Given the Kurdistan Regional Government’s successful and advancing economic state, it is likely that it will manage an independent state successfully. However, there are roadblocks towards Kurdistan’s independence because the situation is complicated, particularly because of the ongoing financial crisis for the past seven months, and foreign oil company’s debts.
The financial crisis puts the region’s economy at risk, and its safety is also jeopardised by the increasing number of extremist groups in neighbouring regions. The Kurdish military is unequipped and disorganised, making it relatively weak to confront regional threats without international support.
Other issues pertaining to a Kurdish state includes the “independence referendum”, which is set to be carried out soon. There exists no general consensus among Kurds on how to conduct the referendum. The “new realities” in Iraq provides Kurds with a great opportunity to declare independence, more so because they control ninety percent of its historical territories.
Kurdistan is situated in a landlocked region, which means the future of Kurdistan region in Iraq can not be determined independently because it is coupled with the interests of its neighbours — Turkey and Iran.
One dream, two definitions
The debate among Kurds on their future in Iraq is polarised. On one side, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as well as smaller political parties are focusing on the declaration of a Kurdish state regardless of the current crisis in the region. On the opposing side, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, alongside some smaller parties, believe that without a strategic plan to prepare the region for the consequences of declaring independence, the state will not survive. Although both sides agree that Kurdistan should become an independent state, they disagree about the time and necessary contingency plans that should be enforced.
The political parties and their slogans
In the post-liberation era of Iraq (2003) KDP supported federalism for Kurdistan. KDP changed its political outlook in its 13th congress to Self-Determination Right (Dec 11, 2010). Meanwhile, since its foundation (June 1, 1975) Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has always supported self-determination of Kurdish people. Other prominent political parties such as the Change Movement, whose leader is one of the co-founders of PUK, as well as two other main Islamic parties have already pledged support for Kurdistan’s independence. In general, there is hardly a Kurd that does not believe in independence, but the support is coupled with fear of history repeating itself. The destruction of Sheikh Mahmoud’s kingdom or the demolition of Kurdistan Republic in Eastern Kurdistan, Iran (1946) are sore reminders for Kurds.
Independence is a “Kurdish deferred dream” that has support amongst the Kurdish nation. However, supporting the notion of “independence” should not be interpreted to imply that there is a unanimous agreement or single discourse on how to pursue it. The polarised discourse on independence can be categorised into two groups.
The first group — KDP
The KDP has been steadfast and eager to declare independence amidst the ongoing conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. This group perceives the current socio-political dynamics of Iraq as a golden opportunity to separate from Iraq. Their reasoning are as follows:
- The central government in Baghdad is in a deep crisis and consequently unable to confront a Kurdish state for a prolonged period of time. Kurds can seek international recognition and build relations with the outside would independently.
- Nearly ninety percent of Kurdistan’s historical land are now under the control of Kurdish troops (Peshmerga) and the facts on the ground justify Kurdistan Regional Government’s expansion of boundaries.
- The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seizing of Iraq’s second largest city has effectively divided Iraq, highlighting the fragile nature of Iraq’s defeated army. Many academics argue that Iraq as a unified “country” no longer exists.
- The KRG controls oil fields in Kirkuk, which can produce up to 450,000 bpd. Adding KRG’s current oil exports to the oil fields in Kirkuk will amount to 25% of Iraq’s national budget.
- Turkey, a regional force seems to have dramatically warmed up to the notion of a Kurdish state from Iraq. Turkey has signed oil deals with KRG without the consent of Baghdad.
- The United States has indicated that it does not support Kurdish independence nor will it actively oppose it. There are indications that United Kingdom and France will support Kurdish independence as well.
The opposing group consists of political parties, academics and established scholars. The scholars refer to the reality of the region and premise their arguments on the sustainability of a Kurdish state. They claim that a referendum will place Kurdistan Region on the brink of an endless regional conflict with ISIS. However, others have indicated that some political parties do not want to endorse the declaration of independence because of their ongoing ties with Iran, which seeks to end Turkey’s hegemony in Kurdistan. This group’s justification for opposing the declaration of a Kurdish state can be summarised as follows:
- There is a lack of consensus among Kurds — Kurdish political parties have differing views towards independence. The debate of independence has increasingly manifested itself into a “political claim” as opposed to a national one.
- Kurdistan’s foreign relations have not become institutionalised. The Kurdish representative in United States remain idle, partially because both the KDP and PUK have not come to an agreement over the position of head of the office since the beginning of 2013.
- There exists no guarantee from U.S. congress or European parliament that a Kurdish state will be supported or recognised officially. Both the UK and U.S. have reiterated on several occasions that they support a unified Iraq.
- The current economic crisis is another roadblock. There are an estimated 1.5 million public employees (including Peshmerga forces) that are dependent on governmental payroll, and have been suffering for the past nine months because KRG could not pay their salary as a result of Baghdad withholding Kurdistan’s budget. The region needs $7 billion annually just to pay the salaries of public employees, but has received less than half of it from Baghdad for the past nine months.
- Kurdistan’s only income is from oil exports. It could take up to four years before the oil issue with Baghdad and Turkey can be resolved because the Iraqi government has filed a lawsuit against Turkey, as well as companies purchasing Kurdistan’s oil.
- There are no investments in strategic sectors such as agriculture, industry or tourism. The investments in the past years were fixated on hotels, residential projects and oil fields. The region needs food security at home because currently it is dependent on Turkey, Iran and China.
- The debt of Kurdistan region has put the region on the verge of bankruptcy. The KRG owes nearly $4 billion dollars to oil companies that operate in Kurdistan because Baghdad refuses to pay them from the national budget. KRG’s deficit is currently $7 billion dollars so far.
- The status of Kirkuk and other areas defined under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution remains unclear. Although Kurdish troops control these territories and exercise soreignty, thereby giving them the upper hand against Baghdad, it does not mean these areas can be annexed to Kurdistan without a fight from Baghdad.
- The “disputed areas” are composed of different sects, ethnicities and religious minorities. There are nearly 350,000 non-Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs who live in Kirkuk. Prior to conducting a referendum, the status of these groups’ should be guaranteed in the constitution — free from discrimination and given equal rights.
The lack of a strategic plan towards independence in the past are a consequence of the above mentioned problems. The Kurds have claimed independence and the right to self-determination for decades, but until June 9, 2014 there existed no plan to announce or conduct a referendum.
Despite the polarised discourse on Kurdistan’s declaration of independence, both groups agree that Iraq as a unified and centralised state has come to an end. Kurdistan is transitioning towards independence — Kurds are not at the initial stages of forming an independent state nor at the end of the process to declare independence. The road towards independence needs preparation, hard work at home, lobbying, diplomatic efforts abroad and a strategic plan to address legitimate concerns.
Kurds in Iraq are neither at the beginning of forming an independent state, nor at the end of the process to declare independence. Kurdistan is in a transition period towards independence. The route to independence needs preparation, hard work at home, lobbying and diplomatic efforts abroad, and most importantly a strategic plan to address all political party concerns.
We have summarised the following recommendations, which we believe are necessary towards declaring independence, and the KRG should implement them to the best of their capabilities. It is necessary for the KRG to put forth contingency plans and a strategic plan that could take up to five years, especially in regards to Kurdistan’s economy, agriculture and diplomatic ties.
- Decisions pertaining to Kurdistan should not be conducted unilaterally, rather it should go through parliament.
- The Parliament of Kurdistan should become the ultimate source of decision-making.
- Legitimate concerns raised by political parties should be addressed in parliament in a transparency session.
- Kurdistan’s parliament should host Arab and Turkmen figures in Kirkuk to understand and acknowledge their concerns about Kurdistan’s independence ambitions prior to imposing it on them.
- A strategic and cohesive plan is necessary whereby a commission is set up to oversee the necessary preliminary planning that are necessary in regards to Kurdistan’s economy, security, diplomacy, culture and politics.
- The proposed Kurdish National Congress (KNC) should resume its activities. It is a critical moment in Kurdistan’s history where unity is of tantamount importance throughout all parts of Kurdistan.
- The draft constitution which was passed in parliament in 2009 should be amended to include new realities, and address the concerns of Turkmen and Arabs in Kirkuk.
- Kurdistan’s referendum on Kirkuk is legitimate and grounded in Iraq’s constitution, which consequently makes it legally binding. However, a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence does not have a legal framework to be implemented, and therefore it is necessary for strategy to be enforced which will not place Kurdistan’s future in jeopardy.
- Kurdish participation in Iraq should be conditioned on the following demands, (A) holding referendum in Kirkuk within two months (B) releasing KRG’s share from national budget (C) compensation for debts (D) approving Kurdistan’s oil deals and sale to international parties (E) paying Peshmerga salaries (F) compensation for genocide and warfare destruction during Saddam Hussein’s era.
- Kurdistan Regional Government should utilise all diplomatic channels to pressurise both the United States and Iraqi government to arm Peshmerga with modern arms. Kurdistan Regional Government might be qualified for the United States new program “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund”. The aim of this program is to equip foreign security forces so that they can conduct counterterrorism operations with little American involvement.