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Kurdistan’s five hurdles to independence

Iraq’s military, backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has captured the city of Kirkuk and nearby oil fields that had been held by the Kurdish regional government’s Peshmerga forces since 2014. The question is whether this has dealt a death blow to Kurdish hopes for a separate state, manifested in an overwhelming vote for independence in September.

The independence vote was not binding and authorised the Kurdish regional government to enter into negotiations with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has point blank refused to enter into such talks.

The Iraqi government had declared the vote illegal and immediately blocked international flights to the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The move on Kirkuk was met with little resistance by the Peshmerga, who withdrew from the city with sporadic little fighting.

The loss of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces is likely to have been a strategic withdrawal by the Peshmerga forces. Kirkuk is an ethnically mixed city and only within a historic understanding of Kurdistan, rather than a more contemporary claim.

The Peshmerga have demonstrated, particularly in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, that they are the preeminent military force in Iraq. Should there be a direct confrontation between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, it is not clear that Iraq would, by itself, be successful.

An independent Kurdish state has been the dream of many, perhaps most, Kurds since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The Kurds, however, found themselves divided between a hostile Turkey, a multi-ethnic Syria, Iraq and Iran. Each of these countries has been loath to allow Kurdish independence, much less reunification, although the wars in Iraq and Syria have allowed the creation of effectively independent states in the north of both countries.

With a coherent national identity, a formidable fighting force, and control of some of Iraq’s richest oil and gas fields, Iraqi Kurds have most of the key ingredients necessary for succeeding in its claim for independence. However, they also face a number of hurdles, which are likely to stymie their aspirations for independence.

The first problem facing the Kurds is that they — and their fighting force — are politically divided. The governing pro-independence Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is traditionalist — some say feudalistic — while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has a strong (originally pro-Soviet) left-wing background.

The KDP and PUK fought an internal three-year civil war from 1994, ending only with US-sponsored reconciliation. PUK co-founder, Fuad Masum, is the current President of Iraq.

The second problem is that both the Iraqi military and the Peshmerga have been supplied by the United States. The US favours a united Iraq, if with some degree of Kurdish autonomy, and is likely to cease the supply of weapons to the Peshmerga if all-out war looms.

A third problem for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is that it is entirely landlocked and while it has oil and gas it in unable to export these commodities. Of the two pipelines than run out of the territory, the one through Iraq and Syria has been destroyed, and the other through Turkey can easily be closed off.

The fourth and perhaps most compelling problem for Kurdistan’s bid for independence is that it does not have an international sponsor to provide it with a life-line, which is a common requirement if an independence movement is to have much chance of success.

The one possible country that might have supported an independent Kurdistan is Russia, in exchange for oil and gas. However, Russia is more intent on cultivating relations with Iran and Turkey, both of which are hostile to an independent Kurdistan, while Russia’s client state of Syria is similarly opposed to Kurdish independence in its north.

Finally, should an Iraqi-Kurdish war break out, Iran and probably Turkey would also likely intervene against Kurdistan. Despite the Peshmerga’s well-deserved reputation for military success, it would struggle in a three-front war against two powerful states, Turkey and Iran, and another, Iraq, that could at least make life difficult.

A more likely outcome, therefore, is that the KDP government will step back from its immediate independence claims. It could then be expected to work to consolidate its autonomy within a functionally federated Iraq.

Given that Iraqi Kurdistan has been independent in all but name, continuing its autonomy would not be an unviable outcome. Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani is an experienced politician and, having succeeded his father as leader and survived numerous wars, could be expected to choose a path of less resistance and live to fight another day.