2014 marked a crucial year for the Iraqi Kurdistan region. On 9 December, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), reiterated his commitment to Kurdish independence after making a momentous pledge for a referendum on 30 June, 2014. Though the region gained autonomy in 1991, the Kurds have been longing for independence since time immemorial. After the treaty of Sèvres which followed the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they were promised an independent state but were disappointed due to Turkish suppression. Nearly three decades later, the Kurdish republic of Mahabad attempted yet another an uprising in what is now north-western Iran, but were met with the same stern aversion. Sheer will and brute force have not served the Kurds well.
Yet this time, the Kurdish Region of Iraq has proven itself to be adaptable and logistically forward thinking; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) invasion into northern Iraq effectively eliminated Baghdad’s control over disputed territories in Kurdistan, making Barzani’s announcement immaculately timed. As the Iraqi army abandoned its positions, the Kurdish security forces (peshmerga) fulfilled additional territorial ambitions by taking control of oil-rich Kirkuk.
Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, began receiving military assistance from the U.S. in 2014, instigating further talks with the new Iraqi government (to be headed by Haider al-Abadi) on the Kurdish desire for independence. Significant international support during negotiations enabled Barzani to insist on the KRG’s right to administer its own weapon purchases, sell its own oil and gas, and to organise referendums in the disputed territories on joining the Kurdistan Regional Government. Though not all demands were met, an energy agreement was finally orchestrated between Baghdad and Erbil on 2 December, 2014.
A stable Kurdish economy is viable; the terms of the energy agreement state Baghdad’s right to incur all oil revenues from the Kurdish-controlled areas (at least up to 550,000 barrels per day) in return for providing the KRG with its long overdue but constitutionally mandated 17 per cent of the country’s budget. The brokered deal does, however, also recognise KRG’s legal sovereignty over the tapping and sale of oil and gas in all Kurdish areas, including 300,000 barrels per day expected to be extracted from the Kirkuk region which is to be exported via Kurdish and Turkish pipelines. The energy bill settlement serves as an unofficial recognition of Kirkuk, and other disputed territories, as Kurdish; by extension, it is also represents a legal acceptance of the population’s demands – though it will never be an easy battle to win.
The successful marketing of Kurdistan’s hydrocarbon resources could heavily influence its sustainability as an independent state. Multinational energy companies are now freed from their concern regarding prosecution, which had previously put Kurdish energy exports at a substantial disadvantage – no one wants to take financial and capital investment risks or potentially cause clashes with the Iraqi government. Instead, the Kurds may want to take Azerbaijan as an inspiration to becoming economically robust. The small state grew its economy through hydrocarbon exports and used earned revenue to establish itself as a pivotal energy power in the region. Two pipelines through Georgia and Azerbaijan deliver their oil and natural gas to Turkey, which functions as a gateway to the European market; a similar strategy could be adopted in Kurdistan, given that political pressures play in Barzani’s favour. In the light of diplomatic differences, it is likely that Europe would welcome a possibility to remove itself from its current blood-bound energy agreements with Russia and perhaps opt for Kurdistan’s exports instead. But failure to approve all Kurdish demands in the energy agreement with Baghdad should not be interpreted as a regression. It is a strategic intermediate move towards securing a stable path to independence. Rushing political independence and economic autonomy will unsettle neighbours. KRG may, however, only have up to six months before advantageous pressures in the Middle East dissolve.
If the threat of ISIS in Iraq diminishes and the U.S. and NATO focus more exclusively on Syria, the KRG would come under increasing situational pressure to postpone the referendum; it would seize to be a priority and turn into distant hope. Currently, the United States and its NATO allies fear that any sign of withdrawal may incentivise ISIS to return or Iranian-backed Shia militias to advance. But voting for independence within this time frame should eliminate the possibility of Western powers reducing their defense support, shifting it to a different conflict (i.e. Syria). Due to strong trade ties with Turkey, the referendum must also occur before Turkish parliamentary elections in June 2015, as it is unlikely for Barzani to gain more leverage over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than he currently has.
If Barzani continues to prove himself and his government to be strategic, Kurdistan could grow into an oasis of economic and social stability amidst regional chaos and conflict. Even though its courts are not fully developed, journalists are often harassed, and its human-rights record is less than impeccable, democracy, though still crude, has been established and the population craves independence. Iraqi Kurdistan’s quest is dependent on the KRG’s ability to manage its regional affairs delicately. A century ago, Woodrow Wilson promoted the principle that nations should have the “unmolested opportunity of autonomous development,” so long as they are economically, politically and socially capable with regards to wealth, democratic credentials, and respect for minorities. If Barzani is able to cultivate his country’s relations with Turkey and Iran, unify his people on the issue of independence, and make his new state militarily defensible, Kurdistan may call 2015 its year of freedom.