Kurds in Iraq and Syria: a new chaos is redefining the Middle East’s borders

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By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai

There is no doubt that most Iraqi Kurds will say “yes” to the referendum and start materialising the dream of the 30 million Kurds inhabiting Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia, a dream of establishing an independent state in Kurdistan-Iraq to start with. Despite the announcement of the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani that the referendum is only the beginning of a negotiation with the central government in Baghdad (and not a “divorce” from the state of Iraq) he hopes (and most probably knows) that the independence will be recognised as a fact by the international community sooner or later. For certain, this referendum – if its result is implemented – will lead to a redefinition of the map of the Middle East, and the countries of Iraq and Syria to start with where Kurds in both countries control enough energy resources to sustain their “state”. Leaders around the world said – during the war in Syria – that the Middle East would never return to the way it was before 2011, probably referring to the “Islamic State” (ISIS) occupation of large part of Syria and Iraq. But today, their prediction may come true through the Kurds – even though the “Islamic State” (ISIS) “project” failed to reach its objective, that of dividing both Syria and Iraq.

Thus, the Kurdish will to establish an independent state is giving greater power to Turkey, holding the key of the Kurdish future state, and to the partition of the Middle East. In fact, in Iraq, Ankara will play a crucial role in the coming months and years in reshaping Mesopotamia and the Levant. Kurdistan exports its main oil revenue through Turkey, putting Erbil at Ankara’s mercy. Therefore, if Turkey considers the independence a threat to its national security, it will not hesitate to send troops into Kurdistan, triggering probably little effective action or reaction from Baghdad. Moreover, media coverage which showed Iranian Kurds in Kirkuk creates a perfect excuse for Tehran, and free hand to hit these forces in Iraq if Erbil takes further measures towards independence.

In these last days, a Kurdish delegation from Erbil visited Baghdad to negotiate  a rescheduling of the referendum with the central government. They presented a series of conditions (which were considered unacceptable by Baghdad) based on a future Kurdish independent state. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi showed no flexibility and launched threats against Erbil. Abadi declared an overtly ban on flights from and to Erbil and asked neighbouring countries to follow this step: Tehran and Ankara responded positively but to date both have kept the borders open with Kurdistan. According to Nawzad Adham, Kurdistan general director at the Trade and Industry local Ministry, Kurdistan business exchanges with Turkey and Iran exceed $10 billion per year. Kurdistan imports 95% of its agricultural needs from Turkey and Iran and depends on Turkey for the export of its oil.

Kurdistan escaped most of the destruction caused by the first Gulf war in 1991, the Iraqi occupation in 2003 and the war against ISIS in 2014 (to-date). The Kurds are spread over 40.000 km2, they control over 20% of the Iraqi oil  (Iraq produces around 4.35 million barrels per day (b/d) and Kurdistan 900.000 b/d), its energy reserves are estimated around 45 billion barrels of oil and 150 trillion cubic meter of gas, and it exports around 600.000 b/d via Turkey. Oil has been the source of a dispute between Baghdad and Erbil: in October 2011, the Kurds signed an exploration deal with the US oil giant Exxon Mobil (actual US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the former CEO) for six exploration blocks, and this without Central government approval, sparking the first official confrontation with KRG. Since then, Kurdistan has resisted agreeing any fiscal control from the finance Ministry related to oil (and telecommunication) revenue cashed in by Erbil and, in consequence Baghdad has refrained from paying 17% of its total oil revenue- since 25% of Iraqi total oil revenue is apparently ending in Kurdish leaders’ pockets.

Many western officials considered the Kurds the only serious US partner against ISIS. However, it was the same Barzani who praised the ISIS occupation of Mosul in June 2014 because it offered an opportunity for the partition of Iraq. Moreover, Iraqi forces (including the Popular Mobilisation Units) lost more than 10,000 men, and recovered most of the territory controlled by ISIS, while the Kurds of Erbil limited them to defend Kurdistan, lost around 1300 men, and took back Sinjar in few hours after allowing ISIS to leave the Iraqi city to Syria .

Barzani counts on international recognition to protect his “new state” in the future, regardless of a verbally negative stand from many countries, including the US, the UK and the UN. The Kurdish leader is not a suicidal candidate and would never have insisted on such a conflictual step without sufficient international political support. despite what is overtly announced. Kurds in Iraq believe the referendum is a historical opportunity not to be missed, while Baghdad believes it is a huge mistake that the Kurds will regret in the future. In fact, Abadi is taking gradual measures against Barzani. These measures are expected to increase in number and intensity, putting in jeopardy the future of Iraqi Kurds’ businesses and residences in many parts of Iraq, the over one million and a half Kurdish employees within the various ministries and official institutions, and may very well lead to a military confrontation in the main contested areas, especially the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk (the oil fields are situated outside the city and under Kurdish Peshmerga control).

In Syria, the Kurdish future “federation” (Kurds in Syria are expected to start with a request for a federation before moving on towards a state, like in Iraq) will force a Damascus-Ankara collaboration, obliging Syria to turn a blind eye to the Turkish forces present in the north of the country and postpone its claim to recover its territory for a while. A rich Kurdish Federation in Syria and “state” in Iraq will definitely create a serious menace to Turkey, which holds the largest Kurdish population (over 16 million). The Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is in a privileged position but also needs to play his cards skilfully to avoid consequences on his own territory: once the Kurds of Iraq show their will to have a state, those in the rest of the region won’t hesitate long before following the same path.

In fact, the Syrian Kurds count around 8% of the population but control (under the US forces command and guidance) today 25% of the territory and 40% of oil and gas resources if they keep their control over the oil and gas rich province of Deir-Ezzour, north-east Syria. The Kurds have already started local community elections and are planning local council elections in the next months, with the election of a Parliament next year in north-east Syria.

The end of ISIS’s control of territories in Syria and Iraq is certain by 2018. However, it is equally certain that the Middle East is entering a new period of chaos, putting all borders into question, and affecting the stability of the region.


Read also articles related:

  1. The war in Syria coming to an end: the Kurdish card still to play https://ejmagnier.com/2017/09/14/the-war-in-syria-coming-to-an-end-the-kurdish-card-still-to-play/
  2. First “Islamic State” and then the US breaches Sykes-Picot with one objective: the Partition of Syria and Iraq
  3. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria are being used by the US as a Trojan horse for the purpose of dividing the Middle East

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