The Breakaway of Kurdistan from Iraq

By Juvan Bonni

“We’ve said all along that we won’t break away from Iraq but Iraq may break away from us, and it seems that it is,”Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, told TIME Magazine.[i]

This statement comes in response to news of recent gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq that have quickly spread through international and social media.

The Iraqi army has proved to be an embarrassing force that has failed to protect civilians in Mosul in northern Iraq, which was easily captured by ISIS militants. Pictures of Iraqi uniforms lying in piles and ISIS militants parading around Mosul streets with Humvees and arms abandoned by the Iraqi army have surfaced on the Internet.[ii]  The lack of Iraqi resistance has allowed ISIS militants to quickly expand their territory south as far as Tikrit.[iii]

While ISIS is closing in on Baghdad, the United States government is deliberating on its options to protect their interests in the region.[iv] Above all, the United States is intent on keeping Iraq from breaking apart and hoping to have an Iraq headed by a united government that represents Sunnis Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Kurds.[v] However, the reality on the ground is that Shiite Arabs and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have extended control over the entire apparatus of the central government in Baghdad. This has prompted a harsh Sunni response manifesting in the recent gains made by ISIS.[vi] These events have cemented the conclusion that Iraq is a failed state and no amount of wishful thinking and planning on the part of the United States government or any other power can lead to a united and democratic Iraq.

This outcome can be traced not simply to recent events but in fact to Iraq’s congenital defect as a product of British imperialism in the Middle East. As the Ottoman Empire was destroyed, the mandate of Iraq was created by Great Britain in 1921, with the intention to unify three of the former empire’s provinces.[vii] Since then, Iraq has only functioned ostensibly as a state with repressive central governance, from the time of the Hashemites, to Qassim’s communist coup, up until Saddam Hussein’s regime. And throughout the existence of Iraq, the geographically and nationally distinct region of Kurdistan has remained largely out of the control of the central government, even after Saddam used weapons of mass destruction and genocide against the people of Kurdistan.

State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki recently said, “a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq,”[viii] but she could not be more incorrect. A more accurate statement would be that a united Iraq is impossible to achieve, and the international community must face the reality of its inevitable split. In fact, with the establishment of the Islamic caliphate declared by ISIS, technically Iraq has already broken up.[ix] In response to ISIS gains, Shiites have formed their own militias to meet oncoming Sunni ISIS insurgents.[x]

The disintegration of Iraq and the associated violence is taking place south of Kurdistan, thus supporting Talabani’s statement that Iraq is violently breaking away from a peaceful Kurdistan. While Iraq is burning, the Kurdish Peshmerga army has effectively secured the city of Kirkuk, which was also abandoned by the Iraqi army.[xi] They have been thus far effectively protecting the city and its surrounding villages from ISIS control. ISIS recognizes that the Peshmerga, or “those who face death” in Kurdish, represent a much more motivated and disciplined force than the Iraqi army and are not to be trifled with.[xii]

Kurdistan is virtually its own country, on its way to attaining financial independence with an already booming economy, growing at approximately 12% a year and a GDP per capita 50% higher than that of Iraq.[xiii] Kurdistan’s ties with neighboring Turkey have grown since the ISIS insurgency.  Kurdistan ships two million barrels of oil through Turkey. [xiv] Turkey now sees Kurdistan as a buffer zone to a disintegrated Iraq, thus providing security in addition to economic benefits. [xv]

The gains the Kurds have made in their autonomous region together with their memory for their long suffering at the hands of successive repressive Iraqi regimes, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan are more determined than ever to protect their region from the onslaught of ISIS that the rest of Iraq is facing.

Momentum seems to be gaining for Kurdistan’s independence. Thus far, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most vocal international supporter of formal Kurdish independence. [xvi] Even Turkey, wary of aspirations of its own Kurdish population, has signaled its support for the Kurds if they choose to officially proceed with independence. Spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Hussein Celik has recognized that Iraq’s divide is inevitable, and reported that Turkey would support the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Irbil.[xvii]

So, no matter how long the United States continues to fantasize of a united Iraq in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds all are equally represented in its government, the independence of Kurdistan is inevitable and in effect here already. Whether the United States should continue to pursue this ill-advised policy will soon become irrelevant. The question at hand will be how the international community should respond to the break-up of Iraq.