While the media is focused on Iranian nuclear talks, the war in Syria, and the elections in Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) is making headways in severing Baghdad's grip over its national ambitions, chiefly the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.
Still, numerous obstacles remain along with plenty of regional and international dissenters, not to mention the task of overcoming a web of Kurdish political rivalries. While a myriad of concerns exist, fresh geopolitical realities are furthering the Iraqi Kurdish cause. Those realities, which have manifested into a new pipeline deal with Turkey, are turning the KRG into an influential and crucial player in the Middle East, which could arguably propel a push for Kurdish independence – sooner rather than later.
While ethnic Kurds are spread out throughout Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, their Iraqi brethren have advanced the most in terms of achieving Kurdish-nationalist goals. Since 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region, and one that is secured by its own forces, relatively stable, and increasingly able to make unilateral foreign policy decisions - much to the chagrin of Baghdad. Moreover, the defeat of their premier threat, the Iraqi army, by the Americans in 2003, contributed immensely to Kurdish sovereignty. Then America's continued presence fostered a period of internal stability and growth, while the region’s preoccupation with a ruthless Sunni and Shiite bloodletting enabled the KRG to entrench itself as a formidable player in Iraqi politics.
With that in mind, the issue of oil remains one of the main obstructions to Kurdish independence in Iraq. As a developing entity, the Kurds rely on their southern Arab neighbor to transfer and ship newly discovered oil reserves to foreign markets. The long running Arab and Kurdish dispute within Iraq continually jeopardizes existing oil agreements, notably leading to a recent halt of all oil traffic from Kurdistan. Iraq realizes that its hold over Iraqi Kurdistan lies mainly in controlling oil infrastructure and the market, thereby limiting Kurdish abilities to sell oil on its own - a major step towards independence from the Arabs.
Then late last month, it was reported that Ankara and Erbil agreed on energy pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkish terminals, two of which were made without Baghdad’s consent. The plan has enraged Baghdad not only for its timing - as Shiite Iraq remains in a diplomatic quarrel with Turkey, but also for its brazen and purposeful meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. But for the Kurds, the pipelines are a strategic breakthrough and likely to alleviate the long term problem of Baghdad’s monopoly of infrastructure development in all of Iraq.
Building and securing pipelines in the Middle East is no easy task. Hence, the Turkish-Kurdish plan signals Ankara’s faith in the KRG’s ability to secure territory and enable the continuous flow of energy to meet Turkey’s growing needs. That said, Iraqi Kurds are likely wary of Turkish intent, given the ongoing feud between Shiite Iraq and Sunni Turkey, plus the nature of Middle East power politics. To that point, the Kurds are used to being a chess piece in a region of competing powers, mainly Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria - all fighting for their own geostrategic ascendancy.
With that in mind, Kurdish alliances are often short-term and need-based, thus warming Turkish-Kurdish relations do not mean Turkey wants Iraqi Kurdish independence. Turkey has its own very violent Kurdish conflict, thus cooperation between Turks and Kurds is likely a strategy of increasing Ankara’s influence in Iraq by taking advantage of the current political stalemate in Baghdad, while giving a sharp blow to its new regional rival, the Iranian aligned Maliki government. Nonetheless, the pipelines offer them concrete gains in the form of energy infrastructure, thus the Kurds will gladly play along with Turkey as long as their partnership mitigates their most pressing issue - removing themselves from the Iraqi vice.
That vice is widening, as Iraq’s ability to control a stable, ethnically homogeneous, and increasingly influential and prosperous Kurdish entity wanes. The pipelines mark an important step forward for Iraqi Kurds; however, no step was possible if they had not laid the foundations that necessitate such a development. These are primarily two: stability within Iraqi Kurdistan and the increasingly hostile relationship between Iraq and Turkey. In the future, Iraq will undoubtedly seek to maintain its influence over its separatist northern regions, however, the Kurds are pressing ahead with independence from Baghdad - with or without their consent.
Daniel Brode is an Intelligence Analyst withMax Security Solutions,a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East