TIME Iraq

In the Midst of Iraq’s Chaos, the Kurds Inch Towards Independence

Kurdish protesters
Iraqi Kurdish protesters display the flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region on July 3, 2014. Safin Hamed—/AFP/Getty Images

Militants from ISIS are threatening Iraq's capital of Baghdad, but in autonomous Kurdistan, things have never been better

As the Iraqi army continues to battle Sunni militants for control of its territory―with forces from the Islamic State not far outside the capital of Baghdad―Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is sitting comfortably in quiet Erbil. After over a century of demands for independence, Kurds may be closer than to securing their statehood. “In Kurdistan we have a government that is functioning, a parliament that is meeting and professional, dedicated Peshmerga forces,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations. “In Iraq you have none of that.”

With the autonomy granted to the KRG under the Iraqi constitution, Kurds have managed an entity that looks more like a functional state than many long-established nations in the region. They secure their own borders and are sidestepping Baghdad to exporting their own oil. Their independent police force even monitors speeders with traffic cameras.

In central Erbil, the Kurdish de-facto capital, Hoshang Assad wheels his car through the streets. The 26-year-old taxi driver explains how Kurds have all the trappings of a modern nation-state. “We have our own language, our own culture and our own land,” he says. “We have a good economy now, we have oil, we have everything we need to make our state.”

But while Kurds believe they are a nation now in everything but name, those outside its borders are less sanguine about the possibility of true independence. Assad’s car seats are covered with massive American flags and like many Kurds he recite praise for the US, the Kurds oldest, and at times only, ally. Washington, though, hasn’t exactly been a cheerleader of Kurdish independence. “In 2003 the U.S. wanted the Kurds to give up federalism and give up their Peshmerga forces. The Kurds refused,” said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in Britain. “Imagine what Erbil would look like today if they had given up the Peshmerga…ISIS would be flying its black flag in Erbil.”

In the past three weeks, the Peshmerga have fortified the Kurdish frontiers and moved into contested areas like oil-rich Kirkuk, even as Iraq’s national army fled invading fighters from ISIS. And as the black flags of ISIS stake claim to neighboring towns, the sun-crested Kurdish flag still flies above the secured streets of Kurdistan. Since 1945, when the Kurds briefly had an independent state, this flag has represented Kurdish aspirations for statehood. But after years of fighting alongside U.S. troops, implementing U.S.-favored free market economics and now allowing hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees to take shelter in their territory, Kurds may deserve a sportsmanship trophy―but it may not earn a seat at the United Nations. “The U.S. has invested so much time and treasure into the idea of Iraq as we know it,” said Stansfield. “The collapse of Iraq will be seen as a waste of American life and money.”

But Bakir, who was with the Kurdish delegation in Washington this week, believes that the latest crises may cause the U.S. to change its position. “The U.S. has seen the difference between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Bakir. He says the Kurds are now on a two-track approach, still willing to compromise with the Iraqi government in Baghdad―but also ready to make their moves toward independence. “Baghdad always promises Kurds the world when Baghdad is weak,” says Stansfield. “And then as soon as Baghdad is strong enough to re-impose its authority over the Kurds then it comes back with its engines.”

The idea of splitting up the country, whose borders were drawn by colonial authorities Britain and France a century ago and defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is uncomfortable for many―particularly neighboring states like Turkey with large Kurdish minorities of their own, pushed up against the aspirational state’s borders.

“Kurdish national aspirations will not stop in Zakho,” says Hosham Dawod, an Erbil-based researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research, referring to the Kurdish town that sits on the Turkish border. “They will cross the border. Right now this Sykes-Picot map is looking very weak.”

And while Iraqi Kurdish leaders caution that their national aspirations are confined to land within Iraq’s current borders, there is worry among regional and international powers that Kurdish independence could have a domino effect. Iran and Syria both have large Kurdish populations. Amid the chaos in Syria, Kurds have asserted a degree of control in their villages, and Iran may fear all this will inspire its own Kurdish minority. Stansfield says Iran also benefits from having a weak Shia-led state next door.

But with Iraq in turmoil it is possible that Turkey will get onboard, preferring a pragmatic Kurdish state to a caliphate on its southern border. Already, the Turks have helped the Kurds export oil through their territory and signed a 50-year gas deal with the KRG―acts frowned upon by Baghdad. Currently, the Kurds are exporting around 100,000 barrels per day, but that’s not enough to support a new state of over 6 million people. Israel has become a natural market for this oil, but it’s not clear who else will buy all those barrels, as many countries fear buying from the Kurds would cause Baghdad to cut off its much larger exports.

And while the Kurds have created relative autonomy and prosperity in their enclave, their finances are less secure. Baghdad has withheld millions of dollars in transfer payments to Erbil since January over oil the sales and Kurdish civil servants are still waiting for paychecks the KRG doesn’t have the money to write. Nonetheless, jumping off a sinking Iraq may offer a better path to prosperity than staying within its borders. “The political landscape has changed and the balance of power has changed,” said Bakir. “There is a new reality and that requires a new policy and a new approach.”

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