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How Oil Wealth and Terrorism Can Lead to Kurdistan’s Secession

September 25, 2017
Archival photo: Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming Photo Credit: AFP/Safin Hamed


State building is a difficult and expensive task, and in a region currently gripped by perpetual conflict, the possibilities of creating a new state come with stark challenges.

As Iraq’s Kurds are today set to cast their votes in an independence referendum, it is topical to look into the impulses that have pushed Kurdistan to follow this path.

To start with, the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 is certainly a chief factor. It threw the state into years of sectarian warfare and deeply weakened the central government. This, in turn, had a major impact in reinforcing Kurdish nationalism, and it also put talks of creating a federal government on the table.

In 2005, Iraq’s new federal constitution granted regions and provinces a higher degree of autonomy. However, this move backfired as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was allowed greater economic independence. It began instituting its own oil laws and even attracting investments from many international oil companies.

What the government in Baghdad failed to observe was that oil wealth could play a major part in increasing secessionism, and by loosening the ties of certain regions to the central government, this could eventually turn economic independence into national independence.

This process significantly escalated with the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Not only did the fight against the extremist group create a sense of solidarity among the Iraqi Kurds, but it also helped them to control more land beyond their administrative borders, including the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

The seizure of Kirkuk is already setting the tone for a coming oil dispute, as Iraq’s parliament on September 4 voted to sack the governor of Kirkuk amid tensions over its participation in the referendum. If negotiations fail to solve the dispute, the risk of an armed conflict breaking out would significantly increase.

The eagerness of KRG to control the oil-rich regions is not surprising. Beyond the purely economic benefit, having access to oil resources has allegedly allowed the KRG to export oil to countries such as Israel, Italy, France, and Greece, which has strengthened the political ties between the countries. Although Kurdish officials deny that Israel imports oil from the KRG, Israel would benefit from strengthening ties with Kurdistan, not least if the region gained political independence, as it could prop up Israel’s international legitimacy by another state officially accepting its existence.

This is not the first time that Israel has supported secession as it has done the same in relation to South Sudan. In 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his great pleasure that the country gained independence, and ensured that Israel would play a main role in its development.

Abayomi Azikiwe, the editor of Pan-African News Wire, has previously stated that oil reserves were the reason why the country was divided. Around 80 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves are located in South Sudan, which received aid and arms from Israel to fight against terrorism.

Yet there is a risk that, if independence is achieved, Kurdistan may follow the same path of South Sudan and its civil war.

Comparing Kurdistan to South Sudan, Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official, has warned that “When a country has oil but a military geared more to personality than the state, the result is civil war. Don’t believe me? Just ask the South Sudanese. Even if Kurdistan were to truly unify the Peshmerga and intelligence services, what about the air force?” Further, Gallia Lindenstrauss and Adrien Cluzet at the Institute for National Security Studies in Zurich doubt the military effectiveness of the Peshmerga.

History of tensions among Kurds themselves also adds to the heat, with the memory of the Iraqi Kurdish civil war in the mid-1990s still alive in the minds of many Kurds. If the oil dispute between the Iraqi central government and the KRG rises, there is a danger that it escalates into another civil war.

To prevent the disastrous consequences of South Sudan’s independence, the KRG must keep in mind that oil wealth and Western support is not enough to build a stable state, and at this critical period, negotiations with the Iraqi government should be the main objective.

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