Power Struggles in Baghdad and Beyond Mean Opportunities for Iraq’s Kurds

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Safin Hamed & Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP / Getty Images

Massud Barzani (L), president of the autonomous northern Kurdish region in Iraq, said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is monopolising power and preparing the ground for a return to dictatorship in an interview published on April 8, 2012.

The thriving Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq is a monument to the ability of the nationalist Kurdish-Iraqi leadership to parlay the conflict between more powerful geopolitical forces around them to maximum advantage. And the escalating power struggle in Baghdad, combined with the regional conflict between Iran, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states being played out in Syria, may offer the Kurdish leadership in Erbil new opportunities to strengthen foundations for independence from Iraq. It may be a perilous game of temporary alliances of convenience among forces that don’t necessarily share a common vision, but that’s precisely the sort of political balancing act that created the Kurdish polity in northern Iraq, which already has many of the attributes of independence such as its own flag, administration and security forces — and is seeking to expand its independent economic base.

The power struggle in Baghdad has escalated to alarming proportions in the months since the last U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki eschewing the principle of a unity government that gives all stakeholders a share of power and instead amassing power in his own hands. Even the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose support was critical to getting Maliki reelected, has taken to referring to the Prime Minister as “the dictator.” Sunni insurgent violence continues, while Sunni political leaders have been hounded out of government by Maliki. Recent days have seen him huddling with his key regional allies in Tehran, as he steps up a war of words and threats with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he accuses of meddling in Iraq’s affairs. Turkey makes no secret of its support for Iraq’s Sunni political bloc, Iraqiyya, and has castigated Maliki for pursuing a sectarian and “egocentric” style of ruling. Ankara has recently played host to fugitive Iraqi Sunni leader Tarek al-Hashemi, who was forced to flee Baghdad to escape a criminal prosecution his supporters see as a trumped up charge designed to hobble the Sunni political leadership. Hashemi fled first to Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whose terrain the Iraqi security forces are not authorized to enter.

(MORE: What the U.S. Leaves Behind: An Unstable, Vulnerable Iraq)

As dramatic as the language and gestures of some of the key players may be, however, patronage politics has entrenched a certain pragmatism in Iraq’s political class that shows no sign of evaporating in a headlong rush into civil war. Still, every new breakdown and episode of brinkmanship brings opportunities to press the Kurdish cause.

The Kurds, who represent some 20% of Iraq’s population, maintained good relations with Iran before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, and have typically been courted in post-Saddam politics when the major Shi’ite and Sunni political players have needed them to tip the balance against the other. The de facto casting vote provided by their share of Iraq’s proportional representation parliament has allowed the leaders of Kurdistan’s main parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Jalal Talabani, who serves as President of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani, who holds the position of Prime Minister in the KRG — to extract more concessions on autonomy and territorial control than Iraq’s Arab politicians would otherwise offer.

And these days, it’s not only Iraqi politicians that are courting the Kurds. Turkey last week feted Barzani in Ankara, rolling out the red carpet and affording him a meeting with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and he recently returned from a visit to Washington D.C. where he met with senior Administration officials. Those visits seemed to amplify Barzani’s defiance of Baghdad in a dispute over oil revenues, with the KRG prime minister accusing Maliki of paving the way for a return to dictatorship, and warning that absent “radical solutions and a specific time-frame to resolve the present crisis … we will resort to other decisions” — a not-so-veiled threat to declare independence from Iraq.

Independence, of course, remains the historical goal of Kurdish Iraqis, and a referendum on the issue staged in 2005 saw some 98% vote to break away from Iraq. Geopolitical realities, however, has required a curbing of that popular sentiment. Iraqi Kurdistan is small and landlocked, and while it possesses significant oil reserves, it would require the cooperation of one of its powerful neighbors — Turkey, Iran or Iraq — to pipe that oil to market. Also, the KRG was carved out in large part because the U.S., which had just overthrown Saddam Hussein, helped ensure its emergence, but made clear it was not ready to support a breakup of Iraq.

(MORE: Baghdad Bloodbath Threatens Sectarian Chaos in Iraq: Will Iran Stoke or Douse the Fires?)

Thus the Kurdish political game, as described by the International Crisis Group:

“Kurds have waited for the moment when they will succeed in removing the shackles of an overbearing, at times highly repressive, central state. They know that when Baghdad is weak, they can take steps to bring their dream of statehood closer to reality, but that when the centre is strong it will use its superior resources to push them back into their place – or worse. This is why the Kurds are so alarmed at attempts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to amass power at the expense of his rivals and rebuild a strong state, armed with U.S. weaponry, under his unchallenged control.

“Ever since arriving in Baghdad on the coattails of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Kurds understandably have used their new position and the centre’s weakness to develop their own region. They seek to reverse a legacy of discrimination and economic neglect but also to create an escape route should relations with Baghdad sour beyond repair. Yet, in many ways, this approach contains elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy: by pressing their advantage, Kurds inevitably aggravate matters, convincing the federal government that they are aiming for secession – and aiming to take with them a good chunk of disputed territory that Kurds claim as historically part of a notional Kurdistan but that also appears to be immensely rich in oil and gas.”

Conventional wisdom before the U.S. invasion had held that Turkey would fiercely oppose the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq for fear of spurring separatist inclinations among its own Kurdish minority. But even as the violent insurgency of the Kurdish separatist PKK has sparked an increasingly repressive backlash by the authorities in Ankara in recent years, Turkey has instead emerged as a key ally and economic partner of the emerging Iraqi Kurdish polity, with Turkish trade with the KRG amounting to fully half of all of its trade with Iraq.

It’s a pragmatic arrangement of mutual benefit: The Kurds have lately expanded their autonomous oil industry, concluding deals late last year with Exxon Mobil — which include the right to drill fields that are not currently recognized as part of the KRG, but are coveted by it as part of the patrimony of their state in the making. That move outraged Baghdad, and Erbil earlier this month halted oil exports through territory controlled by Baghdad over a financial dispute. The Kurdish leadership hope to use a pipeline built through Turkish territory as an alternative export route once it has been completed, which would lessen the KRG’s dependence on Baghdad.

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Whereas a thriving autonomous Kurdish entity on its border may once have been deemed deeply threatening to Turkey, today Ankara appears ready to support Iraq’s Kurdish separatists not only as part of its contest with Iran for regional influence, but also because Turkey sees the KRG as a potentially important ally in its struggle against the PKK. Turkish support is premised on the willingness of the authorities in the KRG to clamp down hard on PKK operations in territory under its control. Barzani certainly talks the talk, publicly demanding, in Ankara last week, that the PKK lay down arms, and warning that he will not allow the group to operate freely in Northern Iraq as long as it remains committed to violence. But as analyst MK Bhadrakumar has noted, it may not be quite that simple: While Iraq’s Kurdish leadership may understand the geopolitical necessity of cooperating with Turkey’s campaign against the PKK, the peshmerga fighting men on whom they’d rely to actually tackle PKK operations on their turf are generally far more sympathetic to the plight of their brothers in arms from across the Turkish border.

Turkey’s PKK fears are exacerbated by the crisis in Syria, where its support for those fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has prompted Damascus to threaten to retaliate by resuming support for the PKK — a move that could spell trouble inside Turkey which shares a long border with Syria’s Kurdish region. Some suggest enlisting the likes of Barzani could serve as something of a hedge, and possibly even persuade more Syrian Kurds to move off the sidelines and support the anti-Assad rebellion.

(MORE: The U.S. and Other ‘Friends of Syria’ Still Search for a Strategy to Oust Assad)

They may be one of the peoples overlooked by the British and French when they redrew the borders of the Middle East in the wake of World War I, but today’s Iraqi Kurds appear to have digested the lessons of history, first and foremost the maxim that every crisis is also an opportunity.