The September 25 Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdish region is seen by Kurdish supporters as a major step forward to fulfilling its dream: an independent Kurdish state. The dream, however, could be met with a military response from the Iraqi government and surrounding countries Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The bloody history of the Kurds in the Middle East could soon add a new chapter. Now, the Kurdish national state could even be met by a combined Shi’a and Turkish military force.
Turkish forces are already holding major military exercises on the border of Iraq, while the Iraqi government continues to threaten the Kurds with a full military reaction to any Kurdish independence movements. Iran and its puppet state, Syria, have indicated a forceful reaction may be in store.
Still, all hope hasn’t vanished for a Kurdish success story. The vote in the Arab world is still out. Several Gulf states have overtly supported Kurdish movements toward independence, not only to quell possible Iranian power projections in the north of Iraq, but also to put extra pressure on Turkey.
Ankara’s move to support Qatar in the fight against the ATQ (Saudi-led Anti-Terror Quartet alliance) and Turkey’s rapprochement with Iran has caused heightened tensions within the region. Ankara’s increased military cooperation with vast parts of the Iranian military establishment, evidenced by the visit of the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces to his Turkish counterpart, has been viewed angrily by Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian government officials.
Ankara and Tehran seem to be preparing a combined military strategy to quell any Kurdish independence gains. However, these allies may have overlooked the changing position that Russia, Iran’s main ally in Syria, is currently taking inside the Kurdish movement.
Growing business links between Moscow and Erbil, such as the major deal just signed by Rosneft to build a vast gas export pipeline in Kurdistan, show that Moscow is once again playing a Russian roulette version of the Middle East chess game. Growing cooperation between the Kurdish government, led by the KDP, President Masoud Barzani, and Putin’s associates, could put the Kurds in a better position to achieve and maintain independence.
The West, represented by the U.S. and its European partners, plays a disputed and fledgling role. After promoting and supporting the de-facto Kurdish independent state after the removal of Saddam Hussein, while arming them during their battles against Daesh/IS and Al Qaeda, Western governments show a lack of stamina and political influence.
The already-weak position Western countries presently have in the Middle East is particularly apparent now. Washington, London, Brussels and Paris haven’t been willing to support the democratic moves made in Erbil, while also ignoring the growing instability and security issues confronting the Kurds in their home regions. From Washington and Europe, the Kurdish state shouldn’t expect a message of love.
Now, even Western countries are putting pressure on Erbil to either postpone the referendum or change its meaning. Here, Washington and Tehran seem to be on the same track. Both have indicated that a single Iraqi state is their ultimate goal. Tehran and Washington have also cooperated in their fight against Daesh in Iraq. This alliance—focusing on a unitary state (one Iraq)—has become especially clear over the past few weeks. Related: Could Kurdish Independence Spark An Oil War?
General Qasem Soleimani (leader of Iran’s Quds Force), Brett McGurk (Trump’s envoy in the fight against Daesh) and U.S. Ambassador in Iraq Douglas Silliman have all put pressure on the Kurds to defer the independence referendum. Iran and the U.S. don’t have the same motives. Iran’s motives are clear. Iraq should be under Iranian control, while the US wants to support Haider al-Abadi in his run-up to next year’s Iraq’s elections.
However, a conflict is brewing. The Iraqi Kurds have started a movement that cannot be stopped, except by force.
A Kurdish independence—the referendum’s expected outcome—will not only confront the region with a new independent and partly powerful state, Kurdistan, but will also stir tensions within the region.
Neighboring countries won’t agree to accept an independent Kurdistan. Iran’s growing anti-Kurdish hysteria and posturing also leaves Tehran no other option but to seek confrontation. This could even be under the pretext of an Israeli interference or pro-Israeli Kurdish state.
In the end, Washington will be forced to choose sides, which, based on their support of the Kurds autonomy since 1991, should be clear.
A real potential place for a confrontation between western forces and their allies on the ground (Kurds) and Iranian-backed parties is in and around Kirkuk—the oil-rich and multi-ethnic city surrounded by vast oil and gas reserves is a price that all are vying for.
Kurdish claims are clear, and historically could be strong, but Saddam Hussein’s policies of migrating other ethnic groups to Kirkuk, which has continued until now, will make it a battlefield. No Kurdish state will survive without taking full power in Kirkuk and other former Kurdish areas.
President Barzani has openly stated that the Kurds will fight at Kirkuk. Major reinforcements are already in place. Iraq’s government has also acted, lately by removing the powerful mayor of Kirkuk, which was greeted by violence and rejection.
The real unknown now is Turkey’s president Erdogan, who has cozied up to the Iraqi Kurdish power players (like Barzani) for years. A good bilateral relationship between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds has helped Ankara in its fight against the PKK, as they could no longer rely on a safe haven in northern Iraq.
Still, Ankara shows signs of concern.
The growing drive for independence by all Kurdish parties in Syria, Iran and Turkey could receive a major boost by the Iraqi Kurds’ independence. Turkey’s military is already severely constrained, partly because the ‘anti-Gulen purge’ has hit the armed forces hard, and also due to its military involvement in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Turkey, fighting both PKK (and its proxies) and Daesh. A new full military operation against the Iraqi Kurds could be too much for the already stretched Turkish forces.
In just two weeks, the region could change beyond recognition. An independent Kurdistan could be a fact of life, but life could be full of disaster, bloodshed and regional instability. A military confrontation on a supra-regional scale still isn’t on the horizon, but some mishaps could take place and the world’s super power(s) and regional adversaries could meet on the battlefield.
Related: Have Oil Markets Reached A Turning Point?
An unstable Kurdistan, confined to the Kurdish borders (fictional still), would have only a minor effect on global oil and gas markets. Although Kurdish oil and gas reserves (or northern Iraq’s) are important and attractive, the market impact could be minimal and mitigated by current oil stocks. However, taking a more rational approach, a confrontation spilling beyond these borders is easy to paint.
A destabilized Iraq, a confrontation between Arab-Western forces and Iran, or the involvement of Turkey could lead to a grand-scale disaster. In a region already known for the “Mother of All Battles”, a real clash could hit oil and gas severely. Taking out the northern regions (Kurdistan, eastern Turkey and Iran) would impact oil and gas supply coming from the Middle East and the Caucasus region.
A “Mother of All Battles” would meet an “Oil Fury”.
By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com
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