A Decisive Year for Iraqi Kurds

The risks are high, but an independent Kurdish state is within reach of a fractious leadership.

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag in the northern Iraq, Ninawa province, Aug. 6, 2012. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

A peshmerga soldier with the Kurdistan flag in the northern Iraq, Ninawa province, Aug. 6, 2012. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

It’s been a long and painful century for Kurds. In the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Britain and France, as victorious powers in the First World War, redrew the borders of the present-day Middle East dividing the Kurds between Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. In Iraq over the ensuing decades, superpower politics condemned generations of Iraqi Kurds to brutal oppression, forced displacement, and even genocide under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

In an ironic twist of fate, the interests of the Kurds have now aligned with that of major global powers. Kurdish forces are at the forefront of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In northern Syria, the Kurds, long subjected to harsh discriminatory policies under the Al-Assad dynasty that rendered many of them stateless by depriving them of citizenship rights, are now for the first time in a century in charge of their affairs and an important actor to reckon with. In northern Iraq, Kurdish forces, from their regional capital in Erbil, have been able to militarily secure almost all the lands they have historically claimed. They are closer than ever to the possibility of an independent nation-state.

Traveling along the northern border between Iraq and Syria, Kurdish military outposts dot the landscape on both sides of the frontier. It’s a testament to a watershed moment in the region’s history that has seen the collapse of once-powerful states, Iraq and Syria, that also happened to be brutal oppressors of the Kurds. The anticipated demise of ISIS is expected to give rise to new realities. Many wonder if, unlike a century ago, the Kurds are going to be among the victors in the war against ISIS and finally realize their national aspirations. Indeed, thanks to their control over an extended and largely homogenous swathe of territory, Iraqi Kurds are poised to gain from ISIS’s collapse in the Mosul region.

The Iraqi state in its current form appears to be too weak to take on the Kurds, although that might not last for long, as Baghdad has been slowly but steadily regaining strength and its military capabilities. Overall, surrounded by hostile states, carving out an independent Kurdistan is a highly challenging task. Iran’s backing for Baghdad will only complicate matters further for the Kurds. Iraq’s northern neighbor, Turkey has been sending mixed signals. Officials in Erbil and Ankara have grown even closer in recent years due to energy transport and supply deals. At times, Turkey appears to encourage Iraqi Kurdish statehood. Authorities in Ankara raised the Kurdistan flag when Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, visited last February, yet opposed that same flag officially being raised in the ethnically mixed province of Kirkuk in Iraq.

To make matters worse, Kurds have been unable to figure out a cure to their longstanding scourge of disunity. So far Barzani has failed to unite the Kurds around the cause of independence. The legacy of past internal fighting among family-centered parties, ego-driven rivalries, and ever-present interference by regional powers such as Iran and Turkey have plunged Iraqi Kurdistan into a state of disarray over the past couple of years. It also doesn’t help that the aging elites from the two ruling Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, plagued by corruption and authoritarian tendencies, are largely out of touch with the aspirations of their young population. If Kurdish leaders in Erbil fail to restore a reasonable degree of order to their divided house, it is difficult to fathom how they can make much of the historic opportunity arising before them.

One thing is clear: there is no love lost between Erbil and Baghdad. It appears that after a century of Kurdish-Baghdad relations, the same vicious pattern keeps manifesting itself in different forms and to varying intensities. History shows that as soon as Baghdad feels powerful enough, it will not hesitate to reclaim control over Kurdistan, no matter how. Even though there was hope that Iraq might take a new path altogether after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki opted for bellicosity as soon as U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 and deployed military divisions to undermine Kurdish power in places such as Kirkuk and Nineveh.

Given the long history of distrust, what is the path forward for Kurds in Iraq? Many Kurds have pinned hopes on President Donald Trump’s administration to back their bid for statehood. They hope, perhaps counterintuitively, that Ankara’s heart will soften and tolerate a Kurdish state, even as it’s locked in yet another round of deadly conflict with its own Kurdish population. In Erbil, the two main ruling Kurdish parties have vowed to hold a referendum on independence this year although it’s not clear if they will or can deliver.

The strategic disadvantage that Kurds have suffered from for centuries—a minority population divided by regional rival powers—cannot be rectified without a state for so long as the nation-state is the basis of international relations and the recognition of sovereign rights. Short of independence, only a confederal formula for Iraq will guarantee that Erbil can be Baghdad’s equal partner, with a greater degree of autonomy and mutually beneficial collaboration on matters of defense, fiscal and foreign policy. The coming year will be decisive in shaping the destiny of Kurds for years to come.

Mohammed A. Salih is a journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan. He is a a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. On Twitter: @MohammedASalih.