As Syria enters its sixth year of war, the turmoil in the region renders the boundaries drawn by the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement obsolete, particularly the border between Iraq and Syria. No one is certain what a post-war Syrian map is going to look like, let alone whether or not “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will ever be achieved.
Amid such uncertainty and despair, regional actors are seeking to forge a new order out of this devastation based on their ethnic and sectarian interests. It is no wonder that Kurdish aspirations for independence have also emerged in this period. In January, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani suggested holding a referendum on Kurdish independence before U.S. elections in November.
The economic and security dynamics on the ground, however, have imposed different realities on Iraqi Kurds. Along with the burning issue of fighting ISIL and other sources of extremism, the KRG’s political future, economic constraints, demands for reform and tensions between Baghdad and Arbil were among the hot topics discussed by prominent speakers at the fourth Sulaymaniyah Forum organized by the American University of Iraq last week.
The founder and the chairman of the university – as well as former KRG PM – Barham Salih took the time to share his perspectives on the challenges the KRG faces at this delicate stage and shed light on the hopes for independence as the war against ISIL has taken a new turn with an impending operation to retake Mosul.
According to Salih, Kurdistan, which used to be a success story, is at a major crossroads today. The drop in oil prices, Baghdad’s failure to pay a 17 percent share of the federal budget, the war against ISIL and the burden of 1.8 million refugees have brought the KRG to the brink of bankruptcy.
Today 70 percent of the Kurdish population is under 30, and many are unemployed university graduates, Salih said. Furthermore, people expect fundamental change and reform in government, but the domestic struggles within the KRG and the broken trust between Baghdad and Arbil impede any structural reforms.
The only way out, according to Salih, is the implementation of a comprehensive reform program to increase transparency and eradicate corruption.
Asked whether the time has come for an independent Kurdistan, Salih asserts: “Every Kurd aspires to be independent. Kurdish people deserve and have the right to a separate independent Kurdistan just like Turks, Arabs and Iranians. But Kurdish independence in my view comes with fixing our economy. First, we need to put our house in order, making sure the reform agenda succeeds by consolidating the trust of the community of Kurdistan. I believe we still have a lot of work to do. I’m also very happy to see our relationship with Ankara has improved over the years.”
Since international legitimacy and recognition is a crucial aspect of independence and sovereignty, Salih’s comments are thought-provoking in this sense.
“Independence does not come by being dependent on Turkey or the United States. We need to develop interdependence with our close and far neighbors across the region. The issue should not be about choosing Turkey over Iran, or choosing Turkey over Baghdad. The best policy is to build bridges with our neighbours, Turkey, Iran and the Arab world. This should not be a zero-sum game.”
As for the KRG’s expectations from Turkey and the U.S. in combating ISIL, Salih underlines the fact that confronting the plague of ISIL is indeed a common interest of Kurds and Turks. “At the end of the day, ISIL has to be defeated by regional actors and local communities – the Kurds, the Turkmens, the Arabs, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have to come together. I appreciate what the Americans are doing. We ask for more because we need more supportand more military engagement, but it is our country and we have to fight for it!”
In light of domestic struggles, economic hardships and the looming ISIL threat, plans for a declaration of independence are very much likely to be postponed until an undetermined date in the future, yet the ideal is obviously what keeps Iraqi Kurds alive.