The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
For the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, 2014 was more momentous a year than any since the region won autonomy, in 1991. On December 9, 2014, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), reaffirmed his commitment to Kurdish statehood after making a historic call for an independence referendum on June 30, 2014. Barzani’s announcement came after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) incursion into northern Iraq earlier that month, which effectively eliminated Baghdad’s control over the disputed territories of Kurdistan. As the Iraqi army abandoned its positions, the Kurdish security forces, known as the peshmerga, advanced beyond KRG-controlled areas, taking over additional territory including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, considered by Iraqi Kurds as a jewel in the crown of their territorial ambitions. Asserting that Iraq had been effectively “partitioned” and that the “conditions are right,” Barzani declared, "from now on, we will not hide that the goal of Kurdistan is independence.”
In the intervening six months,events on the ground and Western attitudes toward independence have shifted even further in the Kurds’ favor. A few days after Barzani’s June announcement, ISIS launched a war against the Kurds by intensifying its attacks in the disputed territories. As July wore on, the KRG failed to defend its positions from ISIS’ attacks, putting a damper on Kurdish exuberance about the upcoming referendum. But even that turned into a political blessing for Barzani's government. Western powers, including the United States and its NATO partners initiated direct military cooperation with Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, and military aid began arriving from Europe on August 15. Erbil, which now has independent defense relations with Western powers, is unlikely to relinquish such control to Baghdad and sacrifice its chance for statehood.
Barzani soon gained another advantage, although many, particularly in Baghdad, do not see it that way. In late August, as Erbil began receiving Western weapons and military trainers, Barzani issued his terms for joining the new Iraqi government that would eventually be headed by Haider al-Abadi in the wake of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation. Refusing to return Erbil to the status quo ante, Barzani insisted on the KRG’s right to sell its own oil and gas, to conduct its own weapons purchases, and to organize referendums in the disputed territories on joining the Kurdistan Region. An energy agreement was finally brokered between Baghdad and Erbil on December 2, 2014. Although many interpreted the agreement as a step back for Barzani and Kurdish independence, it was actually a major victory. The terms do indeed reinstate Baghdad’s right to receive all oil revenues from the Kurdish-controlled areas—at least up to 550,000 barrels per day (bpd)—in return for providing the KRG its long overdue but constitutionally mandated 17 percent of the national budget. However, the agreement also recognizes the KRG’s legal sovereignty over extraction and sale of oil and gas in all Kurdish areas. Moreover, since 300,000 bpd will be tapped from the Kirkuk region and exported via Kurdish and Turkish pipelines, the agreement is tantamount to legally recognizing Kurdish control over Kirkuk and, by extension, other parts of the disputed territories.
An independent Kurdistan could create a viable state by marketing its hydrocarbon resources. International energy companies can now conduct business in Kurdistan without fear of legal prosecution—a concern that had previously hampered Kurdish energy exports. In this arena, Kurdistan might look to Azerbaijan, a small nearly landlocked state that developed its economy through hydrocarbon exports and used its energy wealth to grow its regional power. Through two pipelines that cut through Georgia, Azerbaijan delivers oil and natural gas to Turkey, which acts as a gateway to the European market. Turkey, one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent state, has long been a close ally, siding with Baku during its territorial clashes with Armenia and offering its NATO experience to cultivate Azerbaijan’s army. In this way, Azerbaijan uses its strong ties with Turkey to balance against Iran, a close energy and trade partner to Armenia.
Ultimately, Kurdistan’s quest for independence rests on the Barzani government’s ability to manage its relations with his territory’s two powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran. The KRG already has strong ties with Turkey; Ankara has tried to build up its relationship with Barzani to counter Erbil’s links with the Tehran-aligned government in Baghdad. Since the KRG continues to expand oil exports via Turkey’s Ceyhan port, Ankara would benefit economically from an independent Kurdistan that is able to market its own energy. More critically, the KRG has the potential to export 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas to Turkey, which would ease the country’s soaring domestic demand—Turkey’s economic growth has tripled its natural gas consumption from 15 bcm in 2000 to 46 bcm in 2010. Kurdish natural gas would thus offer an affordable and reliable supply that would lessen Turkey’s dependence on Russia and help ensure Turkey’s continued economic growth—there are 1,200 Turkish companies that operate in Iraqi Kurdistan and have been profiting from Erbil's economic boom. After Germany, Iraq constitutes Turkey's largest export market, with the vast majority of the $12 billion in Turkish exports sold to the KRG.
Turkey’s energy and trade relations with Iraqi Kurdistan have already altered its posture toward the region. Kurdish control over Kirkuk, home to a sizable Turkmen population, has been a sensitive issue for Turkey. To the dismay of Turkish nationalists, however, Ankara has acquiesced to KRG control of the city. Two days prior to Barzani’s referendum announcement, Hüseyin Çelik—then deputy chair of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—told the Financial Times that Turkey would not oppose KRG independence.
There are signs that Iran, too, will accept—even if it does not support—Kurdistan statehood. First off, Erbil and Tehran brokered an agreement in late April 2014 to construct twin oil and gas pipelines between the Kurdish region and Iran. This new level of energy cooperation may be a sign that Tehran could accept a Kurdish state so long as it does not incite Iran’s own Kurdish population to seek self-rule. Second, deterring Iraqi Kurdistan from gaining independence by direct military intervention is out of the question, especially now that Erbil is receiving Western military aid. Any military action to thwart Erbil’s quest for independence would result in Kurdish retaliatory attacks on Iranian soil. The Erbil government is already developing, with the help of Western military advisers, the necessary military doctrine, training, and leadership to transform the peshmerga into a capable national army. With KRG parliamentary authorization, Barzani has begun placing all peshmerga forces under a unified command structure and has established a security council that he supervises.
If Erbil can continue demonstrating its deterrence capability, Tehran would likely accept Kurdish independence in the same manner it has come to accept Azerbaijan’s. Although hostile to the secular government in Baku and suspicious of Azerbaijan’s intentions toward Iran’s large Azeri population, Tehran begrudgingly began to recalibrate its posture toward Azerbaijan after it failed to chasten Baku by backing Armenia in the war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1991 to 1994. Azerbaijan’s close military cooperation with Iran’s regional rivals, Turkey and Israel, has prompted Tehran to reengage its northern neighbor.
A NARROWING WINDOW
These near-optimal conditions will not last long—six months at most. The series of peshmerga victories over ISIS in the Kurdish areas of Makhmur, Zumar, and, most recently, Sinjar mean that the KRG now exerts effective control over these disputed territories with the imprimatur of U.S. and NATO assistance. But once the threat of ISIS in Iraq recedes and the West’s focus shifts exclusively to Syria, the KRG may come under increasing pressure to postpone the referendum. However, if the Kurds were to vote for independence within the next few months, they can do so without worrying that Western powers might counter them by reducing their defense support; the United States and its NATO allies fear that any stand down would allow ISIS to resurge or Iranian-backed Shia militias to advance. The Iranian military presence in Jalawla—an area adjacent to the Iranian border and controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the rival to Barzani’s KDP—further incentivizes Barzani to hold the referendum soon since a Kurdish vote for independence would pressure the PUK to distance itself from Iran.
The referendum must also occur before the June 2015 Turkish parliamentary elections because Barzani is unlikely to have more leverage over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than he has now. The AKP government has been engaged in peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group that the AKP considers a terrorist organization. To keep Turkey’s Kurdish areas quiet and ensure an election victory, the AKP needs to demonstrate that it is making progress in this so-called resolution process within the next few months. But a breakthrough between the AKP and PKK could potentially boost Ocalan’s position at Barzani’s expense; it could give a dose of legitimacy to Ocalan’s plan—to unite all Kurdish regions under one federation—which clashes with Barzani’s vision for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. If the AKP-PKK resolution process falters and eastern Turkey erupts into violence, Barzani would lose Turkish, and, possibly, Western support for an independent state. The urgency for the Barzani-led KRG to hold a referendum on independence is clear. Barzani’s need to move forward on the referendum while he still holds these political cards may make 2015 the year that the Kurds vote for independence.