MIDDLE East is the most unpredicted region of the world in terms of changing political and security situation. The region is overwhelmed with rapidly changing strategic developments including in past two years, including Yemen crisis, Syrian civil war, rise and fall of so-called Islamic State (IS), Saudi-Iran rivalry, dawn and demise of democracy in Egypt, Qatar diplomatic crisis, Saudi-led military alliance, and now the recent but surely not the last one, Kurdistan’s Regional Government (KRG) vote for independence of Kurdish region. The referendum for an independent Kurdish state has eventually led to, if not a de jure, but a de facto breakup of Iraq. The situation in Iraq and change which happened in past few weeks might have long term impact on the region and beyond.
Perhaps, it is not about Shia vs Sunni, or Arab vs Kurds. It is all about dollars that have led to divide people of Iraq into two parts. The single most controversial issue between Baghdad and Erbil (KRG’s capital) is oil. The KRG under Nechervan Barzani has signed several oil contracts with foreign states, including companies in the United States and China. Iraq considers it illegal and contrary to Iraq’s constitution. The KRG asserts that such contracts are legal under Iraqi law and the constitution. After 2003, KRG had received enormous economic and political support, which helped KRG in enhancing capability of state building in past few years. It has managed economy, started local government system, protected territory from IS invasion. It has also dealt with the refugee crisis, which is according to UN estimates 250,000, mostly came from IS dominated areas.
An independent Kurdish state can also serve as a foothold of any hostile power against Iran, Turkey or Iraq. In this regard, Kurdish government’s inclination towards a security agreement with the US or Israel cannot be ruled out. So far, Israel has been the only state to support the Kurdish secession. Israeli enthusiasm for Kurdish independence has little to do with compassion for the Kurds, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. Israel’s support for an independent Kurdish state is solely motivated by geopolitical reasons. Israel wants to secure the flow of oil supplies from the Kurdish Autonomous Region, but more importantly, it wants to build a pro-Israeli entity that cuts through the Arab World. Israel already imports 77 percent of its oil supplies from Iraq’s Kurdish region. On one hand Kurdish independence vote has pushed Turkey closer to Baghdad. While on the other hand, it has left no option for KRG to be closer with Israel. Both countries have sought commonality of interest in post Kurdistan independence vote.
The referendum has been held not only in the three provinces, of the Kurdish region but also in the disputed region of Kirkuk and its oil fields. It means that the world will likely to witness oil politics in the region in near future. According to Bloomberg, the region pumped about 544,600 barrels of oil a day in 2016 and is expected to boost output to 602,000 barrels this year. Bloomberg has estimated that KRG as a country will rank 10th amongst countries with largest oil reserves. Hence, many countries will like to become friends of Kurdish government in order to ensure their energy security on competitive rates.
Kurdish as well as Catalan referendums have also encouraged many other ethnic communities across the world in general and in the region to seek right to self-determination. In this regard, Balochs secessionist forces have got another example of secession, which might trigger a new roar for independence in Balochistan province. Some Baloch leaders in Western countries are already propagating of Balochistan’s separation from Pakistan’s federation for many years. A new roar of demand for “Baloch Referendum” may likely to be anticipated in future. If a debate starts at international level about demand for Balochistan’s referendum, What Pakistan needs to hold the idea that Kurds or Catalan communities’ governments had demanded for referendum and there is no demand from Balochistan provincial government for referendum in the province. Nonetheless, the Kurdish vote for independence not only holds a bunch of strategic regional implication but also have started an unending debate on the legal aspects of secession of provinces/communities in the world.
– The writer works for Islamabad Policy Research Institute, think tank in Islamabad.