In the lightning takeover of swaths of Iraq by Sunni jihadists, primarily the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, one beneficiary is already clear: the Kurds. The Kurdish Peshmerga, easily the most disciplined military in the country, has filled a vacuum left by the flight of the Iraqi military in many areas, especially those considered historically Kurdish. Never has the dream of an independent Kurdish state been closer.
Much as the Kurds deserve one, Iraq — and the larger region — needs them as part of a multiethnic, multisectarian state. And the Kurds can use this moment to gain more autonomy and independence than they have now.
Since 2003, Iraq’s Kurds have built a secure statelet, making it attractive to foreign investors and minority populations fleeing persecution in the south. They have shown they are better qualified to run a country than most governments in the Middle East.
Yet a unilateral bid now for independence is fraught with risk for themselves and the region. President Barack Obama this week explained why keeping Iraq whole and stable is a U.S. national security interest. Kurdistan’s secession would make an extended and destabilizing sectarian war to redraw the borders of the Middle East, from Jordan to Iran, more likely.
So what can officials in Baghdad and Washington do to persuade Kurds to remain part of Iraq? They might start by noting how difficult it can be for internationally unrecognized states to thrive. Iran and — depending on the response of Turkey’s Kurdish minority — Turkey could turn on a self-proclaimed Kurdish state, making for a tough and lonely existence.
Iraq’s central government, encouraged by the United States, should also demonstrate that it accepts the new reality that has emerged since the collapse of the army in Mosul. The Kurds will not walk away from oil-rich Kirkuk, and that should be reflected in Iraq’s internal borders. Nor should they be expected to continue to submit to an arrangement for sharing oil revenues, enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, that centralizes all control and payments in Baghdad.
That arrangement was unraveling even before the recent conflict. The first tankers carrying the oil that has begun to flow through a new Kurdish-controlled pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan are now circling the Mediterranean. The Iraqi government in Baghdad, backed by the U.S., has threatened legal action against any buyers, fearing that independent oil sales will lead to secession. The Kurdish asking price has fallen by roughly half, to $56 a barrel, yet no one is buying.
Such a legal blockade is unsustainable at a time when the Kurds are getting no revenues from Baghdad at all and the country is melting down. It would not be against the Iraqi constitution to allow the Kurds to sell independently any newly developed oil flows.
The first step Iraq’s government can take to prove it is changing its dictatorial and sectarian ways would be to offer a new settlement to the Kurds — indeed, the threat of Kurdish independence is a powerful incentive to do so. The Kurds also have incentives to cut a deal, including removal of the legal threats that are preventing them from selling oil. In return, the Kurds would agree to stay within Iraq, and the Peshmerga would work more closely with government forces and the U.S. to fight ISIL.
As Obama said this week, it is clear what Iraq’s Shia leaders need to do to stop the disintegration of their country: Reach out to both Sunnis and Kurds. And they don’t have a lot of time to do it.