After decades of betrayal and genocide, Iraq’s Kurdish minority now seems to be on the threshold of statehood that could change the region’s political landscape thanks to an ocean of oil, an unlikely ally and a couple of historical lucky breaks. By Ed Blanche

In early January, the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq began exporting oil directly from its Taq Taq field to international markets through neighbouring Turkey, bypassing Iraq’s state-run energy industry. Initially, it was little more than a trickle in global terms, but the volume is expected to reach 20,000 barrels a day this month.

This modest start as an oil exporter has immense, and possibly dangerous, political significance even amid the tectonic shifts shaking the Middle East. For it marks a crucial step by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) towards asserting its independence from Baghdad.

A few years ago, the three-province Kurdish enclave was an economic and political backwater in a war-torn region. Now, with reserves estimated at 45bn barrels of oil and at least 211 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas, the big international oil and gas companies including Exxon Mobil and Chevron of the United States, Gazprom of Russia and Total of France are falling over themselves for a piece of the action.

“Our time has come after so much suffering and persecution,” Barham Saleh, a veteran Kurdish leader and former prime minister of the KRG that has exsted in northern Iraq since the early 1990s, declared recently.

“The 20th century was cruel to the Kurds. Our rights, identity and culture were ruthlessly suppressed.” For Iraq’s 4.9m Kurds, the impossible dream of independence seems to be drawing closer, to the point where their enclave could become the beacon for like- minded Kurds among the 30m scattered across Syria, Iran and Turkey, the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Ignored for decades by the major powers, the Kurds have been callously manipulated by the Americans, Israeli’s and others for their own strategic purposes, while Baghdad regimes have sought to crush independence-minded Iraqi Kurds like the legendary Mullah Mustafa Barzani, a tribal chieftain from the mountains of northern Iraq who fought for Kurdish independence from the 1930s until he died in exile in the United States in 1979.

Barzani, whose son Massoud is now President of the KRG, launched a separatist war against Baghdad in the 1950s after the collapse of the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, the Kurds’ first ill-fated stab at independence that was established with Soviet support in northern Iran after World War II and crushed by the Iranians in 1948 when the Soviets withdrew.

Saddam Hussein, of course, took Baghdad’s repression of the Kurds to grotesque heights and mounted a genocidal campaign against them in the 1980s in which villages were wiped out, sometimes with poison gas, wholesale.

“It was ever thus for the Kurds,” veteran Middle East observer David Hirst wrote in a prescient analysis in The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English language daily, “their destiny as a people always shaped less by their own struggles than by the vagaries of regional and international politics, and particularly by the great Middle Eastern upheavals regional and international politics periodically produce.”

Yet it was a pair of those unpredictable vagaries that led Iraq’s Kurds, unbowed by Saddam’s sadistic wrath, to where they are now, on the threshold of statehood.

The first was Saddam’s doomed invasion of neighboring Kuwait on 2 August, 1990, in his bid to seize the emirate’s huge oil fields. Saddam was defeated by a US-led coalition but turned his fury on the Kurds.

The Americans established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect them, and they’ve pretty much run their own affairs ever since. The second was Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on 11 September, 2001, and President George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq in retaliation and overthrow Saddam Hussein, breaking the Kurds’ shackles.

What’s just as astonishing is that the Kurds have wound up with the most unlikely ally, Turkey.

Since 1984, Ankara has been grappling with a separatist insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which seeks autonomy for Turkey’s own restive Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority of around 19m. It’s a savage war in which more than 40,000 people have perished and continues to this day. Ankara has been bitterly opposed to the emergence of a sovereign Kurdish state anywhere in the region that could encourage the separatist aspirations of its own Kurdish minority in southeastern Anatolia.

But under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s determined to restore Turkey’s leadership of the region, Ankara’s taken a more pragmatic view and is embracing Iraq’s Kurds as a strategic ally with reserves of 45bn barrels of oil. Erdogan has long sought to negotiate a peace deal with the PKK, outlawed in Turkey and branded a terrorist group by Washington. But a series of covert meetings with PKK chiefs in recent months to lay down their arms indicates that Ankara is now seriously looking at a broader peace agenda. Details of these meetings have not been disclosed. But the fact they took place at all underlined Erdogan’s focus on reaching a settlement with the PKK that could dovetail with his efforts to forge an alliance with Iraq’s oil-rich Kurdish enclave.

One of Erdogan’s closest associates, Hakan Firdan, began the process by secretly meeting PKK emissaries in Oslo soon after Erdogan appointed him director of Turkey’s National Intelligence Service in May 2010.

It’s difficult to see what Erdogan can offer that would persuade the PKK to lay down their arms at a time when for Iraqi and Syrian Kurds the prospect of an economically viable and independence Kurdish state seems to be emerging for the first time. It’s most unlikely that the PKK would disarm for anything less than full autonomy for their region in southeastern Turkey as their brothers in Iraq and Syria contemplate the possibility of independence, possibly together. But the PKK faces the prospect that Iraq’s Kurds, wooed by Ankara, would have to agree to cut off all support for their Turkish cousins who currently use the Kurdish enclave in Iraq as a sanctuary, if that’s what it takes to secure an independent state.

There’s little love lost between KRG President Barzani and the PKK, whose presence in Iraq has triggered repeated Turkish air strikes and military excursions into KRG territory.

KRG sources say Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, has indicated he would not let the PKK interfere with a deal with Ankara that would sustain a landlocked Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Barzani has called on the PKK to withdraw from its bases in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains along the border with Iran, so far to no avail. Ankara, under Erdogan’s Islamic government, is seeking nothing less than changing the strategic equation in the region and out-manoeuvering Tehran, Baghdad and Syria. Energy-poor Turkey needs direct access to a source of crude oil and is worried by Maliki’s close ties to Iran – he was given sanctuary there from Saddam’s wrath for more than 20 years. His support for embattled President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war has angered Ankara.

For his part, Maliki has been incensed by Erdogan’s increasingly friendly links with Iraq’s Kurds. On 4 December, he brusquely refused to allow a private aircraft carrying Turkey’s energy minister, Taner Yildiz, to land in the Kurdish capital of Erbil for an oil conference.

In 2012, Erbil disclosed it was discussing with Ankara the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Kurdistan into Turkey, including its big Mediterranean export terminal at Ceyhan, that would allow the KRG to totally bypass Baghdad’s export pipeline network for exports and become economically independent.

The January launch of oil exports via Turkey, even though for now they are being trucked by road, dramatically increased political tensions with Baghdad.

Its ambitious drive to boost oil exports, currently standing at 2.3m barrels per day (b/d), to around 10m b/d by 2020 to challenge Saudi Arabia as the world’s top producer, could be undermined if the KRG’s oil goes north, and with it Iraq’s massive national reconstruction programme that depends on oil revenue.

Baghdad cannot allow the Kurds to break away. Their moves towards self-rule have already engendered similar demands by the minority Sunni provinces and even the Shiite-dominated south, where two-thirds of Iraq’s oil lies.

Fuelled by the potentially explosive oil dispute, the armed confrontation in the north along the Kurdistan-Iraq border, particularly the Kirkuk region whose extensive oilfields the Kurds claim is historically their territory, could well be the flashpoint that ignites civil war in Iraq. Both sides have poured military reinforcements, including artillery and other heavy weapons, into the stand-off along the nebulous line of control. Baghdad established a new military command in the region, incensing the Kurds and triggering a major clash on 16 November.

Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company led Big Oil into Kurdistan in October 2011, by signing an exploration agreement with the KRG in defiance of Baghdad’s warnings, is expected to start drilling in the southern sector of the disputed territories this summer.

This zone, around the contested cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, is a red line for Maliki.

“The prime minister has been clear: If Exxon lays a finger on this territory they will face the Iraqi army,” Sami Al Askari, a member of parliament and a Maliki confidant, warned in December. “We don’t want war, but we will go to war for oil and Iraqi sovereignty.”

The Kurds, scarred still by Saddam’s murderous ethnic cleansing, are just as defiant.

The two-year-old civil war in Syria, which neighbours both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, and the breakdown in authority it’s engendered has triggered a move towards independence for the Kurdish region there after decades of acquiescense to rule from Damascus.

Syria’s Kurdish enclave contains much of the country’s oil reserves and conveniently borders the Iraqi enclave. Clearly, a merger of the two groups would produce a viable Kurdish state.

“The real fear is not that Syria will be divided,” observed Washington-based analyst Aliza Marcus, who has written extensively on Kurdish affairs. “It’s that the Kurds are uniting. The breakdown of Syrian authority has pushed Kurds across the region to work together, something unthinkable a few months ago.”

But, says Marcus, “If Syrian Kurds win autonomy, Turkey’s reason for denying its Kurdish minority the same will sound specious. After all, it’s hard to keep claiming that Kurds don’t know what they want – or don’t really want what they say – if almost one half of the region’s Kurds govern themselves.”

Barzani recently brokered a power-sharing deal between Syria’s Kurdish National Council (KNC), a grouping of some 16 small Kurdish parties, and the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is the biggest and best organised Kurdish party in Syria and considered an arm of the PKK.

The main rebel leadership in Syria, the Syrian National Council, opposes any break-up of the Syrian republic, as does Turkey, and that could be a major roadblock for the emergence of an Iraqi-Syrian Kurdish superstate.

So will Iraq’s Kurds opt for full-blown independence any time soon?

“While the Kurds have made real and impressive gains over the last year, an imminent bid for statehood remains unlikely,” says Jonathan Spyers of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Israel, a country with a history of clandestine support for the Iraqi Kurds since the 1960s.

“The Kurds have one of the most obviously deserving of causes on an ethical level in northern Iraq; they have laid much of the basis for sovereignty. But they still lack a unified national movement. And they’re faced by a tangle of rival interests – in Baghdad, Ankara and Damascus, not to mention Tehran – which each have a reason for opposing the emergence of full Kurdish sovereignty. So the odds remain steep.”

Middle East historian Ofra Bengio of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, does not believe that independence is on the immediate horizon, largely because of misgivings in Washington and Ankara.

“The likelihood is that the KRG leadership will not trade a tolerable present for an uncertain future,” she concluded.

“If so, President Barzani will continue to walk the KRG down the path of ‘creeping independence’, one that almost certainly will not forsake the future of Kirkuk. It’s much more likely he will stay on that path until such time that either Turkey and the United States change their positions, or the Kurdish leadership would accept Kurdish independence as a fait accompli.”

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