Petro-Political Games in the Middle East

The oil of the predominantly Kurdish north can give a Kurdish state economic viability. But it is not so simple.

Gerald A. Honigman,

OpEds Honigman

A dear friend and academic mentor of over four decades recently sent me an article by Ben Van Heuvelen and staff of the Iraq Oil Report which added to the latest news regarding the relations between Turks and Iraq's Kurds over oil. To say the least, this is a very volatile issue, for many reasons, and one in which I had done extensive doctoral studies myself several decades ago when, for most people, including those in academia, Kurds were simply something Little Miss Muffet ate (and they were the wrong curds).

Having said this, some greater perspective and background are in order.

After the break-up of empires in the wake of World War I, and all the conflicting promises which ensued to various peoples in the new age of nationalism in the Middle East, the League of Nations' Mosul Decision in 1925 was crucial to the fate of several parties.

It is doubtful that what would later become an independent Iraq could have survived without the northern oil that was attached to the Mandate of Mesopotamia, so the Brits worked very hard to see that this occurred. Since, afterwards, London did not need the support of the Kurds anymore (the majority population in that oil-rich area, especially before Saddam's era of heavily Arabizing the Kirkuk-Mosul region), they dropped their promises, hints, or whatever of independence to them and tied their ambitions solely to Arab nationalism instead. Arab nationalism made its own temporary, reluctant peace with London in order to keep the Kurds' aspirations squelched.

Since Mustafa Kemal ("Ataturk") and Reza Shah Pahlavi sealed the Kurds' fate in those other two area options, Turkey or Iran, the only real chance the Kurds had had in the post-WWI era for independence was in Mesopotamia--and now that was aborted as well.

The Turks always felt that the oil of the Kurdish north was stolen from them via the Mosul Decision. And that's why I have often written that the Kurds would have to find some way of sharing that oil with them--or risk invasion somewhere down the line if the Middle East's version of Europe's artificial state of Yugoslavia - that is, Iraq - ever fell apart or looked like it was headed that way.

As the new article my dear friend sent me once again illustrated, the Kurds are playing a delicate balancing act here. And, unfortunately, the KRG's leaders are prone to the same corruption common in the areas surrounding them.

While it is true that there is a very real "distance" between Iraqi Arabs and non-Arab Persians for a number of reasons (even if both are mostly Shi'a), Iran still has supporters in Iraq, and Iran is undoubtedly seeking the creation of a twin brother to its west. The Shi'a government in Baghdad's support of Assad in Syria is but one hint of how this game is being played. For its part, Washington is upset, among other things, over Iraq allowing its airspace and such to be used by Iran to supply Damascus.

With serious problems increasing between Arabs and Kurds over Kirkuk's oil, this plays right into both Turkey's and Iran's interests as well. Kurds and Assyrians lived in that particular neighborhood for millennia before an invading Arab or Turk ever set foot there.

Nevertheless, the one thing Turks, Arabs, and Iranians can all agree upon is that they don't want an independent Kurdistan/ They have held 3-way meetings in the past over this very issue. Yet, something else may be brewing now--at least with the Turks.

While Ankara is probably not ready to endorse full Kurdish independence, the non-Arab, Sunni Turkish Islamists now in control are currently engaged in fighting, at least, a bloody proxy war on behalf of fellow Sunni Arab Islamists in adjacent Syria against Iraq's Shi'a Alawi cousins.

On a related issue, the latest numbers from the Turkish Statistical Institute show about 23 million Kurds residing just within Turkey itself--well over one quarter of the entire population--and about 40 million in the region as a whole.

This, of course, has always given Ankara the jitters--especially after that Mosul Decision in 1925. What remained of the former mighty Ottoman Empire would tolerate no additional amputations. So, Kurds were declared to be "Mountain Turks," etc. and so the very people who insist that Arabs have a 22nd state.
The recent news about Israel's probably foolish apology to Turkey was related to this as well--the Turks' full-fledged support of Hamas, Arabs dedicated to the murder of Jews and their sole state--as the Hamas charter (and Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah's too, for that matter--despite claims that it was changed) unabashedly proclaims. Why multiple states, partitions, road maps, and so forth on behalf of Arab nationalism, but none, zilch, nada for scores of millions of other native folks--like Kurds?

Via such duplicity a la Ankara, Hamas & Co. are heroes, while the PKK are merely terrorists.

Imagine, for one moment, if instead of the Turks' flotilla trying to break Israel's legal blockade of Hamas in Gaza (which the recent nauseating Israeli apology was about) that it was an Israeli ship carrying supplies, if that were geographically possible, to the Kurds' PKK instead. And imagine, if when the Turks tried to redirect the ship elsewhere, that they were violently attacked on board the Israeli vessel by its passengers, Jews. Need I say anything more?

The current deals between Turkey and the KRG over oil and trade must take into account all of the above.

As someone who has fought with the pen for four decades now for Kurdish rights in the region and whose work has been on the recommended reference list of leading universities such as Paris's Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) since the early 1980s, while I am glad to see these recent developments, I am also very nervous at their implications.

One of the key missing ingredients for the creation of an independent, land-locked Kurdistan has always been something which would make it economically viable--and the Kurds' various enemies have understood this as well. The oil of the predominantly Kurdish north has the ability to fill this need--and has been increasingly doing so since the overthrow of Saddam.

The Kurds are walking a very precarious line. To succeed, they will need to have friends "other than the mountain"--as their age-old sorry saying goes.

Will the world--U.N., American State Department, European Union, and so forth--finally insist on justice for the region's very imperfect, divided Kurds as they have done likewise for at least as imperfect Arabs?
Right now, money talks--and international businesses are cutting their own deals. But, at some point, the issue of Baghdad's Shi'a Arab-dominated central control versus alleged Iraqi federalism a la America and Kurdish autonomy will likely come to a bloody head.

It's murderously interesting how alliances have changed as well.

When Saddam's Sunni Arabs were butchering both Sunni Kurds and Shi'a Arabs, the latter sought Kurds as allies. Now, with the Shi'a increasingly (with Iran's help) in control--despite continued Sunni jihadi suicide bombings and such from time to time, the Sunnis and Kurds are better buddies. The old "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" thing again.

The Kurds have been used and abused by many assorted parties both in and out of the area for close to a century now. Unfortunately, that has included Israel as well in its overtures to the Turks. Jerusalem's alleged new rapprochement with Ankara will also come at the Kurds' expense--yet more Israeli arms and technology will likely be used against these people.

It's long past the time that the Kurdish cause be addressed with at least the same seriousness as that of other peoples who surround them. And, while doing so, the issue of how minorities such as Turkmen, Assyrians, and Arabs who live in predominantly Kurdish areas are dealt with must be considered as well--and not using the Turks', Persians', or Arabs' own subjugating policies as the blueprints.