Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani issued a historic document on June 28 in which he announced a referendum for independence of Iraqi Kurdistan set on September 25. With ISIS control fading quickly, diplomatic drama in Qatar, and huge question marks surrounding the future of former ISIS territory, this could be the perfect storm for an independent Kurdish state to form.
Kurdistan already functions like a state. They have a government, collect taxes, export large quantities of natural gas, a thriving tourism industry, and regional borders. Most importantly, Kurds in Iraq identify as such before religious affiliations; a welcomed ideology for a burgeoning state. The obstacles to statehood are numerous, but none are impossible to overcome.
First, the dying elephant in the room: ISIS. The last remaining Iraqi strongholds in Mosul fell on July 9th. Tal Afar (80 km west of Mosul), Hawija (180 km south of Mosul), and a string of outposts in Al-Anbar are all that remain of Iraqi ISIS territory. This long, destructive war has strained the Iraqi military, and will likely make future administration of a defiant Kurdistan seem unpalatable. In Syria, Raqqa is surrounded. Eastern Syria is at risk of entering into a power vacuum, where Kurdish militia, Syrian rebels, government forces, and ISIS cells will be vying for power. Given the resilience and dedication of Kurdish soldiers, Iraqi Kurdistan could serve as a pillar of stability and thwart future retaliation after ISIS territory is reclaimed.
ISIS aside, Kurdistan faces opposition from states in the region and with global powers, namely Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia. Each has a unique history with Kurdistan, but each also stands to gain from an independent Kurdistan.
Turkey is Kurdistan’s biggest investor. Gas pipelines run from Kurdistan to the Mediterranean through Turkey, and millions of ethnic Kurds are Turkish citizens. On June 27, Erdogan issued a statement refusing to allow any future Kurdish state in Syria. However, Barzani’s proposed borders will leave Turkey and Syrian borders unchanged, and any Kurds who may migrate to a new Kurdistan would be less able to bother Turkish parliament, who has grappled with the Peoples’ Democratic Party for years. Turkey could potentially increase their holdings in Kurdistan in exchange for supporting a new state. Economic partnerships are far more amicable, and can withstand ethnic or religious stress (like the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia).
Iran is the second biggest obstacle facing a Kurdish state. The Islamic Republic is committed to keeping Shia power strong in the region, and prefers to keep the long-standing policy of having Baghdad watch over Northern Iraq. However, Iran’s eight million Kurds have not been persecuted to the same degree over the past 20 years as in Turkey and Iraq. Iranian military power gives Iranian Kurds less political capital to organize than in Iraq, and a Kurdish state along an unchanged Iranian border would not equal a mass Kurdish exodus overnight.
The United States has a divided policy over Kurdistan and could possibly be an obstacle to statehood. On one hand, American commitment to the Iraqi Strategic Framework agreement is contingent upon a unified Iraq. However, this ignores the reality on the ground, where an overwhelming majority of Kurds are expected to vote “yes” to independence. On the other hand, the United States has a soft spot for self-determination. America was founded on this ideal, and it stands to reason that America would do well to befriend a Kurdish state. Being able to maintain relations with Southern Iraq and Kurdish Iraq is possible given American dedication to Iraq since 2003. Given ISIS’s destruction, American and Iraq may be willing to accept stability and peace over a unified Iraq.
Alternatively, Russian action could help or hurt a new Kurdish state. American–Russian relations are especially tense—with the Senate recently approving new sanctions on Russia 98-2. A fresh area of rare cooperation could be in the mountains of a Kurdish state. Russia has expressed the inevitability of a Kurdish state in the past, and supplies the Peshmerga with weapons. American and Russian support of a Kurdistan could prompt Russia to prod the Assad regime, whatever his fate may be, into playing nice with respect to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraq has begun the arduous process of financing reconstruction. Questions of their ability to accurately distribute funds for projects gives Barzani’s government even more of a case for independence. A Kurdistan with long established ties with the United States is a huge plus, and gives the United States a proper justification for updating its outdated framework with Iraq. Russia can offer stability coming from Syria, and has already invested in oil trade with the KRG. There are an exceptional number of pieces involved in the Kurdish puzzle, but these are exceptional times. Kurdistan is politically divided, but united in favor of independence. The world should seriously consider changing the status quo and exploring the benefits of Kurdistan, the state.
Elbridge ‘Eli’ Boardman is an Intern at World Learning in Washington, DC, where he works on an Iraqi Young Leader Exchange Program. Previously, he worked in Charlotte, NC, administering student and professional exchange programs, and where he was introduced to Iraqi student leaders. He has a BA in International Studies from UNC-Wilmington, in Wilmington, NC, and has studied abroad in Lausanne, Switzerland.