Available for a limited number of interviews, Ghareeb is an internationally recognized expert on the Kurds and on Iraq. He said today: “The 21st Century is likely to be the Kurdish century in the Middle East. There is both great opportunity right now for the Kurds, perhaps the greatest in recent history — and serious threats.
“The taking of Kirkuk is a critical event that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because of ISIS’s advance. Kirkuk is especially significant for both economic reasons (oil) and cultural ones. Rival Kurdish, Turkuman and Arab claims to Kirkuk add to the complexity and volatility of the situation. Some Turkuman leaders who have in recent history looked to Turkey for protection have warned that if Kirkuk is not returned to the central government they are willing to fight for it. For the Kurds, control of Kirkuk and its oil would make the Kurdish region financially independent from Baghdad which has withheld money over a long-running dispute over the control of energy resources. It would also make an independent Kurdish state economically viable if the Kurds decide to make that decision.
“Baghdad has threatened to bring legal action against Turkey at the International Court of Arbitration. Turkey, which has it problems with the Maliki government, has been willing to help the KRG for economic and political reasons. It also seeks KRG help with its own rebellious Kurds and hopes to diversify its energy sources.
“The weakening of the Iraqi state and other changes on the ground may be a great opportunity for the Kurds to fulfill their dream of independence. In the past, divisions and overplaying their hand have been disastrous for Kurdish aspirations. … The arrival of ISIS puts pressure on the borders of the Kurdish region and in disputed areas and poses great new dangers. It threatens to bring violence, insecurity and large numbers of refugees to the generally stable Kurdish region. Limited clashes have recently occurred between the two sides.
“The KRG in Iraq has recently been exporting oil through Turkey in preparation for the moment when Iraqi Kurds may opt for independence. Oil revenue would make the Kurdish state economically viable. Such a decision is not likely to be viewed with favor in neighboring Iran and Turkey. Iran and Turkey have their own restive Kurdish populations who may want to emulate their brethren in Iraq. Turkey has over 20 million Kurds while Iran has about nine million.
“Cooperation with Turkey on oil exploration and the building of a pipeline through Turkey to carry it to external markets has been beneficial to the governments of Turkey and the Kurdish region. The Turkish government has been silent on Kirkuk. In the past it took a strong stance against such a Kurdish advance, in part because of concern for the Turkuman. It is possible that oil changed that equation. Given the Iraqi government’s weakness, it can’t do much to dissuade Turkey from exploring for oil in the Kurdish region, or on building oil pipelines through Turkey and in selling the oil imported from the KRG.
“However, there are Turkish critics of Prime Minister Erdoğan who argue that he is being very short sighted: if there can be an independent Kurdish state in what is now Iraq with 5 million Kurds, then why not one in what is now Turkey with over 20 million Kurds?
“The KRG has denied reports that it sold oil to Israel. That is another risk on their part — such a move could have negative consequences with Arabs that could come back to haunt the Kurds.
“Keep in mind that even within Iraq, Kurds are hardly homogeneous. Some Kurdish youth, especially from around Halabja, have actually joined or allied with ISIS. This is for several reasons: This is an especially religiously conservative area historically and of course, Kurds are mostly Sunni. You had Kurds from the area join in the ‘Afghan Arabs’ fighting in Afghanistan in the 80s. In addition, this area has not benefited economically and you have a great deal of unemployment among the youth.
“So there’s a confluence of events — a possible confrontation with ISIS even as the Kurdish-Shia alliance is fraying and there may be an opening in Sunni-Kurdish relations. Kurdish leaders face hard choices, which are likely to affect the country’s survival as a unified state. They can opt to work with other Iraqis to build a democratic and stable Iraq or to go their own way. Either choice will have significant impact for Iraq and the region.”
Ghareeb was the first Mustafa Barzani Scholar of Global Kurdish Studies at the Center for Global Peace at American University. He formerly taught at George Washington University. His books include The Historical Dictionary of Iraq (co-authored with Beth Dougherty), The Kurdish Question in Iraq, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement and War in the Gulf which he co-authored with Majid Khadduri.