With Sunni Insurgents capturing Mosul and other parts of Western Iraq, and Kurdish forces taking control of Kirkuk, it may soon become more practical to recognize an independent Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and work to ensure its stability and self-defense capabilities.
“Madness! Insanity! Dystopian/Utopian!” you may say, and the reasons why this will not happen in the foreseeable future are- I admit-rather daunting. Turkish and Iranian opposition, possible Iranian control over Shia-dominated eastern Iraq if the state were to fail, not to mention the almost psychotic obsession with “state stability” that prevents international recognition of even de facto states like Somaliland. Yes, these issues likely mean that unless Iraq emerges as a unified polity that can hold itself together without U.S./ “Western” intervention, the de fact failure of the Iraqi state will be ignored and Iraqi Kurdistan will likely remain unrecognized (although existent, nonetheless). Still, if we move into a logical discussion of the real pro’s and con’s- something I know is not the rule for politics and international affairs- I think the question of Should we recognize an independent Kurdistan practically screams to the less-than-practical observer YES.
Regional Dynamics: A Weak Argument
Regional opposition to an independent Kurdistan becoming a recognized political reality is largely laid at the feet of Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran and to an even less extent Syria. Turkey’s population is around 20% Kurdish, and the country has often sought to integrate the Kurdish population by denying them language and cultural rights as well as refusing to recognize that the Republic of Turkey does indeed have ethnic minorities, rather than peoples of “Kurdish extraction”. Turkey has expressed fears, even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be used as a base of operations for the Kurdish insurgency in eastern Turkey, and have indicated that they would take military action if such an entity were to appear.
Fast-forward to the present situation, however, and it appears that perhaps Turkey might be more flexible than they let on. Turkey has been happy to purchase Kurdish oil through a pipeline established by the Kurdish Regional Government independent of Baghdad. In the last year, Turkey has also made some indication that it is ready to offer certain basic rights to its own Kurdish population. What’s more, the KRG has not openly supported the Kurdish insurgent groups in Turkey, likely in recognition that Turkish support will be key to getting regional, international, and especially U.S. recognition of their sovereignty.
Iran is a somewhat different story. Kurds and Persians speak related languages; however Kurdish-Persian relations do not reflect these links. Several Kurdish groups within Iran are fighting for increased autonomy, and the “Kurdish question” is obviously connected to the larger “ethnic question” within Iran. In fact, the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani made specific reference to the need to address ethnic rights within Iran.
A couple of issues need to be pointed out. Most importantly, I have not seen any evidence that more rights for minorities actually serves as a stepping-stone to increased calls for independence. In fact, the opposite might be true: Guaranteeing cultural, linguistic, and social rights to indigenous ethnic minorities is essential for national stability. That means that Iran could respond to calls for an independent Kurdistan (in Iraq) in a couple of ways. It could perceive a threat to the stability of its own Kurdish region, or recognize that support for Iraqi Kurds and improving its own ethnic policy might actually protect its stability.
Any Kurdistan formed out of the current Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) would almost certainly have U.S. backing; however, if the Kurds could be persuaded to adopt a more pragmatic foreign policy suitable to the region, they need not be a formal U.S. ally. In fact, an independent Kurdistan could even act as a regional peacemaker, perhaps improving US-Iranian relations. Budding Israeli support to Kurdish independence echoes this possibility. Like Turkey, Iran might be more pragmatic on the Kurdistan issue than it is given credit for. Indeed, if Iranian support to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan is any indication, Tehran would be amiable to more stability on its borders, rather than a struggling failed Iraqi state, no matter how unified.
Syria, it seems to me, is the lynchpin of this whole situation. First, the civil war and dissolution of the Syrian state is directly tied to the instability of Iraq. The Islamic group that has seized control of Mosul, called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), is also in control of large tracts of eastern Syria. As far the Syrian sections of ‘Greater Kurdistan’, the lack of a functioning government in Syria means that there is really no point in discussing Syrian opposition to the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, it is entirely possible that Syrian Kurdistan could join with Iraqi Kurdistan, but that is a topic for another blog post. Importantly, while ISIS has avoided attacking Kurdish positions in Iraq, the group has waged a bloody fight against Syria’s Kurdish population.
Syria might actually be the only country that could loose territory as a result of the creation of the Kurdistan state, but I still think this is entirely unlikely to happen without international backing (i.e. U.S. approval).
In case it has not already become clear, I do not think that the regional dynamics are really the strongest reasons for not recognizing an independent Kurdistan, should the KRG declare itself as such. (And we can be sure that that declaration would not be made without at least some assurance of U.S. backing). What is really at play here is the international community’s obsession with the stability of the international state system, which means that maintaining the borders of the 1990s is seen as more beneficial than efforts to reshape the globe. The price of printing new maps aside, this directly plays into the role of the state internationally and domestically.
De Facto States: The Trouble with Recognition Scares
A casual look around the globe reveals two broad types of unrecognized, but de facto states. On one end, are the breakaway regions from functioning states that have broken off with some sort of great power backing. Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia with Russian backing seems the ideal example. These largely unrecognized states represent a threat to global security as indications of great power meddling in weaker state’s internal affairs. Alternatively, there are those de facto states that emerge out of the ruin of a larger failed state. Somaliland in Somalia falls firmly into this second category, and if Kurdistan were to declare its independence and Iraq does- as signs indicate- fall into disarray, it would also fit into this mold.
Actually, the comparison between Somaliland and Kurdistan is deeper than just my rough attempt at categorization. Somaliland, like Iraqi Kurdistan, is a functioning northern region of a state destroyed by an Islamic insurgency. While Somaliland has been a de facto state since 1991, it is still not recognized as independent of Somalia by the international community, although it does cooperate with several international actors as a “recognized autonomous region of Somalia.” Somaliland may be an example of what Kurdistan de facto statehood would look like on an international level. (I do not know about regional opposition/support to Somaliland’s independence, and so cannot comment on it here).
The reason that the international state system is not eager to accept new states into the fold rests on several reasons. I would argue that in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, any declaration of independence might go unrecognized for three reasons. First, it would signal the failure of the U.S./U.K. intervention in the country. Second, it would be initially opposed by Turkey and Iran, even if in the long term it may serve their goals. Thirdly, many worry that secessionist movements are like a wildfire, once allowed to burn in one area, more will pop up. The first reason is true: U.S. and U.K. operations in Iraq have failed in some respects. (That is not to say, however, that getting rid of Saddam was a “bad” thing). The second reason is likely also true, but could be handled with some forward thinking policy makers from all involved parties. The last reason is unsubstantiated and, I would venture, false. Nationalist movements often draw upon and inspire each other, but there is no evidence to suggest that the success of one means others will push that much harder. Furthermore, Kurdish independence would be won from internal stability in a crumbling state and cooperation with the international community, not armed insurrection; isn’t that a kind of nationalism that we might want to encourage?
Yes, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might raise some crucial questions regionally as well as internationally, but these issues are not set in stone. With some creative foreign policy thinking and a long-term outlook, Iran and Turkey could come to see the wisdom of an independent Kurdistan. It is in the interests of the United States to foster a best-case-scenario in the event of a failed Iraq, and recognizing Kurdish rights to independence is a key step in that process.
This piece is based on a series of what-ifs, most importantly, if Iraq were to become a failed state, broadly defined. I am not in the business of telling the future, and while there are some signs that such a situation is eminent, it may never come to pass. It is also based on an assumption that the KRG would declare independence. Once again, while all indications point to the possibility, it may very well not come to pass.
(This is a new fun category of posts where I imagine a scenario where foreign policy news leads to a 100% shift in international politics. I am not arguing that my scenario should or will happen; I am arguing that if this one piece of news went to an extreme, that we could expect the following changes in global politics.)
Just imagine, Russian policy makers give 100% to all their talk about shifting their developmental, foreign policy, and security focus to the Russian Far East and East Asia.
In another decade or two, the Russian Federation could have potentially achieved the following foreign policy milestones:
1) Deepened relations with China. True, Russian-Chinese relations aren’t all that bad now, but if the Russian Federation really devoted its diplomatic energies and expertise to East Asia, Moscow might be more willing to cooperate with China. China likewise would have to treat Russia as an Asian great power, incentivizing Beijing to cooperate at Russia’s bequest.
2) Solved its territorial disputes with Japan. If Russia is serious about becoming an Asia-Pacific power, it will have to solve its territorial dispute with Japan over the Sakhalin Islands. Moving east will not mitigate the U.S. encirclement of Russia, and Russia would be wise to court Tokyo instead of working against Japan as it likes to do with U.S. and NATO allies in Eastern Europe. This way, it could make room for itself in the region as a new player.
3) Turned itself into a stabilizing force on the Korean Peninsula. Russia will have to take an active role in stabilizing the Korean Peninsula. Russia might begin to partner with China to control Pyongyang, while simultaneously seeking to increase its standing in South Korea, to balance the U.S. presence in its new backdoor.
4) Become a balancing force against China in Mongolia. Certainly, Mongolia is focused on balancing the economic and political influence of its two giant neighbors, but currently China is really the only neighbor that needs to be balanced. A bit more interest from Russia coupled with continued third neighbor involvement might be just the thing to counter the obvious threat posed by the Chinese vasselization of the Mongolian economy.
For Russia’s neighbors, we could expect the following benefits:
1) Russia would treat the South Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics as secondary concern. That is not to say the Russia would stop behaving like an imperialist state towards these regions, but they would become a lesser concern if the Kremlin was focusing on Vladivostok instead of St. Petersburg. Georgia and Armenia would be freed up for integration into European institutions, the Baltics would face less pressure from Russia concerning Russian minorities in these countries, and Eastern Europe might not be bullied around with energy politics quite as much.
2) Central Asia would become slightly more relevant. Central Asia is pivotal to Russian-Chinese relations as a main point of competition AND cooperation, mainly through the SCO. As such, Central Asia would become more important than it already is to Russian and Chinese grand strategy. Getting the region right will be paramount to achieving strong relations with China, and ensuring the stability of the region.
3) The E.U. would feel less pressure. With Russia’s move away from Eastern Europe, E.U. expansion into the Caucasus would be simplified (still difficult and far away, to be sure). Furthermore, European sponsored pipelines would face less competition from Gazprom, furthering E.U. security and economic interests.
4) The U.S. would feel more pressure. If Russia was successful at turning itself into a recognizably Asia Pacific country, the U.S. would have to deal with another pole in the region, making its own pivot more complicated and delicate. A Russian-Chinese partnership could also give both countries the upper hand in denying the U.S. access to important regions, diplomatically and economically. If Russia was successful in courting Japan and South Korea, the U.S. could find its own alliances weakened by Russian influence. Also, a stronger Russian military presence in the Pacific would be a direct security threat to the United States (and Canada, for that matter).
Domestically, an Asia-Pacific Russian Federation would experience the following changes:
1) Eastern Demographic movement. Moscow and St. Petersburg would not loose their political and cultural significance, but an eastward moving Russia would mean that Irkutsk and Vladivostok, etc. would suddenly become the pillars of the Russian economy and key point of interaction with the Asia-Pacific.
2) More interference in Sakha and Tuva. The Sakha and Tuvan Republics are 2 of three more “independent” republics of the Federation, with Moscow decidedly less involved in their domestic affairs (Tatarstan being the 3rd of such republics). Our imaginary Russia would probably start interfering much more in these republics. In Tuva, one of the few republics with a majority titular demographic, the eastward move could also lead to an influx of Russians, potentially causing social unrest.
3) More balanced relations with North Caucasus and other more western ethnic republics. With less interest in Western affairs, the Western republics might get a bit more flexibility to pursue their own interests. Obviously, this will stop short of any real policy change, but with less interest Mother Russia might not notice key developments in regional agency.
This list is far from complete and a far cry from well researched, but I think I have touched on several important possibilities from the scenario.
In reality, I find it hard to imagine that Russia could successfully mould itself into a real player in Asia-Pacific affairs for one simple reason: Russia rarely displays foreign policy behavior that would attract other countries to welcome its presence. In order for this move to work, Russia would have successfully interact with South Korea and Japan; however, Russia has not shown itself particularly adept at working with U.S. allies in the past. While Putin might consider Russia already to be an Asia-Pacific country, I do not believe that the rest of the region would agree. In order to make political room for itself, Russia will have to charm, something the state has never been particularly gifted at.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.