Over the past two decades, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has been predominantly characterized by adversity and considerable uncertainty. An area of significant tension in the region is Iraq, where the far-reaching consequences of the Iraq War in 2003 have been experienced not only inside the region but also globally. Iraq does not exhibit a significant degree of stability within the region, contrary to common assumptions. However, it is not totally accurate, at least at present. The emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq amidst turmoil and conflict is often praised and celebrated as a triumph of democracy in an illiberal area. Regrettably, the current situation in Iraqi Kurdistan appears unfavorable. What has happened in Iraqi Kurdistan and how can the seeming decline of Iraqi Kurdistan impact the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East?
The Kurdistan territory, sometimes known as Iraqi Kurdistan, is an officially recognized autonomous territory inside Iraq, predominantly inhabited by Kurds. However, the autonomous region is effectively a self-governing unit under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). At one point, Kurdistan successfully confronted the advancing Daesh or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) utilizing its indigenous military force, the Peshmerga. Kurdistan has an autonomous parliamentary system and an operational administration responsible for organizing the province. Under those circumstances, it is an indisputable reality that the United States of America and its allies have seen Kurdistan, along with Israel, as a shining example of democracy in the Middle East for many years.
The establishment of the present-day Kurdistan may be attributed to the intervention of the United States and its allies during the 2003 Iraq War. This intervention led to the removal of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent installation of a democratic rule. Prior to the conflict, the Kurdish population experienced systemic oppression under Hussein’s rule. Prior to their establishment as an autonomous area, the Kurds consistently advocated for self-determination and self-governance in relation to the Iraqi government. The Kurds celebrated as their desires were partially realized when they obtained autonomy in 2005 (Rapdey, 2023).
Nevertheless, the current circumstances in Kurdistan have undergone a transformation, resulting in a multitude of difficulties, including political turmoil and a scarcity of fundamental necessities. Furthermore, the continuous political rivalry between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), two prominent political parties, persists due to the absence of a definitive agreement. The KDP led by Massoud Barzani and the PUK led by Bafel Talabani are both vying for increased control and power in the Kurdistan region (Al-Qaradaghi, 2023). The Peshmerga, the primary military force in Kurdistan, is likewise fragmented due to conflicts between the two political parties (Rodgers, 2023). Their antagonism has resulted in political instability and economic recession, further paralyzing the ability of the KRG.
The interruption of the Iraqi-Turkish oil pipeline that passes through Kurdistan has significantly impacted the ongoing conflict, with Iraq being a vital player in this situation. The economy of Kurdistan has already derived advantages from this oil pipeline. The sequence of events began with an arbitration decision made by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which mandated Turkey to compensate Iraq for unauthorized shipments in March 2023. Barzani accused the Iraqi government of exacerbating and protracting the issue (Rudaw, 2023). In addition, Baghdad is engaging in a legal conflict with Kurdistan over their respective rights in the area (Saeed, 2023). Both groups have engaged in military confrontations at crucial locations. The Iraqis were involved in combat with the Peshmerga in a mountainous region in northern Iraq during October 2023. This engagement marks the first occurrence since 2017 (Reuters, 2023). In general, Baghdad’s actions are exacerbating the already grave situation in Kurdistan.
Although the domestic issues in Kurdistan may not currently constitute a threat to the Middle East, their collapse would result in a significant geopolitical transformation in the region. Indeed, while the Israel-Palestine conflict dominates the contemporary discourse on Middle East geopolitics, the matter of Kurdistan also holds significant importance in the region. It is geographically located amidst various influential nations in the Middle East, including Turkey and Iran. The latter refers to the primary adversary of the United States and Israel in the region. Iran is presently endeavoring to extend its influence outside the provinces under direct governance of Iraq by any means (Hussein, 2023).
If Kurdistan were to be lost, both the US and Israel would suffer a significant blow to their geopolitical standing as they would lose a crucial non-state ally in the region. Israel’s situation is significantly exacerbated as it is presently engaged in combat against Hamas, a non-state actor supported by Iran. Israel will be effectively encircled by Iranian allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Nevertheless, it appears that the United States is presently inattentive to the situation of Kurdistan and instead chooses to prioritize its attention towards Israel and Ukraine. As well as that, the United States is confronted with significant obstacles in the Indo-Pacific region posed by China. This demonstrates that the United States is currently beyond its capacity, particularly in the Middle East.
Conversely, Iran, currently enjoying unrestricted control in Iraq, is eager to extend their influence into Kurdistan. Iran is actively supporting Iraq’s efforts to exacerbate the ongoing conflict in Kurdistan. If Kurdistan is reintegrated into Iraqi authority, Iran would emerge as the primary beneficiary, while Israel and the United States will lose a vital friend. This will significantly erode the United States’ ability and reputation as the world police. This geopolitical shift in the Middle East will result in a significant alteration of the region’s political and strategic dynamics, favoring Iran and its allies.
In order to achieve the aspiration of independence, the present leadership of KDP and PUK in Kurdistan must set aside their disagreements. If not, this could potentially mark the final moments for the world to witness the existence of an autonomous Kurdistan before its ultimate downfall. The region of Kurdistan and its inhabitants are undeniably plagued by a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Ultimately, the destiny of Kurdistan rests with the Kurdish political elites.