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Tallha Abdulrazaq

Independent Kurdistan cannot exist without Turkey's blessing

KRG President Massoud Barzani has been in office since 2005 [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 28 June, 2017

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Comment: With the economy in Iraqi Kurdistan almost entirely dominated by Turkish produce, businesses and oil exportation facilities, there can be no independence without Ankara's approval, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.

Following the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) announcement that they would be holding an independence referendum to finally decide the question of Kurdish secessionism in Iraq, there has been an outpouring of support from Kurdish social media users.

No one doubts whether or not the plebiscite will deliver a "Yes" vote - the idea of Kurdish independence enjoys broad political support in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, few seem to have considered the long-term prospects of what an independent Kurdistan actually looks like, and to what extent its independence will be subsumed by its need to exist as an entity at a basic level, and therefore its reliance on regional actors who are historically - often violently - opposed to Kurdish independence.

Illegal Kurdish land grab

In the likely event that Kurds vote to take their already federal and autonomous entity out of Iraq, there will be some harsh and sobering realities facing them once the inevitable international leftist backslapping, cheering and celebrations are concluded.

For one, none of the countries with Kurdish minorities have given any indication that they are supportive of this referendum. Syria, Iran and Iraq itself all oppose Kurdish independence, with the latter two having made statements to that effect.

Few seem to have considered the long-term prospects of what an independent Kurdistan actually looks like

The reasons behind this are obvious. For Baghdad, it is simply unacceptable that areas outside the KRG's federal authority - including Sinjar, Khanaqin, Makhmour and oil-rich Kirkuk - have been included in the vote. Many of these areas, especially Makhmour and Kirkuk, have large Arab and Turkmen populations, and have already suffered from Kurdish ethnic cleansing efforts, as documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Considering Iraq's own track record on human rights, it is unlikely that the Shia-dominated government is overly concerned about the welfare of its citizens in these multi-ethnic yet predominantly Sunni areas. However, it will acutely feel territorial losses especially in oil-rich areas, and will use the KRG's lack of constitutional authority over these districts as a tool to call into doubt the likely "Yes" outcome, perhaps using it as a future casus belli.

Reliance on Turkey

Turkey, however, is perhaps the key player that poses a major obstacle to Kurdish independence. While Baghdad is too enfeebled to realistically do much about the KRG grabbing even more Iraqi territory, as they seek to cut and run, Turkey is in no such position.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has already denounced the independence bid as "irresponsible" and described it as a step that would introduce another area of conflict in the region.

"We have enough problems in our region. We believe it is not correct to create a new area of conflict," the Turkish premier said just following the KRG's announcement, dashing Kurdish hopes of full Turkish support.

After all, independence in Iraq might bolster Kurdish separatist aspirations at home, despite the fact many Kurds vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, and not their separatist and PKK-linked People's Democratic Party (HDP) rivals.

There are several factors that make Turkish support for any independent Kurdistan crucial. For one, the KRG is a net consumer of imported products, of which Turkey enjoys the lion's share of exports. Turkey also dominates the construction and infrastructure development sector, with major Turkish contractors such as Cengiz Construction having built Erbil's new airport as well as stretches of crucial highway.

Perhaps most critically, however, is Turkey's control over landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exportation capacity. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline pumps oil out of Iraqi - and not KRG - Kirkuk and delivers it directly to Turkey's Ceyhan port, where it is shipped to the rest of the world.

Read more: Turkey troops mass on Syria border amid Kurdish tensions

Considering the KRG lacks any sort of industrial base and will be reliant on oil exports if it strikes out on its own, it will be heavily reliant on cooperation with Turkey. 

Although regional economic powers such as the United Arab Emirates support Kurdish independence and are amongst their biggest investors, their geostrategic influence is limited by their lack of a shared border.

A façade of independence

As such, it is quite clear what this Kurdish independence bid is really all about. Domestically, KRG President Massoud Barzani has been in office since 2005, and his eight-year term expired in 2013.

Although his term was extended by a further two years by the KRG legislature, he has tarried on as president, resembling the "Arab chauvinist" dictators he has been lambasting most of his adult life. 

Considering the KRG lacks any sort of industrial base and will be reliant on oil exports if it strikes out on its own, it will be heavily reliant on cooperation with Turkey

Rather than the democracy that everyone believes exists in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is instead a system dominated by a dictatorial president who is at loggerheads with other powerful - and armed - Kurdish rivals, in particular, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by long-time rival Jalal Talabani.

The KRG's economic failings and financial crises can only be blamed on the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) for so long. Once the IS threat recedes following its defeat in Mosul and other areas around Iraq, Kurdish politicians will need to shore up domestic support by baiting people with that long-held dream - an independent Kurdistan.

However, not only will they have to negotiate a divorce with Baghdad – which will be a feat in and of itself – but they will also have to contend with making continued concessions to Turkey, and will be completely at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's mercy just to continue existing as a state.

If Turkey withdraws its support, Iraqi Kurdistan could find itself in the throes of another civil war for control, as occurred between 1994 and 1997. 

To my mind, that is not real independence, but only the façade of it, meant to placate an ever-restless population.


Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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