"Yes" Vote for Iraqi Kurdistan: A New Chaos Is Redefining Middle East Borders

Submitted by Elijah Magnier, Middle East based chief international war correspondent for Al Rai Media

Iraqi Kurds voted “yes” in the referendum to start materializing the dream of the 30 million Kurds inhabiting Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Armenia - a dream which begins by establishing an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the announcement of the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani that the referendum is only the beginning of a negotiation with the central government in Baghdad (and not a “divorce” from the state of Iraq), he hopes (and most probably knows) that independence will be recognized as a fact by the international community sooner or later.

For certain, this referendum – if its result is implemented – can lead to a redefinition of the map of the Middle East, and the countries of Iraq and Syria to start with where Kurds in both countries control enough energy resources to sustain their “state”. Leaders around the world said, during the war in Syria, that the Middle East would never return as it was to before 2011, probably referring to the “Islamic State” (ISIS) occupation of large part of Syria and Iraq. But today, their prediction may come true through the Kurds – even though the “Islamic State” (ISIS) “project” failed to reach its objective, that of dividing Syria and Iraq.

Thus, the Kurdish will to establish an independent state is giving greater power to Turkey, which will hold the key of the Kurdish future state and to the partition of the Middle East. In fact, in Iraq, Ankara will play a crucial role in the coming months or years in reshaping Mesopotamia and the Levant. Kurdistan exports its main oil revenue through Turkey, putting Erbil at Ankara’s mercy. Therefore, if Turkey considers independence a threat to its national security, it will not hesitate to send troops into Kurdistan, triggering probably numbness and little effective reaction from Baghdad. Moreover, recent media coverage which showed Iranian Kurds in Kirkuk encourages a free hand and perfect excuse for Tehran to hit these forces in Iraq if Erbil takes further measures towards independence.

Image via Elijah J. Magnier

Just prior to Monday's referendum, a Kurdish delegation from Erbil visited Baghdad to negotiate with the central government a postponement and rescheduling of the vote. They presented a series of conditions (considered unacceptable by Baghdad) insisting on a future Kurdish independent state. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi showed no flexibility and launched threats against Erbil. Abadi declared the closure of airspace over Erbil and asked neighboring countries to follow this step, to which Tehran and Ankara have responded positively. According to Nawzad Adham, Kurdistan general director at the Trade and Industry local Ministry, Kurdistan business exchanges with Turkey and Iran exceed $10 billion per year. Kurdistan imports 95% of its agriculture needs from Turkey and Iran and depends on Turkey to export its oil.

Kurdistan escaped most of the destruction caused by the first Gulf war in 1991, the Iraqi occupation in 2003 and the war against ISIS in 2014 (to-date). The Kurds are spread over 40.000 km2, they control over 20% of the Iraqi oil  (Iraq produces around 4.35 million barrels per day (b/d) and Kurdistan 900.000 b/d), its energy reserves are estimated around 45 billion barrels of oil and 150 trillion cubic meter of gas, and it exports around 600.000 b/d via Turkey. Oil has long been the source of dispute between Baghdad and Erbil: in October 2011, the Kurds signed an exploration deal with the US oil giant Exxon Mobil (of which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the former CEO) for six exploration blocks, and this without Central government approval, sparking the first official confrontation with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Since then, Kurdistan has refrained from agreeing on any fiscal control from the finance Ministry related to oil (and telecommunication) revenue cashed in by Erbil and consequently Baghdad has refrained from paying 17% of its total oil revenue - since 25% of Iraqi total oil revenue is apparently ending in Kurdish leaders’ pockets.

Many western officials considered the Kurds as the only serious US partner against ISIS. However, it was the same Barzani who praised the ISIS occupation of Mosul in June 2014 because it offered an opportunity for the partition of Iraq. Moreover, Iraqi forces (including the Popular Mobilization Units) lost more than 10,000 men, and recovered most of the territory controlled by ISIS, while the Kurds of Erbil limited them to defend Kurdistan, lost around 1300 men, and took back Sinjar in a few hours after allowing ISIS to leave the Iraqi city to Syria.

Barzani counts on international recognition to protect his “new state” in the future, regardless of the verbally negative stance of many countries, including the US, the UK and the UN. The Kurdish leader is not politically suicidal and would never insist on such a controversial step without enough international political support behind him, despite what is overtly announced by the major external powers. Kurds in Iraq believe the referendum is a historical opportunity that can't be missed, while Baghdad believes it is a huge mistake which Kurds will regret in the future. In fact, Iraqi PM Abadi is taking gradual measures against Barzani. These measures are expected to increase, putting in jeopardy the future of Iraqi Kurdish businesses and communities in many parts of Iraq, which includes over 1.5 million Kurdish employees within the various Iraqi state ministries and official institutions, and may very well lead to a military confrontation in the main contested areas, especially the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk (the oil fields are situated outside the city and under Kurdish Peshmerga control).

Army Col. Ralph Peters' controversial "Blood Borders" map envisioning the future Middle East and studied at US war colleges. Originally published in the Armed Forces Journal - which identifies the map as its most viewed and downloaded of all time. Via Wiki Commons.

In Syria, the Kurdish future “federation” (Kurds in Syria are expected to start with a request for a federation before moving on towards a state, like in Iraq) will force a Damascus-Ankara collaboration, obliging Syria to turn a blind eye on the Turkish forces present in the north of the country and postpone its claim to recover its territory for a while. A rich Kurdish Federation in Syria and “state” in Iraq will definitely create a serious menace to Turkey that is holding the largest Kurdish population (over 16 million). The Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is in a privileged position but also needs to play his cards skilfully to avoid consequences on his own territory: once the Kurds of Iraq show their will to have a state, those in the rest of the region won’t stay long before following the same path.

In fact, the Syrian Kurds count around 8% of the population but control (under the US forces command and guidance) today 25% of the territory and 40% of oil and gas resources assuming they keep control over the oil and gas rich province of Deir Ezzor in northeast Syria. The Kurds have already initiated local community elections and are planning for council elections in the next months, with the election of a parliament expected next year in northeast Syria.

The end of ISIS’s control of territories in Syria and Iraq is certain by 2018. However, it is also certain that the Middle East is coming into a new period of chaos, putting all borders into question, and affecting the stability of the region.