Kurdish Aspirations Gaining Speed

The Middle East Policy Council posted my new briefing titled “Maliki Visits Kurdistan.” It focuses on recent events that prove the Kurds have lost patience with Baghdad. Two episodes are raised specifically. First is the expected completion of a new pipeline connecting Kurdish oil fields with the Turkish border. And second: the mass desertion this month of  Kurdish troops who quit the Iraqi Army in order to join Kurdistan’s independent military force–the Peshmerga. Either case is important. Together they suggest Iraqi Kurdistan is slowly retreating from Baghdad’s orbit.

Unrest in predominantly Sunni provinces of Iraq has also altered the landscape.  The Peshmerga have reportedly advanced in those areas vacated by the Iraqi Army as it prioritizes security in places that have seen protests and renewed violence (like Anbar province). Iraq is clearly entering a new period of negotiation, tension, and violence. The Kurds are making the most of it.

The KRG has seemingly begun a campaign to change facts on the ground both by way of design and opportunism. Officials may phrase it differently, but it seems the KRG’s strategy is to advance their interests now so that they can deal with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki on their own terms whenever he is ready. The past two days have only confirmed this reading of events.

At a conference in London this week, Iraqi officials released new targets for Iraqi oil production in the coming years. Kurdistan’s contribution was not included, however, because Kurdish exports via the federal pipeline were halted in December due to a payment dispute between Baghdad and Irbil. Clearly, Baghdad has very little confidence that the disagreement will be resolved soon. KRG Minister for Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami also made an important announcement at the same conference: the KRG will tie its new pipeline into the underutilized Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline across the border in Turkey, allowing it to sell up to 300,000 b/d without Maliki’s blessing. This had previously been assumed. But now it is confirmed–on the record.

Today the Kurds are on track and gaining speed. It remains to be seen whether their aspirations will be derailed. Two spoilers are worth noting. First is Iraq’s Prime Minister, who has–so far–held his fire and focused more so on his country’s deteriorating security. This could change. Tensions between the regional and central government could worsen quickly as they have in the past. Neither side wants open conflict but it doesn’t take much to stumble into one. The second spoiler is Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mass protests at home and international criticism are hurting his brand. Meanwhile, the ongoing peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish minority is showing the first sign of cracking. Erdogan’s handling of the bloody Syria crisis next door has also opened him up for criticism. He may seek to deflect more controversy by delaying his approval of Kurdish oil exports.


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