Wily clannish capo Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has announced that “Yes” won Monday’s non-binding independence referendum. Now that index fingers in indelible indigo ink are out of the way, the real battle between the KRG and Baghdad begins. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Iraqi Supreme Court have denounced the referendum as “unconstitutional.”
Kurds comprise roughly 22% of an Iraqi population of 32 million. They are mostly Sunni and speak an Indo-European language close to Farsi. Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed significant autonomy since Daddy Bush installed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, post-Desert Storm, in 1991. They were instrumental in helping Shock and Awe in 2003, and the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdistan’s standing force) are de facto US allies, fighting Islamic State – with US air cover – after the collapse of the Iraqi Army and the phony Caliphate’s conquest of Mosul in 2014. Their dreams of secession from Iraq have been paramount for almost three decades.
Yet the KRG is far from a bed of mountain flowers. Inside it, the crucial vector is the rivalry between Erbil and Sulaimaniya. Erbil, largely tribal, is run by the Barzani clan. Sulaimaniya, way more cultured, is run by the Talibani clan, and its Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party has close ties with Iran. Masoud Barzani is viewed in Sulaimaniya as no more than a crude opportunist.
The referendum was held in the three KRG provinces – Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk – but also, crucially, in the ultimate powder-keg governorate of Kirkuk, the oil Mecca of northern Iraq, which has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs (Sunni and Shi’ite) and Turkmen.
Barzani’s timing was extremely clever. Since 2014, more than three million non-Kurds have fled Kirkuk and its environs, headed for Turkey and Syria, as Barzani profited from the fight against ISIS to annex the province and conduct his own “soft” brand of ethnic cleansing.
It’s the oil, stupid
Kurds also compose 20% of a Turkish population of 75 million. As much as the Peshmerga have never tangled with Baghdad’s forces, Ankara has not invaded the KRG. The referendum, though, led Turkey’s President Erdogan to dramatically raise the stakes. “Our military is not (at the border) for nothing,” he has said. “We could arrive suddenly one night.”
This knock on the door brings us to the inevitable holy of holies: oil. As Erdogan stressed, “let’s see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it. We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done.”
Erdogan certainly has done his math on how an independent KRG might possibly survive under threat from Ankara, with oil selling for less than $60 a barrel, and under the weight of its own military spending, corruption and incompetence.
Nawzad Adham, general director of the KRG’s Trade and Industry Ministry, rates business with Turkey and Iran at over US$10 billion a year. The KRG needs to import no less than 95% of its agricultural produce from Turkey and Iran. And, once again, the KRG totally depends on Ankara for exporting 550,000 barrels of oil a day.
Baghdad rules these exports as totally illegal. The KRG controls over 40% of Iraq’s oil and its estimated reserves are around 45 billion barrels of oil and 150 trillion cubic meters of gas. Much to Baghdad’s ire, the KRG may be pocketing 25% of Iraq’s total oil revenue.
So (oily) mountain flowers do bloom. Following an October 2011 deal with Exxon Mobil (when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was still its CEO), a deal which did not get Baghdad’s approval, Total is investing in the Shaikan oil field. Rosneft signed a multi-billion dollar contract to build a new gas pipeline – and quite probably would not have done if they didn’t have security guarantees from Ankara. And British Gulf Keystone Petroleum is also getting in on the action.
Still, the real kingmaker is Turkey’s BOTAŞ Petroleum Pipeline Corporation. And Erdogan is right: it takes just an index finger down to completely halt the oil flow to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Erdogan’s key demand to the KRG post-referendum is non-negotiable: no declaration of independence.
And what about the Syrian Kurds?
Barzani has been spinning wildly that the KRG’s “partnership” with Baghdad is over. In doing so, he has managed to obfuscate the fact that the KRG took over Kirkuk province only because the Iraqi Army folded when faced with ISIS in June 2014. And he actually praised ISIS’ occupation of Mosul because he saw it as a perfect opening for the partition of Iraq.
Still, it was Iraqis – and crucially, Shi’ite militias: the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) – who actually took back what ISIS had invaded. Kurds only cared about defending KRG territory. And Tehran has a point when stressing that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) actually saved the Kurds from ISIS: the PMUs, after all, were weaponized and supported by Iranian advisors drawn from the elite Quds Force.
Even though Kirkuk’s oil fields are currently controlled by the Peshmerga, Barzani would never be foolish enough to engage in a war against Baghdad over Kirkuk, especially if the PMUs are involved. For all practical purposes, that would mean war against Iran as well.
If that was not perilous enough, mix it with what the Syrian Kurds are up to. Abdul Kader Hevidili, deputy commander of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) swears Syrian Kurds fully support Barzani’s drive for total independence.
Baghdad is actually getting stronger – as part of the “4+1” (Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq plus Hezbollah) that for all practical purposes has won the war in Syria. None of these actors – or Turkey, which is involved in the Astana negotiations – wants partition of either Syria or Iraq
Emboldened because they currently control 25% of Syria’s territory and arguably 40% of oil and gas if they manage to keep the energy-rich province of Deir-Ezzor (not a done deal), Syrian Kurds are themselves
aiming for a federation before daring to dream of forming their own state. The inevitable – lethal – counterpunch will be a Damascus-Ankara alliance, as a Syrian Kurd-KRG independence-minded axis is the stuff of Erdogan’s nightmares.
So Tehran is allied with Baghdad as well as Ankara in wishing to prevent any partition of Iraq, much to the displeasure of the Western axis.
Barzani’s hand is actually far from stellar. The KRG’s only real, practical, chance of economic survival lies in a deal with Erdogan to ensure oil exports proceed smoothly. But what Erdogan would want in return is totally unthinkable – the KRG forcing the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Syria to lie low. For the PKK, Barzani is no more than a thug.
So it’s not bye-bye Sykes-Picot. Far from it – even though Iraq will continue to be split. Baghdad is actually getting stronger – as part of the “4+1” (Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq plus Hezbollah) that for all practical purposes has won the war in Syria. None of these actors – or Turkey, which is involved in the Astana negotiations – wants partition of either Syria or Iraq.
Moreover, Russia is also back as Iraq’s partner on the military front, selling it a “large batch” of T-90 tanks for US$1 billion – something that implies a stronger, anti-partition Iraqi Army.
That good ol’ project of balkanizing “Syraq,” via ISIS, might have flown out of the window just to reappear by the door in the guise of Kurdish separatism. Tough luck. Not only is the entire non-Kurdish Arab street against it, but so are the powers that be in Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, Ankara, and Moscow. Expect major turbulence ahead.