The collapse of the Iraqi government and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) do not present a wonderful opportunity for an independent Kurdish state. Instead, the replacement of the mismanaged Iraqi government by an extremist Islamist movement is a catastrophe. ISIS poses a mortal threat to Kurdish life in Iraq and beyond. Worse, the Iraqi Kurds may have to declare themselves separate from Iraq as their only means of survival.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s most important neighbor today is a self-declared caliphate that wants to unite all Sunni Muslims in an extremist state. The group is targeting those who are not Sunni Muslims, such as the Christians and Shia Muslims, forcing them to flee to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan. Unlike the Kurds, who emphasize their ethnic identity, ISIS wants to erase national differences and frontiers. Days after capturing Mosul, ISIS removed part of the Iraq-Syria border. ISIS represents a long line of jihadists who have targeted Kurdish nationalists since 2001.
Although ISIS is focused on Baghdad for the moment, the Kurds know they are under threat. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now has a border with ISIS that runs for over 1,000 kilometers; the frontier with the rest of Iraq is around 50 kilometers long. The Kurds have capable security forces, but it is unclear if they can withstand an ISIS assault. Unsurprisingly, given its own inability to function, Baghdad is not offering any help.
Instead, Baghdad is repeating its threats against the Kurds and seeking to block KRG oil sales. The Kurds represent the main opposition to the Islamists in the north. Kurdish forces, at Baghdad’s request, stopped Kirkuk from falling to ISIS.
The U.S. has supported Baghdad’s intransigence. Washington is still insisting that the Kurds allow the Iraqi government to dictate oil policy. This is a mistake. The KRG is Iraq’s only functioning official institution. Instead of trying to marginalize it, Washington should recognize that the Kurds are vital for Iraq’s continued existence. As the Kurds have made clear, Iraq cannot be a centralized state. Baghdad’s failure to hold Iraq together emphasizes the need for a new approach.
The Kurds are now seeking an equal relationship with whoever ends up running Baghdad. They believe that to survive Iraq must become a genuine partnership of Kurds and Arabs.
Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, does not accept that it is time to work with the Kurds, which makes Kurdish independence more likely. He has announced that he is running for a third term in office, which will weaken Iraq. Should he remain in power, the Kurds will have no partner in Baghdad. Deprived of Iraqi government support and under ISIS attack, their best chance for survival may be to go it alone.
The difficulty remains Kurdistan’s neighbours. Turkey does not want an independent Kurdish state, although it is happy to have an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan as a client and a buffer. Iran, which uses frequent executions to keep Iranian Kurds under control, openly opposes Kurdish independence. Syria, which also does not want an independent Kurdistan, has collapsed and Syria’s Kurds are de facto autonomous. The new power in Syria is ISIS.
With an ISIS assault on Iraqi Kurdistan a matter of time, Iraq’s western allies, notably the U.S., need to consider what is required to block another ISIS victory. The U.S. has avoided arming the Iraqi Kurds, although it remains committed to delivering F-16s and Apache helicopters to Baghdad. That made sense when Iraq had a functioning government and active military forces. Today, the Iraqi Army is in tatters and only the Kurds stand between ISIS and Kirkuk, making the KRG the best recipient of American weapons.
For decades the Iraqi Kurds have moderated their national ambitions. The Kurdish movement in Iraq recognized that independence was risky if its neighbours were hostile. Instead, it accepted a limited form of self-determination that provided autonomy in Iraq combined with representation in Baghdad. Such compromises no longer possess any value. The time has come for Iraq’s allies to decide if they will accept Kurdish independence so that the Kurds can survive.