Realpolitik in Mesopotamia

HDR 2009 KURD kurdistan Flag
Realpolitik in Mesopotamia - Selim Koru

"Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided - that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood." - Otto von Bismarck, "Blut und Eisen," 30 September 1862. 

Creating a country just isn’t the same as it was back in the 19th century. The Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck scrambled together the German states through a series of wars and masterful diplomacy. Most new states since the Second World War have come in waves, such as decolonization in the 1960s, or the former Soviet Republics in the 1990s. There is one place however, where a balance of power flare could make a comeback. The Kurds, who are said to be the largest stateless people in the world, are stretched across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Today, it appears that a culmination of economic and strategic factors could put an independent state in Northern Iraq within their reach.

The history of Iraqi Kurdistan is not a happy one. The British kept the Kurds in Baghdad’s political union after they invaded the country in 1918, carrying out some of the first-ever aerial bombardments to quell their rebellions. Kurdish politics in the following decades was fraught with infighting and government repression. Saddam's atrocities against Kurdish villages in the 1980s were the latest, if not the most brutal, of these.

It took no less than two American invasions to change this dynamic. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) emerged as Iraqi Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous government after the 1991 Gulf War, but suffered from trade embargoes and political pressure from Baghdad. The 2003 U.S. invasion brought prosperity through heavy American investment and increased autonomy. Iraqi Kurds now have the trappings of a modern state, including their own flag, national anthem and Kurdish as the language of instruction in schools.

In the last few years, political leadership has consolidated around President Massoud Barzani, leader of the influential clan of the same name. Barzani is a former pashmarga, as Kurdish guerrilla fighters are called, and he came up accompanying his father Molla Mustafa Barzani, who in 1946 founded a short-lived Communist Kurdish state in northern Iran. The stone-faced son seems to have refined his family’s state-building experience. In a 2012 BBC interview (in Kurdish and dubbed into Persian) he stated, “I like the Kurdistan Region to evolve day by day. But what I really wish is to see an independent Kurdistan.” One of those day-by-day evolutions is more important for independence than any other: rapprochement with Turkey.

Iraqi Kurds have a tense history with the economic and military giant to their north. For the past thirty years, Ankara has been fighting a low-grade civil war against its Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Erbil's tacit support for the PKK earned Barzani the title of "Mehmetcik killer" (Mehmetcik being a nickname for Turkish conscripts) among Turkey's press and politicians in the ‘90s. Ankara vehemently opposed the independence of the KRG, believing that it would only further destabilize its own Kurdish population. Barzani must have realized that the KRG stood little chance of independence if it remained enemies with both the Arabs to the south and the Turks to the north. When the relatively conciliatory AK Party consolidated power in Ankara in the mid-2000s, Barzani moved to make peace.

The Kurdish leadership distanced itself from the PKK in recent years and is working closer with Turkey’s security forces. Members of the Barzani clan are frequent visitors to Ankara and in turn receive an increasing flow of businessmen to Erbil. Trade cements this relationship. Turkey’s exports to Iraq last year increased by 25 percent, reaching $10.8 billion, making it Turkey’s second largest trading partner after Germany. The KRG’s markets are teeming with Turkish goods while Istanbul construction firms dominate the race for contracts. Turkey can no longer afford to lose Kurdish markets for politics’ sake, just as the Kurds won’t risk losing Turkish investment.

Strategically, the most significant aspect of the KRG’s relations with Turkey is oil. Northern Iraq holds a considerable part of the country’s oil, while energy-poor Turkey has been in a bind since US sanctions cut it off from Iranian reserves. The KRG has duly invited oil majors such as Exxon and BP, who partnered up with Turkish companies with regional expertise. Nouri al-Maliki’s government claims that KRG exports without its approval are illegal. It has strongly rebuked energy companies and the Turkish government. Turkey, now tied by trade, has found itself in the awkward position of siding with the KRG against Baghdad. Prime Minister Erdoğan frequently exchanges threats with al-Maliki. Tensions came to a high point last December, when Iraqi authorities denied Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız’s plane permission to land at Erbil airport. Turkey’s leaders are still unlikely to support an independent KRG any time soon, but Barzani has at least warmed Ankara up to the idea. At the very least, he now has their support against Baghdad.

The obstacles to independence are considerable – some would say insurmountable. Ironically, a strong opponent to the KRG’s independence outside of Iraq is the United States. The Americans want to avoid a Vietnam-style disintegration of Iraq after their departure, and the White House fears that Baghdad will fall closer within Iran’s sphere if the KRG was to secede. American diplomats are hard at work trying to veer Turkey off its present path, while simultaneously trying to convince Baghdad to pass new laws allowing the KRG to export freely. 

The diplomatic shift around ancient Mesopotamia holds promise of a rare sight: the birth of a new state, not by decolonization or war, but from hard-knuckled diplomacy and the forces of economics. It is still far off, but President Barzani has a shot to carve out a state for his people. Even without the iron or blood, that would be a story worthy of Bismarck.

Selim Koru is a first year MA candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS.