Developments pointing towards the possibility of an independent Kurdish state raise new questions about Middle East politics, as well as the possibility of a major transformation of the region in years to come.
The history of the Middle East has been determined by events which initially seemed localised and relatively minor, before acquiring great significant and causing many upheavals in the long run. It appears that the region may be heading for yet another transformational change which may, in turn, invite comparisons with the events after World War I that shaped the Middle East of today.
The Kurdish people claim to have lived in the same land for more than 2,000 years. Their land has been divided by imperial manoeuvres. They have struggled against oppression and persecution for almost a century. Now, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, says that he is going to hold a referendum on independence in coming months.
The outcome is going to be a foregone conclusion. The referendum will result in a vote for an independent Kurdish state north of a truncated Iraq. The prospect is tantalising for many Kurds, persecuted for decades in a land which was divided by imperial powers between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey almost a century ago. At the same time, external powers in the region and afar will be eyeing for the consequences with a sense of delight or foreboding, depending on their own interests.
It is worth considering what has brought the idea of Kurdish independence so close to realisation. In recent months, communities in the autonomous Kurdistan Region have witnessed a growing Sunni Arab uprising in western and central Iraq, including areas around the capital Baghdad and near the autonomous Kurdish Region itself. Kurdish Peshmerga have been deployed outside Iraqi Kurdistan to block Sunni rebel advances, and defend Kurdistan’s borders. Iraq’s Kurdish population is bound to view freedom as too precious to lose, having won autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein at the end of a very long struggle.
The widespread alienation of Sunni Arabs caused by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, and the Sunni rebellion of late, have raised the prospect of Iraq’s formal breakup into Shia and Sunni mini-states. That prospect comes with risks as well as opportunities, not only for Iraqi Kurds, but for the Kurdish population throughout the region, especially in Iran, Syria and Turkey – three other countries with large concentrations of Kurdish communities.
Watching these developments in Iraq, and calculating their possible ramifications, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown the cat among the pigeons. Only a few days after the first tanker carrying crude oil produced in the autonomous Kurdish Region arrived at the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, bypassing areas under Iraqi government control, Netanyahu made his announcement of support for Kurdish independence. Netanyahu’s words must be music to Kurdish leaders’ ears.
The notion that the Israeli prime minister’s expression of support originates from a common history of oppression and persecution of both Jews and Kurds is a sign of naive thinking. For there are Israeli calculations at play to shape a new geopolitical reality that will be more favourable to Israel’s own interests and ambitions in the Middle East.
An independent Kurdish state is a matter of great importance to its people. However from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, such an event would accelerate the disintegration of the present Iraqi state. Since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq is already a much weaker power in the region. Further partition would result in at least three mini-states – Kurdish, and possibly Sunni and Shiite, triggered by a sharpening divide between them. The process may set in motion further balkanisation of Iraq, creating an Afghanistan, Syria or Libya type situation. In the Israeli prime minister’s calculations, that scenario would enhance Israel’s status as the regional superpower. It would give Israel a carte blanche to intervene. But is it going to make Israel more secure?
The implications of Netanyahu’s scheme would not be limited to Iraq’s partition into smaller, mutually hostile, states. He knows that many Kurdish people aspire for independence from Iran, Turkey, even Syria. Once Iraqi Kurds secede, it would embolden their brethren in those countries. The idea of greater Kurdistan is going to be a powerful agent, and confrontations with the central authorities in Ankara and Tehran will follow. Kurdish communities in Syria have been left to their own devices amid war.
Much of Syria lies in ruins. Its state structure and military are under great strain. Once a powerful and uncompromising adversary of Israel, Syria’s future hangs in the balance, and the country no longer poses a credible challenge to Israel. Syria’s destruction has left three more regional powers to neutralise – Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Netanyahu’s open support for an independent Kurdish state is a start on that strategy.
Iran, too, is on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s target list. Israel’s relationship with Iran was close before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the two countries have been at loggerheads. Tehran’s nuclear programme and its support for the Palestinians are the main causes of the Iranian-Israeli animus.
Netanyahu’s advocacy for action against Iran has been particularly aggressive in recent years, and President Barack Obama’s attempts for some kind of rapprochement with Tehran is a source of disagreement between Israel and the United States. The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may encourage similar demands from the Kurdish population in western Iranian provinces of Kordestan, Karmanshah and West Azerbaijan. If Netanyahu’s scheme succeeds, those demands will fuel the discontent in the Kurdish and other minorities of Iran. They may even lead to conflict. Iran’s preoccupation with any worsening of the internal situation will suit Netanyahu.
Israel has serious issues with Turkey as well. Their relations have suffered a sharp decline since the Turkish government denounced Israel’s Gaza War in 2008-2009. A major crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations came when the Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships in the open Mediterranean Sea carrying humanitarian supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American with dual citizenship, were killed in the incident. Relations between Turkey and Israel have not recovered since. Both sides remain adamant, and there are scores to be settled. Ankara’s difficulties in the Kurdish south-eastern region of Turkey will be of considerable interest to Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement of support for an independent Kurdistan is interesting in one particular respect – he is vague about the boundaries of such a state. His words seem carefully calculated, leaving a number of possibilities as to the size and shape of a Kurdish independent entity. The statement may well be designed to raise anxiety in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus. It is certainly a recipe for upheaval in future.
The modern Middle East, with Israel as a Jewish state in Palestine, emerged as a result of Anglo-French carve up of the region as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and a promise made for the creation of a Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The idea of Kurdish independence within borders not yet specified, and the decision to hold a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, raise the prospect of momentous transformational changes in years to come. Exactly what forces are behind the scheme remains shrouded in mystery. We know only that the idea has come from the prime minister of Israel, and has been seized by Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. How events unfold from now on is going to be of interest to many in concerned capitals and beyond.