The world may be focusing on the looming battle for Baghdad between Sunni militants and Shia-led government forces, but the real dismemberment of Iraq may be happening further north, where the region of Kurdistan looks more and more like making its own dash for statehood.
The predominantly Kurdish population in northern Iraq has had to fend largely for itself since last week, when Iraqi government forces, retreating before the advance of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), abandoned the region’s biggest city and oil hub Kirkuk, and left it, along with a big part of the country’s oil reserves, in the hands of the Kurdish Regional Government and its “peshmerga” militia units.
A motivated and homogenous bunch, the peshmerga appear more than capable of holding their own against ISIL, the militant Sunni group that is now threatening Baghdad after taking Mosul, Iraq’s second city.
But to be viable, a Kurdish state would need to be able to get its biggest commercial asset, crude oil, to market, in violation of a 2004 deal (brokered by the U.S.) on sharing the revenue from oil sales with the Baghdad government. With government forces not able or willing to defend Kurdistan against ISIL, than deal now looks worthless to the Kurds.
Although the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) denies doing anything wrong, the signs are that it is increasingly sees itself as free to dispose of its oil as it sees fit. Reuters reported Friday that a tanker full of Kurdish crude was due to unload at Israel’s Ashkelon port, defying threats of legal action from Baghdad.
To get to world markets, Kurdish oil flows from Kirkuk by pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Flows normally average between 100,000-120,000 barrels a day, and around 2.3 million barrels are currently stored at Ceyhan, Bloomberg quoted Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz as saying Thursday. Yildiz seemed more than inclined to let the Kurds ship and sell their oil, calling such sales “entirely legitimate.”
It is the evolution of Turkish policy that makes Kurdish statehood possible, as the oil can only flow with Turkey’s by-your-leave. Once the imperial power in the region, Turkey had until recently feared that an independent Kurdish state would destabilize Kurdish regions in its own south and east. But it now appears to see a Kurdish state as a possible bulwark against Sunni fanaticism, and to accept that the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, democratic Iraq that the U.S. tried to create is beyond salvaging.
“The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” the Kurdish-based news outlet Rudaw quoted a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party as saying in an interview Friday. “Turkey has been supporting the Kurdistan Region till now and will continue this support.”