With international attention focused on the rebels’ campaign to oust Bashar Assad in Syria, another budding regional conflict—the internecine Iraqi discord—quietly intensifies. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing authoritarianism has deeply divided Iraqi politics, sowing mistrust within both the Sunni opposition and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The self-governing Kurdish enclave in Iraq’s north and Maliki’s government in Baghdad are locked in a contentious dispute over oil. For a country that derives 95 percent of its national budget from oil revenue, this issue is—quite literally—everything.
The dispute stems from the KRG’s efforts to develop the rich deposits of oil and natural gas within its region. Maliki’s government objects to the KRG’s independent exploration deals with major multinational oil companies, arguing that all oil development deals must be coordinated by Baghdad. The Kurds maintain that Iraq’s constitution sanctions their pursuit of exploration deals and that Baghdad has failed to meet its constitutional obligations. Tensions are rising. In the last year, Baghdad withheld oil revenues to which the Kurdish enclave is entitled, while Erbil advanced plans for oil distribution that bypassed the central government.
While other major foreign-policy developments have consumed U.S. attention, Washington maintains consistent support for the central government’s proprietorship over oil contracts and revenue disbursal. In so doing, U.S. leaders are making a serious mistake. Since gaining a measure of autonomy from Iraq, all the Kurds have done is establish some of the most robust democratic structures in the region. At the same time, Maliki has revealed a deeply antiliberal approach to rule and worked in direct contravention of U.S. interests.
The recent history of U.S.-Kurdish relations and the aftermath of the Iraq War help explain Washington’s misbegotten policies. But the time has arrived for a substantial shift in U.S. policy in Iraq. The United States and critical regional allies stand to gain immensely from shifting its support in Iraq toward the KRG—and its attendant oil claims.
U.S. involvement in Iraq and Iran throughout the 1970s and 1980s helps explain Washington’s historical reticence to support the Kurdish cause. With Kurds spread across national borders and seeking freedoms from the various nation-states under which they lived, Kurdish groups often worked at cross purposes with U.S. interests. During the 1970s, the Iranian Kurds—with support from the Soviets and Saddam Hussein—aided Iraq against the Shah’s regime. After the overthrow of the Shah and the incremental shift in support toward Hussein himself, the United States once again saw Kurds acting against perceived U.S. foreign-policy goals, with Iraqi Kurds and their patron Ayatollah Khomeini seeking to undermine the Baathist regime in Iraq. Whereas Kurds were fighting for a whiff of autonomy, the United States saw Kurdish interests and U.S. interests as oppositional. With the rise of the Marxist Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) insurgency against Turkey—a critical U.S. ally—the American foreign-policy establishment cemented its perception of Kurdish political actors as working against U.S. interests.
When not perceived as oppositional, the Kurds were merely deemed insignificant. Viewed through a Cold War lens—in which the United States vied with the Soviets for regional influence—Kurdish interests were irrelevant. Compared with the region’s strongest powers and oil titans, the Kurds were a trivial actor and treated with commensurate apathy. In the 1970s, the Shah supported Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein’s rule. The dual pressure on Iraq from Iran and Iraq’s northern Kurds forced Hussein to sign a 1975 agreement ceding territory to Iran. The U.S.-supported deal called for the Shah to cease support for the Kurdish resistance in Iraq. The Kurds were brushed aside once no longer necessary or convenient—a traded pawn in the short-lived U.S.-brokered Iraq-Iran peace.
When Turkish forces entered Iraqi territory in the early 1980s, U.S. officials dryly noted the importance to Turkey of “eliminating its Kurdish opposition.” Though American journalists—including William Safire of the New York Times—reported on the gruesome Halabja massacre, the United States failed to act in time to prevent Hussein’s killing spree. Only after the Gulf War—with the threat of a Kurdish massacre imminent—did the United States implement a no-fly zone to protect the Kurdish citizens of northern Iraq. But the perception lingered that the Kurds were the region’s insignificant actors.
In a dramatic twist, the diligently enforced no-fly zone created the preconditions for the flourishing of Kurdish democracy. Iraqi Kurds developed strong political parties, held free parliamentary elections, and—despite worrisome backsliding on free speech in the last year—upheld the civil liberties enshrined in their laws. Through the duration of the Iraq War, while the U.S. combated a tenacious insurgency, the Kurdish region was markedly different—a relative safe zone in a violent conflict.
When the Bush administration’s sleight of hand shifted the Iraq War’s rationale from the development of WMD to democracy promotion, Kurdish interests were once again preempted. Instead of encouraging the Kurds’ nascent democracy, official U.S. policy fixated on contriving democracy for Iraq in its entirety. After thoroughly botching its nation-building efforts, the Bush administration—grasping for vindication—hailed the adoption of a constitution and Maliki’s election as major steps forward for Iraqi democracy. American policymakers might appreciate the irony were it not so bitter: in privileging the weak, dysfunctional democracy of Baghdad, Bush administration policy inadequately supported a quietly thriving one in Erbil.
That the Obama administration perpetuates the Bush administration’s mistaken predilection for the Maliki government defies explanation. Maliki arrogated ministerial portfolios to consolidate his power and explicitly fanned sectarian tensions—as with the trial in absentia of Sunni politician Tariq al-Hashimi. Meanwhile, despite Syria and Iran sharing no border, Bashar Assad’s forces have been amply armed throughout the civilian massacre-cum-civil war. How those arms reach Syria from Iran requires little imagination. Through it all, the Obama administration has supported the Baghdad government’s interpretation of the constitution and legal entitlement to control all oil contracts.
That Maliki’s tenure as prime minister suggests an alarmingly antidemocratic disposition should be enough to alter the Obama administration’s calculus. And the crumbling of Iraq War-era modes of thinking would further damage Bush’s legacy—and not Obama’s own—only underscores the point. In a recent piece for The National Interest, Bush-era under secretary of defense Dov Zakheim wondered why the United States does not do more to support the Kurds. President Obama inexplicably maintains a neoconservative policy crafted as artifice—a superficial vindication of failed policies—at the expense of the KRG’s nascent democracy.
Moreover, the KRG’s argument that the constitution supports their actions is strong. The constitution states that the central government will manage the oil and gas extracted from “current” oil fields; the text does not bar oil-producing regions from initiating new exploration. Furthermore, the right to govern current fields is tied explicitly to the government’s fair and proportional distribution of oil revenues—something the KRG claims the Baghdad government has failed to do. Finally, the constitution calls for the federal government to coordinate further development with oil-producing regions. Nowhere does the constitution say that Baghdad maintains exclusive rights to negotiate contracts.
Even Turkey—a close partner of the U.S.—has supported the KRG’s constitutional interpretation. Both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Energy Minister Taner Yıldız frame the issue as the KRG developing revenue sources that will benefit the whole country. Yet the Obama administration has remained steadfast, pressuring Turkey to alter its view of the constitutional issue and to halt even the trivial amounts of Kurdish oil trucked over land into Turkey.
The Obama administration should also recognize that close friends of the United States in the Middle East stand to gain from increasing support for the Kurds. Turkey is in the midst of recasting its foreign policy, and its increasingly friendly relationship with the KRG is central to its efforts. Already, the northern KRG-controlled area fuels the majority of Turkey’s robust trade with Iraq. Turkish firms—and the Turkish economy in general—have profited greatly from access to the Kurdish market. With the KRG signing independent exploration deals, Turkish firms like Genel Energy have again capitalized by being among the first ones in. Only days ago, Turkey and the KRG agreed to link KRG-controlled oilfields with the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline as early as the end of the year.
The picture sharpens even more in light of the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Israel has just begun tapping into its own newly discovered shale gas for domestic purposes; soon enough it will have its eye on the international market—namely Europe—and the Turkish port is a logical transit point through which Israeli gas could move. The prospect of Turkey as a regional energy hub could help spur renewed peace talks in Cyprus. An Israel-Turkey pipeline would have to move through the Cypriots’ exclusive economic zone; with a Greek Cypriot leader who speaks openly of solving the conflict, the economic motivations might help negotiations progress.
For a country like Turkey—which suffers from price gouging at the hands of Russia and Iran—the prospect of pipelines with the KRG and Israel is enticing. Naturally, Turkey dutifully reiterates its commitment both to a unified Iraq and to economic partnership with the KRG whenever pressed on its blossoming relationship with the Kurds of Iraq. That hardly means Turkey fails to understand the potential benefits—to the KRG and to Turkey itself—of facilitating the Kurdish region’s economic flexibility and access to international markets.