While the international community is preoccupied with the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and the downing of the Malaysian Airliner over eastern Ukraine, the Iraqi Kurds are caught struggling between a dictatorial regime in Baghdad and the threat from the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, which captured swathes of Sunni territory following its onslaught against the Iraqi army in Mosul in June. In light of the ISIS threat and after a decade of arduous diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes with Baghdad, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, tasked the Kurdish parliament to pave the way for holding a referendum on independence. Nevertheless, the survival of an independent Kurdistan in a hostile region requires strategic alliances.
Undeniably, the economic and political relations between Turkey and the KRG are at its peak. Turkish exports to Iraqi Kurdistan were estimated at 12 billion USD in 2013, ranking second to Germany. Over 1,300 Turkish companies have invested in KRG's booming economy. Further, the two sides have signed massive energy deals and a new pipeline with a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day was completed in 2013. Moreover, KRG has become Turkey's key regional ally as the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has left the latter increasingly isolated.
In spite of the warm relations, there is no guarantee that Turkey would welcome an independent Kurdistan on their southern borders, as Turkey has its own Kurdish problem: The largest part of greater Kurdistan, North Kurdistan -- with a population of over 20 million, lies within its south-east borders. Hence, Kurdish leaders must exploit other alternatives to reduce their dependency on Turkey.
Now, let's closely examine the new developments in the region and KRG's options:
The geopolitical turmoil has changed the balance of power in Iraq drastically. Iraqi Kurds are currently controlling nearly all of the disputed areas, including the oil rich Kirkuk. Further, the ISIS Jihadists -- along with the former Baathists and the Sunni tribes have seized much of the Sunni region. As a result, Iraq is partitioned back to the historical Ottoman semi-autonomous domains.
On another front, partition of Syria along ethnic lines has become fait accompli, as the Sunni coalition forces and jihadists control most of the Sunni areas and the Syrian Kurds have managed to establish three administrative cantons in Kurdistan of Syria (Rojava).
In the wake of the new reality, close strategic collaboration between the KRG and Rojava is crucial, as they share common political interests and are fighting the most brutal terrorist organization, the ISIS. Nevertheless, effective collaboration requires concessions. First, the PYD must respect the key principle of the Erbil Agreement, which was reached under the auspices of President Barzani in 2012: Establishing an inclusive government in Rojava. In return, the KRG should provide economic and military support to Rojava to regain the historic Kurdish territories.
By virtue of doing so, the KRG and Rojava would secure their domains more effectively and would greatly benefit politically and economically, regardless of whether the former declares independence or remains part of Iraq. Further, a friendly Kurdish region on KRG's north-western border can potentially be another gate for exporting Kurdish crude to the coast Mediterranean Sea, as the Syrian regime may ultimately fall and lead into the birth of new nation-states.
On the one side of the spectrum, despite the fact that the notion of an independent Kurdistan is met with opposition by Baghdad, Washington, Tehran, and possibly Ankara, the most desirable option for the KRG is independence. Iraq is a failed state. Thus, the international community, including Turkey, will ultimately recognize an independent Kurdistan as it has proven to be an island of stability in the greater region and can greatly contribute to the global energy needs.
On the other side of the spectrum, if KRG opts to remain part of Iraq, a confederal solution is the second best option. The new reality will enable the Kurds to expand their constitutional powers by demanding, at the minimum, a confederal solution that incorporates the disputed areas and grants them the right to sell their natural resources.
Whether the KRG declares independence or remains part of Iraq, the survival and success of the political experiment in Rojava as a secure and prosperous neighbor directly affects the security and economic development of KRG, and vice versa. Further, Rojava can potentially serve as an alternative route for exporting Kurdish crude to the Mediterranean Sea, which will reduce the dependency on Turkey. For that matter, Erbil and Rojava must meet on common grounds.
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