Kurdistan in Limbo


Graeme Wood has a fascinating piece in the current edition of Foreign Policy about his travels in the “limbo world” of unofficial or unrecognized states. These statelets, which control territory and have at least passably functional governments, range from those teetering on the edge of irrelevance–like Somaliland and Nagorno-Karabakh–to international flashpoints like Palestine and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Wood writes that these faux states are united by certain characteristics, and that, “totems of statehood are everywhere in these wannabe states: offices filled with functionaries in neckties, miniature desk flags, stationery with national logos, and, of course, piles of real bureaucratic paperwork designed to convince foreign visitors like me that international recognition is deserved and inevitable.”
Yet of all the non-states that Wood visits, only one is now less sure than ever of the utility of independence: Kurdistan.
Kurdistan is perhaps the most official of the non-official states, with long-standing autonomy, strong security forces and a growing revenue stream. But as Wood points out, Kurdistan and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have benefited from their leverage and autonomy within the Iraqi state; Kurdistan has established itself within the Middle East as a safe place for investment and a potentially large market for the import of goods and the export of oil. In fact, Turkey, despite its large and historically restive Kurdish population, has emerged as a key economic partner for Kurdistan. The ruling Turkish AKP party sees a viable Kurdish region as a way to tie Turkey into the world’s oil market while also maintaining a buffer against a potentially unfriendly or unstable Iraq. And as an International Crisis Group (ICG) report from November 2008 argued, the AKP now hopes to get help from the KRG against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has engaged in sporadic terrorism in Southern Turkey for the past 30 years. This potential cooperation comes less than two years after Turkish forces invaded northern Iraq in a bid to wipe out PKK sanctuaries, and even as Turkey sporadically bombards Iraqi Kurdistan.
Wood also intimates that independence no longer holds as much sway as it once did with Kurds, as many realize the benefits of a strong Kurdistan within an Iraqi state. And in an off-the-record briefing I attended last month several Kurdish officials sought to confirm this view, consistently affirming their desire to be a part of a democratic Iraq (albeit a federated one with strong regional administrations and generous revenue sharing).
And at the moment, the KRG has achieved grudging acceptance of its autonomy from the Iraqi central government. Despite previous efforts to blacklist any oil companies who signed contracts with the KRG, this past spring the Malaki government began allowing the KRG to export oil from two fields, providing needed revenue to the central state and helping integrate Kurdistan more thoroughly into Iraq’s economic and political structure.
Furthermore, Kurdistan’s current relationship with its neighbors and the rest of Iraq are to the KRG and Kurds’ benefit. A landlocked independent Kurdistan, even with the revenue from the disputed city of Kirkuk’s massive oilfields, would aggravate tensions with neighboring states while still remaining dependent on these same states for trade and protection.
But it is unclear how long this tenuous calm might last, as several unresolved problems could upset Kurdistan’s delicate balance and lead to future conflict or an irredentist resurgence.
The ICG’s Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert, has argued that despite a realization among Kurdish leaders that independence is not viable, Kurdish nationalist aspirations live on and are in fact focused on the city of Kirkuk. However, the recently-passed Iraqi election law failed to deal with the status of Kirkuk or the long overdue (and constitutionally-mandated) census of Kirkuk, instead putting these issues off until next year. And despite progress in exporting oil and gas from Kurdistan, Iraq still has no agreement governing hydrocarbon revenue sharing, an issue to which the final status of Kirkuk, with its estimated 13% of Iraq’s proven oil reserves, is central.
Moreover, the planned 2011 departure of American combat forces from Iraq continues to loom large; as Iraq’s army grows stronger (in part due to an influx of American equipment) there is a greater risk of confrontation between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army, as occurred in 2008 in parts of Diyala province as well as Kirkuk, where the Iraqi Army has strengthened its presence. And unlike 2008, American forces might not be around next time to keep tensions between the opposing sides from escalating.
Unsteady but real progress has been made in Iraq, as Kurdistan continues to integrate itself into Iraqi state institutions while maintaining partial autonomy from the central government and control over its resources. But care must be taken in the coming months and years, lest Kurdistan fail in its transition from limbo to province.
— Andrew Lebovich


6 comments on “Kurdistan in Limbo

  1. Sevket Zaimoglu says:

    It is interesting to note that neither Graeme Wood nor you refer to Northern Cyprus at all. I understand that in the scope of a magazine article, you cannot talk about all members of the “Limbo World,” but Northern Cyprus is not far from either Abkhazia or Iraqi Kurdistan. Most importantly, there is one important regional power that ties all three limbo states together: Turkey.
    Wood praises the “relative stability” that prevailed in northern Iraq since 1991, where “relative” provides a suitable excuse to overlook the occasional suicide bomb explosions, countless unreported ethnic and sectarian clashes in Kirkuk, and the fact that an internationally recognized terrorist group, PKK, patiently waits in the Qandil mountains for a chance to turn “relative stability” into a bloodbath. In terms of violence, on the other hand, there is nothing “relative” in Cyprus since 1974. Peace has prevailed on the island thanks to the Turkish “peace” operation, which helped topple military juntas both in the Greek Cypriot side and in Greece.
    Compared to Iraqi Kurdistan, Northern Cyprus has some advantages as well as some disadvantages. The chances of it becoming a fully recognized independent state may be slim, but it may certainly join the EU as a federal state of a bizonal, bicommunal Cyprus. If not, it may be united with Turkey. Or, its limbo status as a self declared independent state may go on indefinitely.
    One thing is for sure. Just as a return to the pre-1991 status quo in Iraq, where the Kurds were suppressed by the Saddam regime is now impossible, the chances of a return to the pre-1974 status quo in Cyprus, where the Turkish Cypriots had to live in surrounded ghettos under the constant threat of Greek Cypriot “ethnic cleansing” is nil.


  2. WigWag says:

    Tom Ricks has a completely different take on this. At his blog over at Foreign Policy he has a post entitled “Iraq the Unraveling: Will it exist in 5 Years.”
    Speaking of Iraqi Kurdistan, this is what Ricks has to say,
    “A friend with decades of experience in intelligence makes the prediction that Iraq eventually will cease to exist, perhaps just five years from now, with the big pieces swallowed up by Syria, Iran and perhaps Turkey and some other neighbors, and with an independent Kurdistan in the middle:
    Within the next five years I see Syria moving into southern Mesopotamia, then being pushed south by the Kurds, further thwarted by the combination of the desert and home problems from Lebanon and Israel, to be stopped no further east than al Haibbaniyah by the threatening Saudis.
    Iran will move on all fronts into Iraq except the southeastern corner around al Basrah where Kuwaiti and Saudi forces aided by the US will stop them . . . and in the northeast arrested by Kurds supported by the US.”
    I don’t know whether Ricks or Lebovich is right but I do know that they can’t both be right. Their views on this are diametrically opposed.


  3. Dan Kervick says:

    Andrew, thank you for responding on JohnH’s comment.


  4. David says:

    I am especially grateful for these kinds of observations as I try to understand what is evolving in Iraq and the region, in part because of the confidence I have in TWN as a source of intellectually honest commentary.


  5. Andrew Lebovich says:

    Thank you for the comment. I wouldn’t call a focus on Kurdistan “special treatment,” rather I thought Kurdistan deserved special focus not only because of the apparent divide between the government view and that of individual Kurds on the value of independence, as well as its somewhat unique status as a statelet with a long-standing independence movement that now seems increasingly wary of independence.
    Moreover, Iraqi Kurdistan is interesting because unlike, say, a “Pashtunistan” Iraqi Kurdistan has defined borders and separate institutions. And the future of Iraq is in many ways tied in with the problems I highlighted that could derail Kurdistan’s transition to a prosperous and influential region of Iraq. Palestine indeed deserves enormous attention, though the circumstances are different, and that is a different post (or book) entirely.
    Thank you for reading.
    Andrew Lebovich


  6. JohnH says:

    Very touching how Kurdistan is singled out for
    special treatment. Actually, I agree.
    Why not extend the practice to Palestinians,
    Pashtuns, and all other large ethnic concentrations
    suffering under the yoke of a brutal Occupation? Why
    single out just the Kurds for special treatment?


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