Wednesday, July 2, 2014

As Iraq fractures, is this the start of regional collapse?

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has released a statement stating that a referendum would be held to determine the fate of the disputed province of Kirkuk before its possible integration into Kurdistan. This has much wider implications than are immediately visible.

Kirkuk’s status has been a matter of dispute for decades. The late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sought to change the ethnic make-up of the province by increasing the Arab population and driving out Kurds and Assyrians. After Hussein’s removal in 2003, the status of Kirkuk continued to divide Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

The deadlock was broken in recent weeks by the offensive of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now renamed the Islamic State, and its takeover of the city of Mosul. Iraqi security forces withdrew from Kirkuk as a consequence and Kurdish Peshmerga forces moved in to fill the vacuum.

With the province having fallen into the Kurds’ lap, and the central government in disarray, no one believes that Kirkuk will return to Baghdad’s authority soon, or ever. Mr Barzani’s promise of a referendum will have little reassured those who know the Kurds will seek to win the vote at all costs.

Yet this is only the first stage in a process likely leading to Kurdish independence. In an interview with the BBC’s Jim Muir, Mr Barzani has said that as Iraq is effectively partitioned, it is the Kurds’ right to achieve independence: “Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

Yet Mr Barzani will have to be careful about regional reactions to the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. Traditionally, Turkey, Iran and Syria have opposed any such outcome, fearful that this would encourage their own Kurdish minorities to pursue greater autonomy or independence. But the regional situation has greatly changed, altering attitudes all around.

Turkey is the main economic and oil outlet for Iraqi Kurdistan, and over the last decade Kurdish-Turkish relations have substantially improved, making Ankara more amenable toward Kurdish independence. Huseyin Celik, the spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, has told the Financial Times: “In the past an independent Kurdish state was a reason for war [for Turkey] but no one has the right to say this now.”

Mr Celik used a logic similar to Mr Barzani’s, arguing that Iraq was breaking apart, and if “Iraq is divided and it is inevitable, [the Kurds] are our brothers…” That said, there continue to be disagreements within Turkey over policy toward Turkey’s own Kurds, even if prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government believes that Iraqi Kurdish dependency on Turkey would place a Kurdish state in Turkey’s area of influence.

Iran, in turn, has more reservations about the idea of Kurdish independence. The Islamic Republic has repeated that it supports the unity of Iraq and opposes separation and partition. According to the daily Al Hayat, in a recent meeting between Iranian officials and the prime minister of the Kurdistan region, Nechervan Barzani, the Iranians expressed their “worry” about recent developments involving Kurdistan.

As for Syria, there is no effective government there to oppose Kurdish aspirations. Some Kurdish groups are closer to the Kurdish Workers Party of Abdullah Ocalan while others are closer to Massoud Barzani. The closer ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, like the possibility of a successful peace process between the Erdogan government and Turkey’s Kurds, could potentially reduce tensions between Syria’s Kurdish factions.

If that were to happen, Iran could find itself in a situation it would not completely control. The Iranians do not want Turkish influence to grow among Kurds, while the Kurdish faction with which Tehran is closest, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has been neutralised somewhat by the fact that Mr Talabani had a stroke in 2012 and has been in Germany since.

Mr Barzani will doubtless tread carefully before declaring Kurdish independence. But if the Kurds do have their own state, this will serve not only to reinforce the separatist desires of Kurds everywhere, it will be the strongest confirmation yet that the post-First World War borders of the Middle East are collapsing.

There is a growing realisation, and consensus, that neither Syria nor Iraq is likely to be put back together again. Not only have sectarian and ethnic divisions worsened dramatically in both countries, but there are no competent and conciliatory leaderships in place to reunite either. The ineptitude, brutality and maximalism of the regimes in Iraq and Syria are as much an obstacle to national unity as are their social divisions.

This has given rise to fears that the countries of the Middle East, particularly those with mixed sectarian or ethnic societies, are heading toward fragmentation. Almost none has a social contract to regulate communal relations, other than Lebanon perhaps, so the region is poorly equipped to resist such momentum.

The legitimacy of borders is often a function of the legitimacy of states. ISIL’s effort to erase the Syrian-Iraqi border may be a temporary phenomenon, but Iraq’s Sunnis will not want to fall under a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad again. As for the Kurds, whatever their tactical retreats in establishing a state, they broke psychologically with Iraq long ago.

We often hear that we are witnessing the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In fact we are witnessing the end of the willingness of communities to be part of states incapable of reforming or meeting their citizens’ aspirations. In the face of irreconcilable differences, divorce becomes more appealing.

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