How an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would impact the region

The emergence and takeover of parts of Iraq by Sunni extremists has fuelled the push for Kurdish independence in the country, but the impact a separate state would have on the region and how its neighbours would respond are still difficult to determine.

Kurdish leadership has promoted moderate views in last decade

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been able to keep ISIS at bay while Iraqi forces have buckled in the face of the militant group's advance. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

The emergence and takeover of parts of Iraq by Sunni extremists has fuelled the push for Kurdish independence in the country, but the impact a separate state would have on the region and how its neighbours would respond are still difficult to determine.

By definition, the redrawing of boundaries and the emergence of new states will generally have a destabilizing effect, said David Romano, chair of Middle East politics at Missouri State University.

However, the Kurdistan Regional Government has engaged in "foreign policy brilliance" since 2003 by getting the international community and regional states "used to them by reassuring everyone that they’re moderate, that they don’t plan on stirring up Kurdish pots in neighbouring countries, that people can do business with them,” Romano said. 

"All that has reassured a lot of actors in the community that statehood for the Iraqi Kurds ... is not unthinkable anymore.”

Independence for the five million Kurds in Iraq is officially opposed by the U.S., as well as by Iraq's regional neighbours, Turkey and Iran  both of whom have large Kurdish minority populations. But Turkey's attitude has appeared to soften.

“Luckily for the Iraqi Kurds, there has been a sea change in their relationship with Turkey,” said Tozun Bahcheli, who is chair of the department of political science at Western University's King College and specializes in Middle Eastern politics. “If Turkey is willing to accept Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent state then they are virtually home free.”

Since 1984, a bloody insurgency by Turkish Kurds, led by the Kurdish rebel group PKK, has caused the deaths of more than 40,000 people. While the initial goal was independence and the breakup of the Kurdish-dominated southeastern part of the country, those goals have since been revised, as the independence movement now seeks some form of undefined autonomy over its affairs.

Relations have also improved between the Turkish government and Iraqi Kurdish leadership, who have clamped down on the PKK, not allowed them to stage attacks from their territory, and pushed for a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, Bahcheli, said.

Meanwhile, Turkey has also invested heavily in Iraq’s Kurdish region, and relies on its oil and natural gas, which it gets for cheaper prices than Russia and Iran.

Bahcheli also said fears that a Kurdish state in Iraq would encourage Kurds to rise up against their governments in other countries are exaggerated.

The Kurdish leadership in Iraq would be foolish to try to reunite the Kurds under one state, in part because they couldn’t sustain such a large population, Bahcheli said. There are 20 million Kurds living in Turkey.

“They’ve got to be very diplomatic about this. They have to reassure the Turks, the Iranians, that they will be good neighbours, won’t encourage any radical nationals that seek to unite all of the Kurds.”

The biggest challenges an independent Kurdish state may face could come from within Iraq, with the central government in Baghdad opposing such a move. With its own oil resources, the Kurdish region has long had a contentious relationship with Baghdad, with disputes over a range of issues including how to share the revenue. 

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has carved out a large chunk of Iraqi territory, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have seized control of what was already disputed territory — including the city of Kirkuk, a major oil hub. Many of the zones have considerable Kurdish communities that the Kurds have demanded be incorporated into their territory, making them unlikely to give them up.

“If they left with all that territory, then you’d have a situation of secession with borders that are very much contested, Romano said. “Historically, that's been the number one cause of interstate wars — border conflict."

"The thing is, Baghdad seems so completely inept and weak. The government is fortifying Baghdad to stop an ISIS takeover   not exactly in a position to do something about a more formidable force which is the Kurdish Peshmerga."

However, Romano did say that if the Iraqi Arabs got their house in order, "who can say" whether there would be a war 10 to 20 years down the line to rectify what they viewed as a historic injustice.

Dr. Houchang Hassan-Yari, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and a senior research fellow at Queen’s University's Centre for International and Defence Policy, had a more pessimistic view about Kurdish independence in Iraq, saying it would not be good for the region. 

"If they effectively separate from the rest of Iraq it means that they open the question of borders and this is going to be a nightmare for everybody," he said.

"Redrawing the border lines is going to be a situation that nobody can really manage."

Mixed messages from Turkish government

Hassan-Yari said the mixed messages coming from the Turkish government reveal that they are not leaning toward supporting independence.

"That's why you don't get a very clear position from the Turkish government. At some point they said they can live with the situation and then they say they can't live with it," he said.

Hassan-Yari also believes independence would also make life difficult of the Kurdish minorities in other countries who would be seen as potential subversives by the respective governments, and consequently treated more badly then before.

"This situation is going to impact other countries in the region. We're going to see more violence, more bloodshed and consequently more waste of resources, including human beings."

With files from The Associated Press