Will the Fall of Ramadi Hasten Kurdish Independence?

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ISIS’s victory has upset the Kurdish policy of first defeating ISIS before establishing an independent Kurdish state. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

With the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) latest victory in Ramadi, contentions that its rapid advances had stalled must be revisited. In the wake of the visit to Washington by Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) president, Masoud Barzani, the question of KRG priorities and strategies might once again be changing.

ISIS’s blitzkrieg into Mosul last summer, and the failure of the Iraqi Army to do anything but flee, created a new capital for the self-described caliphate. It caused a humanitarian disaster for Yazidis, Christians and others. And it fomented an urgency among many in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, who sensed that Baghdad could not defend the country and so the Kurdistan Region (KR) would have to defend itself—independently.

ISIS’s pivot to Kurdistan later in the summer, threatening its capital, Erbil, was frightful and sobering. Even with the dedicated efforts of the region’s militia (the peshmerga), the KRG and its people recognized it needed significant outside help from Europe, the United States and elsewhere to defend itself.

In September 2014, Haider al-Abadi became Iraq’s prime minister, replacing Nouri al-Maliki, in whom the KRG had no confidence. In December, Erbil and Baghdad reached an agreement that was supposed to resolve the struggle over oil exports and finances between Baghdad and Erbil. But it is not clear that the KRG believes Baghdad has lived up to its end of the agreement.

In May 2015, Barzani brought specific goals and a clear message to Washington. He spoke at the Atlantic Council and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). At each, he was pressed on the relevant issues:  does he believe he will get the necessary weapons that have been promised? What is the status of Baghdad-Erbil relations? What role do Iran and Turkey play in all this calculus? What is the status of the extra-constitutional extension of his term limits? And will—or when will—the Kurdistan Region make a formal move toward independence?

Barzani’s answers were clear. The Kurdistan Region is grateful, he emphasized, for the U.S. and allied airstrikes against ISIS, and for humanitarian aid for the 1.5 million refugees. But, he continued, the peshmerga need the weapons that Western states have promised in order to fight ISIS. Washington is debating whether to deliver the weapons directly, or continue to deliver them through Baghdad. Barzani said after his meetings at the White House, he was confident they would be received.

The defeat of ISIS is the first priority, Barzani clarified. Defending the region but allowing ISIS to survive in Syria or other parts of Iraq would not be sufficient, he said, since they would remain a threat. The defeat of ISIS, Barzani explained, is a necessary step before the inevitable task ahead. The Kurdistan Region needs and is entitled to self-governance. After the defeat of ISIS, it will hold a referendum for the people to decide whether to voluntarily remain part of Iraq.  

On May 6, Barzani elaborated: “Right now our country is in a fight against ISIS. The fight is not over. But the—that’s why the issue of referendum has been delayed. Of course, the referendum will take place. The first step for that has taken place, when the parliament in Kurdistan approved the establishment of the Commission for Elections and for Referendum. That was the first step. It will take place when the security situation is better, when the fight against ISIS is over. And of course, the people of Kurdistan have to be given the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination for them to tell us and to tell the rest of the world what do they want, what’s their dream, what’s their aspirations.”

Barzani repeated this plan two days later: “Of course, right now, the priority for all of us is fighting ISIS, to continue to push them out and away from our areas. But the process for the referendum to take place for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future and for the people of Kurdistan to exercise the right to self-determination is a process that has happened.  It will not stop and we will not step back on that process. We are determined, and we insist on continuing the path.”

What Does the KRG Need for Independence?

The KRG and the Kurdistan Region need what any new or existing country needs: self-identity, security, an economy and international recognition. None of these is without complications.

Self-identity the Kurds have, but with some qualifications. The Kurds themselves have a clear awareness of their history and geography. They were promised, and then denied, their own state after World War I. Since the 1991 Gulf War, and especially since 2003, they have governed themselves with considerable autonomy, some material success and efforts toward democracy.

But most of the Middle East’s 30 million to 35 million Kurds live outside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria. Assyrians in Iraq, even before the rise and expansion of ISIS, had demands for their own autonomy, including in “disputed territories” controlled by the KRG.

Security is a more difficult matter. The risk from ISIS persists. Western airstrikes on ISIS have provided vital assistance. Risks of terrorist attacks from ISIS inspiration continue as well, as arrests this week and in recent months demonstrate.

More significant security concerns may be related to the question of international recognition. Most critically, the KRG can only move forward if it knows that it has the support of the United States, or Baghdad, or both. It must know how Turkey and Iran will react toward their own Kurdish areas, and toward the KR itself.

The name of a new country may be challenged, as Greece challenged the newly independent “Macedonia” after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Ideally, there will need to be at least an informal arrangement with the Kurdish areas in Syria. At the Atlantic Council and CFR, Barzani emphasized that any process would have to be diplomatic and peaceful, but that a vote on independence was inevitable.

Finally, security and international recognition are essential for any newly independent Kurdistan economy. The KRG will have to provide its own funding; this means exporting oil. Since the KR is landlocked, that means exports through Turkey or Iraq. The United States and others will need to permit such sales on the world market, and the KRG will need legitimate buyers.

The new government will also need local and international legitimacy. After the celebration, the citizens’ demands will include real democracy.  The Barzani and Talabani families have done much in setting the KRG in the right direction, and in continuing to pledge a democratic future.  

They will be challenged to sustain and improve their respectable treatment of religious minorities; to balance internal security concerns with protections for ethnic minorities; to minimize corruption; to resolve finance, oil, border and security questions within transparent rule of law, to develop a rich civil society, free and fair elections and capable political parties and to nurture a political environment of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in law and in fact. This was a difficult list for Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s; it may prove Herculean amidst the challenges of the Middle East.

Change of Plans?

A resurgence of ISIS, though, might force the KRG to reprioritize its “defeat Daesh, then vote on independence” strategy. Erbil may rely on good relations with the current Iraqi prime minister, but can it rely on the next one? Will Baghdad be able to coordinate support from Shiite militias, Sunni tribes, the Iraqi Army and Western airstrikes? Will Baghdad devote more resources to protecting Karbala and Najaf at the expense of Sunni or Kurdish areas? If Baghdad cannot protect major cities like Mosul and Ramadi from ISIS—will the Kurds decide they are better off alone?

Barzani laid out his priorities (without a specific time line): defeat ISIS, then a referendum.  There is no evidence so far that the Obama administration is ready to give up the Bush-Obama commitment to a single, unified, peaceful, democratic Iraq. But last summer the facts on the ground changed quickly and frequently.

The question now will not be how vigilant are Erbil, Washington, and others, but how agile.

Jim Quirk teaches international politics and political economy at American University, Loyola University Maryland, and The Catholic University of America; and taught at the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria.