Kurdish independence is coming – but the Kurds themselves have to secure it

Britain and other great powers will not create a new Kurdish state. That might be seen as making up for imposing borders nearly a century ago, but the Kurds have to make their own pitch to those who matter most – leaders and people in Baghdad

Gary Kent
Friday 20 May 2016 21:30 BST

On the day of the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement this week, the Kurdish Rudaw media network, for which I write a weekly column, asked me if David Cameron would advance the independence of Kurdistan. I suggested this was the wrong approach.

Britain and other great powers will not create a new Kurdish state. It might be seen as making up for imposing borders nearly a century ago but Britain should not do that, even if it seems the better thing to do. Great powers value order and won’t intentionally set precedents that could be emulated in places where volatility and violence would result. The President of the Catalonian region was recently in London, but emphatically not to canvass for independence which he considers to be an internal matter with Madrid.

Great powers are more likely to react to a fait accomplis as in Kosovo and Croatia. The Kurds currently in Iraq (just) would find it easier to win eventual support for independence by continuing to fight the common enemy of Daesh, and by pursuing thorough reform to ready their society for all possible futures – revived Iraqi federalism (improbable), independence or confederation.

Kurdish success in driving Daesh out of Kurdistani lands speaks for itself as do comparisons with the failures of the Iraqi security forces, and with the bloodthirstiness of the Shia militia. There has been a real effort spearheaded by the Kurdish Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to reform the economy, and a wider belief that the slump in oil prices has been a blessing in disguise. Oil prices above $100 would prevent creative attempts to diversify the economy and further democratise Kurdistan.

It is evident to me that, after a century of misery and a decade of failed federalism in Iraq, Kurds in Iraq need sovereignty. It is seen as fundamental to their survival in allowing them to borrow on international markets, buy arms, and attract investment to rejuvenate their economy and to turn quantity into quality in everything from education to governance. It will be instructive to see if the Kurdistan region gets its fair share of the recently announced $5 billion loan from the IMF to Iraq.

But it’s also clear that Baghdad and Erbil must boost security co-operation in the immediate fight against Daesh as well as reach longer term agreements on the economy and natural resources such as water, as well as auditing and fairly dividing assets accrued commonly over decades.

The Kurds have to make their own pitch to those who matter most – leaders and people in Baghdad. Turkey and Iran also count for a landlocked country. If that is achieved then external recognition will follow. America and Britain would stay their hand and not be the first in the field to recognise the new state. Turkey might be in the first few to do so.

And there are signs that leaders in Baghdad can also see that an amicable divorce is best. The Iraqi oil minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi told a Kurdistan Independence Conference in Slemani this week: “People of Kurdistan have faced oppression and have been forced to confront others. I personally support aspirations of the Kurdish nation, but its steps have to be pre-planned and they should know how they are taking the steps.”

Such words should be built upon. The Kurdish Prime Minister wishes to open up direct talks with Baghdad about how to manage the transition to break-up. There is much to discuss. One of the most vexed questions is the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk. The southern borders need to be agreed, excluding potential revanchist hot spots if necessary, or they will be bloody borders for generations to come.

Talk of a referendum this autumn on independence has faded. Domestic politics are in a holding pattern with a greater priority being given to defending Kurdistan and assisting, probably next year, in the drive to expel Daesh from Mosul.

It also seems likely that the process of overcoming internal divisions will pick up after the scheduled parliamentary elections in 2017. My guess is that an independence referendum, following referendums in disputed territories on whether they join the Kurdistan region, will take place then or in 2018, both after the defeat of Daesh and the reconfiguration of domestic political structures and coalitions.

In the meantime, Baghdad needs to be won over to the idea that an independent Kurdistan region could be a better ally outside the boundaries of Iraq. It will not be easy to disentangle and manage popular and sectarian passions.

It would be wise if countries like the UK are open to the possibility and prepared to help broker complex agreements if and when the people of Kurdistan decide to take their destiny into their own hands.

Suppressing it is unthinkable given the Kurds’ new confidence, popularity and strategic importance. But expecting Cameron to cut through the work that should be done on the ground is a dangerous illusion that obstructs winning Iraqi consent for a necessary change.

Gary Kent is the Director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and a columnist for Rudaw who has visited Kurdistan and Iraq many times since 2006. He writes in a personal capacity.

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