Peshmerga soldier in northern Iraq
In the three months since its first major conquest at Mosul, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has profoundly altered the political geography of the Middle East. The increasing mutability of borders has affected many groups in Iraq, perhaps none more than the Kurds. By severing Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of the country, the expansion of ISIL has accelerated one of the oldest processes in modern-day Iraq: the Kurds’ push for expanded autonomy.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Iraqi Kurds have fought vigorously for self-rule, first against British and then Iraqi forces. Their push for independence has encountered brutal opposition, such as when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurdish civilians in the 1980s. Through changes to the Iraqi constitution in 2005, however, the Kurds were able to gain formal recognition for a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq led by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
While the central government continues in disarray, there has been talk of a “new reality” in Iraq.
As Kurdish security forces, known as peshmerga, wage a largely single-handed battle against ISIL while the central government continues in disarray, there has been talk of a “new reality” in Iraq. The increasingly tenuous relationship between Baghdad and Erbil has prompted Kurdish leaders and regional observers alike to countenance the eventual formation of an independent Kurdish state. Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has poured fuel on this fire, recently calling on the KRG to set a date for an independence referendum.
This announcement runs counter to long-standing U.S. policy in the region, which opposes Kurdish independence for fear of provoking the large and restive Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran. Any partition of Iraq at this point in time would set a dangerous example for other marginalized and embattled sects in the Middle East. Moreover, it would delegitimize the newly formed unity government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
While the threat of Kurdish independence is concerning, it also represents an opportunity to negotiate a settlement between Baghdad and Erbil that will commit both sides to the protection of the Iraqi state. This will require mediation from the U.S., with an eye towards sweetening the pot for the Kurds by offering them greater control of their regional economy.
Though Iraqi Kurdistan is largely an autonomous region, it remains politically and economically tethered to Baghdad in two important ways. Barred from collecting revenue directly from the sale of its own oil, the KRG must export through Baghdad, which then keeps about 80 percent of Kurdish oil revenue for itself. Second, the KRG’s budget is controlled by the central government, which is known to regularly mishandle or misallocate Kurdish funds.
This dysfunctional relationship is particularly unfortunate given the increasing security demands being placed on Kurdish peshmerga. Baghdad’s failure to make several budget payments in June and July, for instance, has set back Kurdish efforts to secure the 600-mile border that the KRG shares with ISIL. The Kurds need more money not only to support current operations, but also to buy heavier weaponry that can match the firepower of ISIL. Hamstrung by corrupt, incompetent, and oftentimes nonexistent central governance, the KRG has reasonably conditioned any future cooperation with Baghdad on a series of demands. Foremost among these is the right to export Kurdish oil directly.
The U.S. must press Baghdad to give Erbil greater control over the use of its regional oil resources.
Given the importance of preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity and promoting cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, the U.S. must press Baghdad to give Erbil greater control over the use of its regional oil resources. While this may be a departure from current government practice, it certainly conforms to the letter and spirit of the country’s 2005 constitution. Indeed, that constitution stipulates that although the central government has complete control over existing oil fields (from 2005), it does not necessarily have jurisdiction over new ones. Therefore, the U.S. should push the Iraqi parliament to enact legislation that explicitly permits the KRG to sell its own oil as long as it comes from new oil fields located in Kurdish territory. An independent stream of oil revenue would allow the Kurds to plan and fund military operations against ISIL more reliably and efficiently in the future.
Empowering the Kurds to export their own oil is the best way to halt their preparations for independence without compromising the fight against ISIL. Some will argue, however, that this arrangement paves the way for de facto statehood. To be sure, this approach may well establish a new politico-economic relationship between Erbil and Baghdad, but it does not encourage partition any more than the constitution does. By protecting the autonomy of the Kurdish people, this arrangement simply reinforces the federal principles laid down in the Iraqi constitution—principles that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to implement or respect.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.