HISTORICAL OPPORTUNITY OR CONTEMPORARY OPPORTUNISM? The recent crisis that is threatening Iraq in the form of ISIS has brought to the fore the issue of the probable independence of Kurdistan as the newest state in the world. While the Kurds see the present crisis as a historical opportunity to consolidate their much-desired sovereign state on the plea that Iraq as a state has failed, others including Iran and some foreign political commentators have viewed the drive towards independence as a form of Kurdish opportunism which belittles the bigger problem (ISIS) in favour of a myopic focus on independence.
Independence as historical opportunity
The Kurds have advanced the argument that since the Iraqi Army failed to withstand the ISIS onslaught and the Peshmerga had to step in to defend themselves against it, the Kurds are better off pursuing their own security as opposed to the Iraqi state whose apparatus is dysfunctional. Surely, the Peshmerga have proved to be more adept at military combat and holding it out against the ISIS as opposed to the sheepish surrender of the Iraqi Army in Mosul and Kirkuk.
The present turmoil is combined with Nuri al-Maliki’s time in power where by the politics of centralisation have led to increased political wrangling between the KRG and the Iraqi government. Tensions over oil royalties and the non-payment of salaries to government functionaries were only brewing when the present crisis emerged. The Kurdish move towards independence reveals most alarmingly that the Kurds see the Iraqi state as a serious threat to be contended along with the ISIS. Though the Kurds are positioned well against the Islamists in order to defend their motherland, they are as much concerned about the political and economic measures in place in Iraq which have undercut their autonomous status. In such an environment and with the Peshmerga now in control of Kirkuk, the Kurds are asking the question: do we really need the Iraqi state when we can do it all by ourselves?
Furthermore, the Kurds with their de facto status in Iraq have done exceedingly well to put the paraphernalia of a modern, developed state by inviting foreign investment and developing their potentialities. Surely, a whole lot needs to be done and problems remain but compared to Baghdad, Erbil’s record at nation-building has proceeded well compared to the ethno-sectarian nature of the Iraqi state and its politics. This can be read along with the KRG’s recent repeated assertions that Kirkuk will be made an example of ethnic coexistence with its Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen population.
Independence as contemporary opportunism
The case against the Kurdish drive towards independence is deemed as a moment of Kurdish opportunism when a far greater threat to Iraq and the wider Middle East takes shape. While the ISIS marauds its way from Syria to Iraq, the Kurdish desire for independence is seen as a narrow form of self-serving endeavour. The Americans have argued for a consolidated, unified response to the present crisis urging the Kurds, Shias and Sunnis to band together against the ISIS. In this case, the recent calls for independence risk isolating the Kurds and they stand to lose the ideational ground if they narrowly focus on their own independence to the detriment not only of Iraq but also the wider Middle Eastern region. The question is: are the Kurds better off silencing the calls for independence (for the meanwhile) and concentrating on eliminating the wider threat by colluding with the Iraqi government (with or without Maliki)? Furthermore, if they collude with the Iraqi government and stave off the ISIS invasion and in the process demonstrate the strength of their military force and capacity to defend themselves, will the Kurds then have a more compelling case for independence in front of the international community?
On the other hand, the independence momentum risks altering the geographical map of the Middle East. The Middle East is surely changing as ruling dynasties and orders have been threatened and overturned in the most unexpected ways. The mass street protests starting from Tunisia down to Egypt and now in Syria are symptomatic of a changing Middle East politically. Geographical changes, on the other hand, are always the most cumbersome for they involve a loss of sovereignty which most states are reluctant to concede for obvious reasons. In this sense, the birth of Kurdistan is divisive for it involves risking a chain reaction for probable turmoil in the Kurdish communities in Iran, Turkey and Syria. If one section of the Kurds (in Iraq) declares independence, the others (in Iran, Turkey and Syria) are bound to follow, thus threatening regional states and their sovereignty.
Keeping the two strands in perspective, it may be argued that more than anything else the ISIS invasion has exposed the hollow foundations of the Iraqi state and its sovereignty. An ethno-sectarian regime under Saddam Hussein had given way to yet another ethno-sectarian regime commanded by Nuri al-Maliki. Though the new Iraqi dispensation provides for a power-sharing formula, power in essence remains monopolised in the hands of the Shia majority. This surely does not bode well for the sustenance of the Iraqi state and its socio-political cohesion will continue to remain brittle unless the political actors that constitute Iraq put the necessary measures in place to bandwagon the Sunnis and Kurds alongside the Shias in a future national formation government.
By:Farhan Hanif Siddiqi