Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Kurdistan: Just Being Independent

by Steven A. Cook
October 28, 2013

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag (Azad Lashkari/Courtesy Reuters).


Iraq is going to break up.  It is already happening, but no one wants to acknowledge it because no one wants to be perceived as being responsible for the disintegration of a major Middle Eastern country.

There is not much about the Kurdish region of Iraq that is Iraqi.  When you arrive at Erbil’s brand new international airport, there are no signs that welcome you to Iraq.  I am sure somewhere at the entrance to the airport there is an Iraqi flag, but I didn’t notice it.  The only hint that I was actually in Iraq was the stamp a Kurdish police officer put in my passport that says in tiny letters, “Republic of Iraq—Kurdistan Region.”  The Kurds have a foreign ministry (actually two, maybe even three, but that is another story), a military, interior ministry, intelligence services, a parliament, president, prime minister, investment authority, and a flag.  No one under the age of 30 speaks Arabic (English being the favored second language) and not a single person I met of any age believed themselves to be Iraqi.  Why would they?  What is the common idea that ties someone from Sulaimaniyah to someone in Basra?  There isn’t one.

None of this should be much of a surprise to anyone who has even been paying half attention to Iraq over the last decade—or rather the last two decades when the Kurds quietly began building the institutions and structures of independence under the Anglo-American no-fly zone established after Operation Desert Storm. Beyond solemn declarations that, “the Kurds will not be responsible for breaking up Iraq” and not-so-believable assertions about the differences between “the dream of independence” and the constitutional reality of a unified Iraq, you get the sense that the Kurds believe that the environment for their independence is slowly ripening.  They have serious reserves of oil and gas as well as significant amounts of foreign direct investment from Turkey, the Gulfies, Lebanon, Egypt, the United States, Europe, and the Russians.  A lot of investment is in the energy sector, but not all of it.  There are, for example, more than 1,000 Turkish companies—both large and small—operating in the Kurdistan region.  Kurds are munching on Ulker biscuits, cooling off during the brutally hot summers with Arcelik air conditioners, and I stayed in the Koc family’s Erbil outpost—the Divan Hotel.  Speaking of Erbil, it is a bit dreary, but definitely booming.  The most oft-sighted bird in the Erbil sky is the “construction crane.”

Combined with good economic times in Kurdistan is the pervasive dysfunction in Baghdad and the sectarian violence that threatens to tear the country apart.  Just yesterday (Sunday) there were ten bombings killing at least forty-one in Shiite majority areas of Baghdad. The death toll is up to 1,000 a month, which is not quite 2006 levels, but close. In contrast, the Kurdish area has experienced three bombings in the last decade, the most recent on September 29, the first major attack since 2007. In addition, the Kurds and the federal government—officials in Erbil chafe at the term “central government”—are forever in conflict over the electoral law, hydrocarbon law, and the Kurdish share of the budget, which is supposed to be 17 percent, but is always less.  People in Erbil and in Baghdad, I am told, wonder whether the effort to maintain the fiction of a unified, federal Iraq is worth it both politically and economically.

As good as it looks for the Kurds, they still have serious challenges before realizing their ultimate goal.  The first is Kirkuk. The oil-rich region around the disputed city is in the central government’s hands, but the disposition of Kirkuk remains a powerful nationalist issue for Kurds. There have been censuses in the city in 1957, 1977, and  1997. And while there is agreement that the 1957 tally was the most accurate, no one actually knows the current demographic balance of the city. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Arab population surged as a result of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies and there continues to be a large Turkoman population that claims Kirkuk to be culturally Turkoman rather than Kurdish. Even if the non-Kurdish populations were considerably smaller, Kirkuk remains in the hands of Baghdad and there is no way the Kurds are going to “liberate” it without force, something that seems farfetched despite the apparent bravery and legend of the peshmerga. At least one Kurd said to me, “If we have a lot of oil and gas in other places, we do not really need Kirkuk.” He freely admitted that his view was not widespread.

Second, the Kurds have their own internal political difficulties. Despite burying the wounds of a civil war they fought in the mid-1990s, it is clear that the two parties that have controlled the Kurdistan region—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) eye each other warily. The PUK has largely controlled Sulaimaniyah, though a breakaway party called Ghorran (meaning, change) secured more votes than the PUK in recent elections.  The KDP has a virtual lock on Erbil and Dohuk, the other governorate that makes up the Kurdistan region located next to most of the Turkish border. The KDP and PUK form a governing coalition, but cooperation between and even within ministries between party members can be tough going. There are other more ominous outward differences. The security forces in Erbil, for example, wear different uniforms than those in Sulaimaniyah, which would not be a problem but for the fact that my non-government Kurdish interlocutors impressed upon me that these groups are loyal to different and competing power centers.

Finally, even though the Kurds insist they will do nothing to break up Iraq, they want others—especially the United States—to approach the region in a way that reinforces the idea of the inevitability of Kurdish independence.  Yet for political reasons Washington will resist deviating from its “one Iraq” policy. This, of course, produces policies that are incongruous with reality, but when has that ever stopped Washington?  My favorite example is the American effort to encourage better relations between Ankara and Erbil.  There was a time not too long ago when observers feared that Turkey would invade Iraq to snuff out Kurdish independence. In order to forestall such an event, the United States has encouraged Ankara to shift its approach to the Kurdistan region and since 2008 the Turks have developed (as noted above) strong economic ties with the Kurds. A great American diplomatic success, except that it is apparently too much of a success. Washington now wants the Turks to back off of a deal that would send Kurdish oil directly to Turkey, bypassing the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline that Baghdad controls. Why?  Because the Turkish-Kurdish deal would demonstrate that the Kurds can act independent of Baghdad.

Unlike the first two challenges to Kurdish independence, Washington’s position is a complication not a potential obstacle. Yet even accounting for Kirkuk and internal rivalries, it is likely that one day everyone is going to wake up and there will be a new country called Kurdistan. The Kurds will not have to declare independence, they won’t dance in the streets, there will not be a need for fireworks, or a founding date, though I am sure someone will make one up so future Kurdish embassies can invite people to their national day celebrations. No, the Kurdish state will just come into being. It is already happening.


Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Karwan Z.

    Great piece. Great analysis of the reality and the developments taking place on the ground.

  • Posted by Auday Younis

    Type your comment in here… thanks to america who invaded iraq and made the dream of breaking up iraq. No one would like to assume the american responcibility to this play.

  • Posted by Michael Knights


    thanks for the piece. I would agree that, in many cosmetic and administrative senses, a state already exists in Iraqi Kurdistan but the following is also true.

    1) That the vast majority of KRG revenue, including all the salaries of almost all the local ministries, comes from Baghdad. A billion dollar block transfer from Baghdad, every month, and the KRG will not be able to equal this sum with its own independent oil exports (less contractor shares) for a number of years.

    2) The Iraqi national flag is positioned in practically every government ministry, to a quite surprising extent. I am still shocked by how often one sees it, rather than the reverse.

    Incidentally, why did you need a stamp in your passport? US citizens don’t require a stamp usually.

    best wishes

    Mike Knights

  • Posted by Mary


    This part mentions the following : “CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues.” I on the other hand would like to ask Mr. Steven Cook : How would you write about the independence of a land which is not a property of the kurds ? Have you read history and noticed who are the real owners of the north of Iraq (Occupied Assyria / Ashur) and what is today called Iraq or you just sat down with few kurds and their propaganda prompted you to write this piece ? IF the unfair policy of the US and its allies have decided to grant kurds “independence” that does not make it right, certainly not at the expense of the real owners, ie, the Assyrians, who have been suffering until the different regimes since a country was created in 1921 and called Iraq till this moment under kurdish hegemony. Instead of writing about the kurds, your duty should be to report about the suffering of the indigenous people who are risking to lose every thing and even their lives because of the US policy which has not done any thing except to support dictators and create terrorists until their role is finished. Mr. Cook, the north of Iraq is Occupied Assyria (Ashur) until the Assyrians get their legitimate rights on their own lands in equality with others who are foreigners on that land.

  • Posted by youel

    Mary you are hallucinating just like the rest of the Assyrians. It was >>listen WAS some 2700 years ago. Umpteen Nations invaded and lived after the fall of Nineveh and Assyrians did nit raise a finger. There is no such phrase as “legitimate right”.There is “legitimate fight and today’s Assyrians are pussy cats.

  • Posted by Mary


    I know two people who use the name Youel in this format : Assyrians and Jews.

    If you are Assyrian and writing this then shame on you, but if you are a Jew, then I am not surprised. Perhaps though you can explain the new fib being promoted about the so-called kurdish- jews. We know that the jews in Iraq spoke the Assyrian language in the Zakho dialect so how did they become kurdish-jews when the kurds are indo-europeans and the jews are semites.

    We know who and what the kurds are, and you do not. So do not meddle in what is not your affairs. Even if 3000 years pass, the land will remain Assyrian. Did the Jews give up on the land which they believed to be theirs ? Why it is legitimate right for jews but not for others ? I believe you are living your own hallucinations.

  • Posted by john

    Mary, most people know that the Assyrians are the indigenous inhabitants of the region. They are also aware that the Assyrians (and any other Christian group in the region) have been massacred and persecuted to the extent that they are now a tiny minority of the population. But most don’t care, sadly, and the reality is that the formation of a Kurdish state is pretty much an inevitability.

  • Posted by

    with my great respect for the view and the comment relating to this article, Kurdistan is a land of multicultural and multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. Kurdistan is a land of those that live on it. Kurdistan is a land of Kurdish people and it true that Assyrian, Kldani, Sryani, christian, Jewish, Turkman, Yazidi and some live on this land, some of the above mentioned Group are call themselves as Kurd and there are kurd, but some call themselves as different ethnic we as Kurd respect, accept it and say loud that those Ethnic Group have the same right and privilege as Kurd, everyone have to accept that Kurdish people have been live on this land that call Kurdistan for over 3000 and more years and now over 95% of populations are Kurd , Kurdistan proud to its history of tolerance and acceptance. Kurdish are never been a revengeful people and will not be, we have been attacked by chemical which killed thousands of our innocent people and hundreds of thousands been buried in mass graves and faced genocide, thousands of village were destroyed Kurdish people have given millions of men to this land, face hardship and exile but never gave up on struggle for their country. Kurd are still fighting for the right of the people that live on this land. After long struggle, we have achieved some of what we fight for, and will continue until we obtain our independence country like any other Ethic Group on earth,

  • Posted by Mary


    Kurds living in the area for over 3000 years ? You are not only dreaming but talking gibberish. The kurds only arrived in the area with arab and mongol invasions. It is a known historical fact that the kurds are outsiders to the area. Obtain your independence on lands in Azerbeijan where most probably your people came from, but not in northern Iraq (Assyrian Lands). Your people have no history of tolerance nor acceptance, and if the eyes of the world were not on you, more atrocities would have been committed. The land is not called kur … You are calling lands which are not yours, land of kurds.

  • Posted by Mary


    Thank you, you have said the truth, then let the US, its allies and the rest of the tails stop pretending that they want democracy and justice in the world. The US and those in its ranks are the first nations supporting terrorism and causing the demise of indigenous populations on their own lands. The land is Assyrian whether the US, its allies and all those tails like it or not.

  • Posted by zahid

    Does this not seem ridiculous to grant a thin minority the land which was their’s in the far far past?If Kurds are majority now, they have every right to be considered legitimate rulers, by the norms of (religion of) democracy.Yes , the western nations have created this new religion of democracy and are imposing it on every land.So let it be so in Kurdish area also.This does not tantamount to saying that rights of other groups, minorities/Iraqis be put in jeopardy and denied.But the new international/western religion of democracy calls for the rule of majority and the fact that Kurds are majority in the region ,right now, is established.

  • Posted by Nia

    i am as a human first and as a Dutch man and from Kurdish origin with out own state in the 21 century. i am dreaming to get my Kurdistan passport but i want an independent Kurdistan peacefully to live in harmony together like the EU countries propels.

  • Posted by Mary


    No it is ridiculous for you and others to say that the kurds “have the right” to control or better occupy lands which are not theirs. Why would the kurds who are not part of that land be given lands which are not theirs while the owners of the land are treated like guests ? The so-called democracy which you are using, is not being properly applied and on the other hand there are rights and existence of indigenous peoples which should be protected according to international treaties, but what we see in what is today known as Iraq, is that the indigenous people and other minorities are being forced in one way or another to leave and in the process every thing that represents them is being obliterated in the name of a false “democracy” which is applied by the amount of oil and dollars which the US and its allies are making.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required