Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, June 17, 2014 --
The collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of Islamist rebels has virtually assured the independence of Kurdistan.
When an oil tanker made a U-turn in the Atlantic ocean last week, it was a huge setback for the Kurdish government. Nobody would buy their oil.1 The central government in Baghdad bullied their customers with threats of lawsuits, refused payment for Kurdistan's share of oil exports, and continued a tense standoff over control of the city of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim as their historic capital.
Then an amazing thing happened that left the Kurds unable to conceal their glee. The Iraqi army disintegrated. Prime Minister Maliki's poorly trained troops and crony officer corps deserted their posts rather than fight militants across a huge area of northern Iraq.
As powerful Kurdish armed forces known as Peshmerga moved in to fill the vacuum, Kurds have found themselves in control of virtually all of their historical lands in Iraq for the first time in over a hundred years. These lands include the city of Kirkuk and the enormous oilfields in the surrounding area.
The forlorn tanker still floats in limbo off the coast of Morocco, but few people now doubt that Kurdistan will prevail over the teetering government in Baghdad, and billions of barrels of Kirkuk oil will soon follow using a new pipeline built to Turkey. The Kurdish government has announced that two more tankers will load oil this week pumped over the border to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.2
Meanwhile, the world has been transfixed by the advance of al-Qaeda affiliated militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which now control Tal Afar, Tikrit, Iraq's second city of Mosul. The American government is so disturbed by the situation that it has reportedly considered a once unthinkable alliance with the Iranians to dislodge the militants3 and has sent an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf.
To date, Kurdistan's Peshmerga fighters have had little more than skirmishes with the ISIS militants despite neighboring areas of control spanning hundreds of miles. Given the history of torment of Kurdistan by the Iraqi central government, you can hardly blame the Kurds for begin reluctant to put their sons' and daughters' lives on the line to rescue their recent tormentors.
The more likely scenario would be a declaration of independence by what is now merely an autonomous region of Kurdistan. Given the decrepit state of of the Iraqi army, and the favorable facts on the ground created by the Kurds' recent land grabs, such a declaration seems more likely than ever. Yet the Kurds have been waiting many decades for this opportunity, but seem far-sighted enough not to screw it up with haste.
Two obstacles remain between Kurdistan and independence. First, the nation must secure its economic future by succeeding in selling the oil it is sending through its new pipeline to Turkey. Second, it must earn Western (and particularly American) support, or at least grudging acceptance of this declaration. Becoming an independent pariah state is hardly attractive.
The chaotic state of affairs in Iraq provides new opportunities for Kurdistan to overcome these obstacles. Given the threats to its very existence, Baghdad is probably not going to be spending a huge amount of energy fighting Kurdistan's oil exports. And given America's desperation to roll back the ISIS advance, the Kurds are in an excellent position to strike a deal with America on accepting their independence in return for help against ISIS.
America would be right to strike such a deal. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, and the only group in Europe and the Middle East to be denied this right during the heyday of the nation-state at the end of World War I. Instead, Kurdish lands were carved up between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, spawning civil wars that would last most of the last century.
This historic injustice is finally coming to an end. Events have finally given the Kurds of northern Iraq a strong hand. The birth of the world's first Kurdish state is only a matter of time.
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1. Reuters, Tanker With piped Iraqi Kurdish Oil U-turns Away From U.S., May 30, 2014
2. Wall Street Journal, Iraqi Kurdistan to Increase Oil Exports, June 17, 2014