July 2, 2013

A Future Republic of Kurdistan?

Source: Stansfield, G. (2013). "The unravelling of the post-First World War state system? The Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the transformation of the Middle East."  International Affairs, 89(2), 259-282.

The two excerpts below are from pg. 262 - 265 & pg. 282. The first excerpt appears under the headline, "Twenty years ahead: the Republic of Kurdistan."

The author is Gareth Stansfield. "Professor Gareth Stansfield is a Senior Associate Fellow with special reference to the Middle East and Islamic world. He is Professor of Middle East Politics and the Al-Qasimi Chair of Arab Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, where he is also the Director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS) and Director of Research of the Strategy and Security Institute (SSI).

He has been a regular commentator and adviser on Middle East politics over the last decade, focusing in particular on the politics and political economy of Iraq, the Kurdish regions of the Middle East, dynamics of Gulf/Arabian peninsular security, and questions of post-conflict stabilization and nation/state building. With regard to the latter subject, he has been part of UK (MoD) horizon-scanning initiatives on Iraq and Libya, and visited Afghanistan to research the reintegration process. In 2009, he served as a Senior Political Adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), with special reference to the situation in Kirkuk and Iraq's disputed territories." (Source: Royal United Services Institute).

II. A Future Republic of Kurdistan?
The year is 2036, 20 years after the establishment of the Republic of Kurdistan. Analysts, in this hypothetical future in a hypothetical think-tank, are looking back on the reformation of the state system of the Middle East in the period 2014–26, which the historically minded among them have realized was exactly a century after the formation of the state system in the aftermath of the First World War. With the benefit of hindsight and the ability to see a continuum of events, these analysts explain the reformation as the culmination of a series of events, developments and transitions that afflicted the region over a 30-year period. These included the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the ‘war on terror’ of 2001 onwards, the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the wave of popular uprisings of 2011–13, known as the Arab Spring, against authoritarian rule and the subsequent, often violent, contestation for power within states that characterized the region’s politics for the next decade.

     A subject of keen interest was the remarkable transformation of what had been known, rather vaguely, as ‘the Kurdish question’ in the late twentieth century into what became ‘the Republic of Kurdistan’ in the second decade of the twenty-first.

When asked to explain the formative events that led to the secession of the Kurdistan Region from Iraq and the declaration of the independent Republic of Kurdistan by President Massoud Barzani on 16 August 2016, analysts referred to the brief Arab–Kurdish war that erupted in 2014 following inconclusive and divisive Iraqi parliamentary elections in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought a third term, with Barzani openly comparing the Iraqi Prime Minister to the former dictator Saddam. 

     Maliki’s demand to stay in office for a third term saw the Kurdish leader order the occupation of Kirkuk. Initially unchallenged, the Kurdistan army (otherwise known as the peshmerga) had rapidly to contend with guerrilla attacks from Arab and Turkmen isnad (support councils) loyal to Maliki, followed by the deployment of several brigades of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in support of the ISF Dijla Operations Command, controversially established by Maliki to the west of Kirkuk in the autumn of 2012. Totally loyal to their Prime Minister following years of careful reorganization, the combined forces of the ISF and isnad moved quickly against Kurdish forces, with worrying references made to ‘repeating Anfal’, in reference to the genocide of the Kurds committed some 25 years before. Ferocious conflict broke out in the crowded urban environs of Kirkuk, but the peshmerga displayed their renowned tenacity and held the city for the remainder of the year.

     However, after this initial success, they soon struggled to counter the ISF’s newly acquired US armour, which ranged freely outside the tight confines of the urban spaces, preventing the movement of peshmerga reinforcements from Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. Furthermore, the lightly armed peshmerga proved incapable of combating the incessant attacks made by Iraqi Air Force F-16s, ordered in 2012 by Maliki and viewed as an existential threat to Kurdistan by Barzani, who lobbied the US administration hard to prevent the sale. Barzani’s pleas fell on deaf ears, however, and the warplanes were delivered to the Iraqi Air Force in September 2014, becoming operational by the end of the year. In a strike as important symbolically as it was tactically, President Barzani’s headquarters in Sari Rash, in the mountains north of Erbil next to the town of Salahaddin, was attacked with impunity and levelled by the US-supplied warplanes.

     Ignominious defeat seemed to be a certainty for the Kurdish forces, with President Barzani already hurling blame at the Kurds’ one-time allies in the West who failed to come to his aid, just as they had failed to do so for his father in his moment of need against Saddam’s regime in the 1970s, and for himself against Saddam in 1991. But times had changed. Following the destruction of the Kurds’ Kalak (Khormala) refinery facility north-east of Erbil—which was critical to the success of the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas plans— by an Iraqi tank column, the near-defeat of the peshmerga was averted by an overwhelming show of support from Turkey and Sunni Arab states and, in a more passive but nonetheless influential way, the United States. In what was seen as a stand against the further penetration of Iranian Shi’i influence in the region, but was perhaps as much to do with Turkey needing to secure access to abundant oil and gas supplies for its own domestic consumption and to further Ankara’s ability to be a provider for the Europeans, who still remained dependent upon gas imports from the east, 28 Turkey moved militarily to protect the fledgling Republic of Kurdistan from Iraq’s increasingly successful operations, while the US and Europeans sought a UN mandate to intervene.

     Iran, meanwhile, viewed developments in the Kurdistan Region with concern, not least because Tehran had always considered the Kurds of Iraq to be natural allies who, while dealing with Ankara and the Arabs for immediate economic and political benefit, would always have a sense of the deeper ties binding them to Iran. Tehran’s threats to intervene, by deploying the Islamic (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards Corps to the Baneh region of Kurdistan-Iran in preparation for the Iranian occupation of Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk (with plans dusted off from the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s), quickly backfired, however. Unwilling to see Iranian interven - tion into the north of Iraq, the US drew a red line around the Kurdistan Region, in effect ending the conflict and putting all parties and stakeholders on notice that, against all the odds, the Kurds of Iraq had looked into the abyss of defeat but, this time, were saved rather than destroyed by international political realities.

     Instability continued to reign in the disputed territories, however, with the southern boundary of Kurdistan remaining contested between Erbil (the capital of Kurdistan) and Baghdad. A UN-mandated US- and Turkish-led mission ensured that Iraqi and Kurdish military forces disengaged and stood down in disputed Kirkuk and later established a mechanism for the dual administration of the province, in keeping with UN recommendations made in 2008. 29 By 2021, the Republic of Kurdistan had matured into a full and active member of the inter - national community, albeit under Turkish tutelage, and the Kurds could no longer claim to be the largest stateless people in the world with only the mountains as their friends.

The scenario presented is only one of countless possible outcomes that may come to pass, but while the situation being considered by the analysts of 2036 is hypothetical, it is derived from actual facts, on-the-ground realities, articulated views, and events that have happened over recent years—all of which have contributed to the increasingly autonomous status of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, its growing sense of security and stability, and its state-like posture in the international community.
How durable, though, are these changes of almost paradigmatic proportions? While it is always tempting to err on the side of caution, the developments outlined in this article suggest that the combination of local cohesion, popular Kurdish development, Iraqi state weakness, and the overlapping of economic and geo political inter ests between the Kurdistan Region and one-time opponents gives the current trajectory more durability than the Kurds have enjoyed in previous times when it looked as though they could challenge the established state system. It is now not so insane to talk about a future Republic of Kurdistan that would, by its very existence, alter profoundly the politics of the Middle East. Indeed, it would seem odd not to acknowledge it as a distinct possibility. (Pg. 282).
An article that was referenced in Stansfield's article:
Barzani to US: Don’t sell F-16 to Iraqi PM (Hürriyet Daily News, April 24, 2012).

Also, read: Iraq PM must not obtain F-16s: Kurdistan chief (AFP, April 23, 2012).