-amerique.php.