Despite nearly unanimous disapproval from the international community and even its closest ally, the United States, Iraqi Kurdistan is voting in a poll to move towards independence from Iraq. Although the vote is nonbinding and only serves to signal how serious Iraqi Kurds are about attaining autonomy, many countries have decried it, warning that it could send the region into a new round of chaos.
But two nations have had a curious response to the vote. Israel has openly backed the Kurdish independence referendum, and Russia has more subtly indicated that it is open to the vote and more than willing to cooperate with a potential Kurdish state.
Both countries’ responses are shocking.
For the most part, Israel’s political movements have been closely aligned with the United States with regards to Iraq and Syria.
Russia too has been a staunch supporter of the Iran, the Syrian regime, and the general formation of the Shiite Crescent--a political aspiration spearheaded by Iran that could be jeopardized by an empowered Kurdish nation in northern Iraq and Iran.
Israel’s reasons seem to be mainly political, though Iraqi Kurds and Israel have a history of cooperation. The Israeli government would be happy to have a non-Arab ally in the region, and an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would give Israel a potential military and political launchpad to reach further into the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters: “(Israel) supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state.”
The United States, meanwhile, come out strongly against the referendum, claiming it threatens to destabilize the region and impede the fight against the Islamic State.
The Special Presidential Envoy leading the U.S.’ charge against ISIS said, “The referendum just carries an awful lot of risks and that’s not something the United States can control.”
Though Israel’s move to support the Kurdish vote is a undoubtedly a break from its allies, it is not unsurprising. Netanyahu previously spoke out in favor of an Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 as a moderate and reliable ally against extremism.
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Russia’s support for the referendum is much less direct and full-throated. It is conspicuously absent in the list of countries that called for Iraqi Kurdistan to halt its referendum.
Russia opened a consulate in the de facto Kurdish capital, Erbil, in 2007, and senior officials have openly spoken about the prospect of recognizing a Kurdistan independent of Baghdad.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave a public statement generally advocating for Iraq to keep its old borders, stating, “Russia’s position is the one in favor of territorial integrity of regional states.”
The clearest statement from Russia has not been from its official spokespeople: it’s been with its money.
Just a week before the vote for independence, Russian oil company Rosneft announced a $1 billion deal to vastly improve Kurdistan’s oil infrastructure and exports. This comes on the back of previous deals rumored to total up to $4 billion between Russia and Kurdistan in the past year alone.
If Iraqi Kurdistan gets its way, Baghdad will see none of that money.
Russia has basically bet on and empowered the Kurdish independence movement in Iraq, and is hoping to reap the economic rewards before other powers can come in and make their own deals with Kurdistan.
Russia’s move is slightly more surprising, though not unprecedented. In March 2016, Russia reportedly supplied Iraqi Kurds with anti-artillery armaments to be used in the fight against ISIS.
What’s at Stake
The two countries’ gamble on Kurdistan present major issues that could raise their head in the near-future. In the unlikely scenario that an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is formed, Russia must face the wrath of Iran, who is terrified of an empowered Kurdish nation.
Iran itself has a sizeable Kurdish population: one that maintains close links to Iraqi Kurds. On the day of the referendum, Iran closed its borders with Iraq. Russia has worked tirelessly in support of Tehran and Damascus to further their geopolitical goals of forming a cohesive regional power, but its hunger for oil marks the limit of loyalty to this agenda.
Russia’s economic allegiance to Kurdistan may endanger its broader mission in the Middle East. When Damascus and Tehran eliminate any lingering opposition in Syria, they will have less need of Russian support and more options to act out against it.
The U.S. has poured an unimaginable amount of resources into ensuring Iraq remain one state, and its disintegration into two very publically signals that the U.S.’ mission into the Middle East is failing.
In the middle of this massive dilemma, finally, stands Turkey. Perhaps with the most confused position, Turkey sent a small army to its border with Iraq as a sign that it staunchly disapproved of any attempt by Erbil to seek independence.
Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are closely allied, and rely on each other economically and strategically. Turkey helped to build Erbil’s airport, and actively uses the Iraqi KRG against the Turkish-based Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
Kurdistan’s oil also flows through Turkey to get to European/Asian markets.
The U.S., Iran, Russia, Israel and Turkey may have to choose whether to acknowledge Kurdistan, and no matter how unlikely it may seem now, its very possibility has shown the traditional alliances can’t last long in the ever-evolving landscape of the Middle East.
By Ty Joplin
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