Only a decade ago, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was a dirty, dusty and isolated town. During the summer months, people would refer to it as the “gateway to hell.” But ten years later, Erbil’s image has seen a startling change, and many of Iraq’s 28 millions would now consider the city a heavenly location to spend their summer vacation.
With a series of massive construction projects underway, a booming economy driven by the region’s enormous oil and gas reserves, and a strong business partner in former enemy Turkey, the city looks set to shine in the coming years. Politically, with the Middle East becoming increasingly polarised in the wake of the on-going sectarian civil war in Syria, the KRG has managed to maintain good ties with Iran, Turkey, Israel and the West all at the same time. Given all this, one could reasonably conclude that Kurdistan is booming. But is Iraqi Kurdistan facing an upcoming fall?
Everything that has so far been achieved is as fragile as the region’s uncertain political future. The relationship between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government changes on a daily basis due to the deep levels of mistrust between the two parties, and the interference of both regional and international powers.
Turkey has become the KRG’s biggest economic partner
Although the Kurds have complained that the dictatorial tendencies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threaten the unity of Iraq, they recently welcomed him on a visit to the region with a lavish ceremony at Erbil International Airport. Nevertheless, it seems certain that relations between the KRG and Baghdad will remain unsettled for the foreseeable future. Indeed, due to the accumulation of a number of serious and unsolved issues, a likely outcome to the relationship is divorce. But any development of this kind will need a green light from regional and international players, in particular from Turkey, as the KRG has become increasingly dependent economically on its northern neighbour.
While the central government in Baghdad is building stronger ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the KRG has drawn closer to Ankara. Since 2007, cooperation over economic and energy issues has helped to redefine a once combustible relationship. Turkey has become Kurdistan’s top economic partner and, what is more, has signed a strategic energy pact that could remap the region both politically and economically.
The new oil pipelines that connect Kurdistan with Turkey were built without Baghdad’s prior approval, and this has helped to exacerbate the already unsteady relationship between the KRG and Turkey on the one hand, and the Iraqi government on the other. The liberal-oriented Turkish daily Taraf recently reported that Ankara had quietly signed an oil partnership deal with the KRG, despite the objections of the Baghdad government. According to the newspaper, the deal is proof that Turkey is elevating its cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan to the level of an international partnership, meaning that the KRG will eventually be able to gain its economic independence from Baghdad.
According to Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Turkey represents the KRG’s “gate to the world.” This may well be true, but it is worth considering for a moment the nature of the rapidly developing relationship between the two. Turkey has become the KRG’s biggest economic partner, accounting for 70% of all foreign investment in the region, and has recently constructed a series of oil pipelines, despite the objections of the Iraqi federal government. The result is that, while the KRG has been able to reduce its dependence on Baghdad, it has simultaneously become overly reliant on Turkey.
In addition, while it has been busy improving its ties with the Turkish government, the KRG seems to have forgotten Iran’s importance to regional politics and security. The Islamic Republic is the most influential foreign power in Iraq, and its ties to the country’s Shi’a population go well beyond friendship. While the world continues to take note of Turkey’s economic and political dominance in the Middle East, Iran has been silently building a semi-imperial Shi’a region that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, where the sectarian civil war divides regional powers into two opposing blocs, Kurds are unquestioningly – and unwisely – backing the mainly Sunni opposition.
It is important to think about all of this rationally. The KRG can never hope to be fully independent, due to its landlocked geography, and should always keep good ties with at least one or more of the neighbouring countries. Moreover, some of the powers that will play a crucial role in the future of the Middle East are Turkey, Iran, and the United States, and none of these players can hope to dominate the region on their own, so the KRG should keep ties with at least two of them. More crucially, the Middle East is witnessing a very decisive period in its history. New states are expected to emerge in the wake of recent developments in the wider region, and for the Kurds the time has come to translate their decades-long struggle for statehood into a reality.
Consolidating democracy internally remains the most important factor
But the Kurds will not be able to make this happen by being overly dependent on just one country while abandoning the others, just because there is deep mistrust between these countries’ governments and their Kurdish minorities. In Turkey, while a peace process to solve the Kurdish question has been initiated by the government, a lasting solution is still far off on the horizon. If the peace process fails, the new ties between Ankara and Erbil will become severely strained.
The KRG’s problem is that it is too ambitious given its size, history and capabilities. It is a small region that wants to play big games. If Iraqi Kurdistan is to continue its current boom period, the KRG should first balance its relations with both Turkey and Iran, and avoid becoming overly reliant on either. It should also stay away from backing either regime or opposition in Syria, and should encourage Syria’s Kurdish parties to remain neutral. In other words, the KRG should avoid taking sides in Syria as otherwise it will automatically commit itself to one of the two regional blocs, led by Iran and Turkey respectively. Most importantly, consolidating democracy internally remains the most important factor to ensure the KRG remains strong, and continues to attract western support. Otherwise, for the Kurds, the boom may very well turn to doom.
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.