As Iraqi forces continue their advance towards key ISIS-defended districts in west Mosul, attention is now turning to what northern Iraq will look like once the jihadi group is defeated. Ministers from the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) believe that one option might be offering the Iraqi government the land that their peshmerga forces have recaptured from ISIS in return for self-rule, which has been the pinnacle of Kurdish ambition for decades.
The political map of northern Iraq has changed drastically in the 18 months since the Islamic State overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Kurdish forces are now in full control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have claimed control of thousands more miles of land that had been under the control of Iraq’s central government. Iraqi towns that were recaptured by Kurdish forces include Bashiqa, scores of villages, and thousands of square miles of territory, such as much of Kirkuk province, northern Diyala, and Sinjar. But, peshmerga military sources are quick to point out that such territory was won at the cost of Kurdish lives. One officer said that in one assault alone, on the former ISIS stronghold of Bashiqa, 31 peshmerga fighters were killed. As of last week, 1,682 had died and 9,787 were injured during its grueling 30-month war against ISIS, which was an intensive campaign that has exacted a punishing toll on the region’s fragile economy. The Kurdish government now hopes that in return for their liberated Iraqi territory and for their sacrifice in the conflict that they will finally be given the autonomy they have long sought.
In January of this year, KRG President Mosud Barzani stated that the Sykes-Picot agreement, which was signed by the allies during WWI, had failed. He told the Guardian “Whether they say it or not, accept it or not, the reality on the ground is that,” as he highlighted the current state of affairs of the conflict and the history of fighting in the region since the agreement came into effect a century ago. Barzani said regional and global powers now needed to enshrine a new pact that would protect communities in Iraq and Syria, where divisions have become entrenched on socio-religious and sectarian lines.
Bolstering Kurdistan’s desire for self-rule is the belief that the Trump administration might be willing to support Kurdish independence. President Barzani has “seriously discussed” independence with Mike Pence, the US Vice-President. Foreign Minister of the KRG, Falah Mustafa said, “The preliminary contacts we have had prior, during and after the US election are encouraging. We believe we have a good opportunity to further develop our ties. Soon there will be [more] contact with our leadership and the US leadership. It’s all encouraging. We are optimistic.”
Among most of the Kurdish north’s 5.5 million population, severing ties with Iraq cannot come soon enough, with the sense that Iraq’s central government no longer even pretends to care for Kurdish rights. For instance, “Baghdad wants us to be subordinate, subjugated. We reject that. The deal with a federal Iraq has failed,” said Mustafa.
However, there are still large problems in re-drawing borders in areas with longstanding cultural and ethnic differences. While some may welcome it, it can be devastating for others as they struggle to find a voice among a new government and a new regime. As history has continuously shown, the breaking up of countries does not always transition into a peaceful situation. Instead, it can lead to deadly outcomes for civilians with the widespread displacement of civilians and violence. Neighbouring states will also be concerned about any domestic implications of a sovereign Kurdish state. Turkey, Syria, and Iran dispute territory around the region that the Kurdish government may lay claim to and also have large Kurdish minorities. Turkey, in particular, has fought a four-decade campaign against Kurdish militants that it believes want to create an autonomous region in its southeast.
President Barzani has confidently declared that “the time has come” for a fully independent Kurdistan that can be recognized as a nation-state. “It is neither a rumour nor a dream. It is a reality that will come true. We will do our best to achieve that objective as early as possible,” but with wide-spread ramifications of any future state proposal, its future may not be so certain as Barzani states it to be.
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