Kurdistan Regional Government pushes independence; what’s the oil angle?

Survivors for centuries in one of the Middle East’s roughest neighborhoods, Iraq’s Kurds have learned to keep their options open. However, any lingering doubt that they might be aiming for independence sooner rather than later vanished this month with the sudden appearance of a Kurdish “national anthem” on the Kurdistan Regional Government website.

“Ey Reqib”, or “Hey, Enemy”, was written in 1938 by Yunis Reuf, a Kurdish poet and anti-Ottoman political activist also known as Dildar, who was born 20 years earlier in the town of Koi Sanjaq in what is now the Erbil governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. Before dying at age 31 of heart problems, Dildar saw his poem adopted as the national anthem of the Kurdistan republic in Mahabad (currently part of Iran), which was founded in 1946 and lasted for only a year.

Now the KRG has proclaimed it the official anthem of South Kurdistan, an alternative name for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It’s a name that tips its hat to the long-held Kurdish ambition of establishing a Greater Kurdistan state encompassing parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The lyrics are not the usual fare of national anthems, but accurately reflect recent Kurdish history. This has been marked by the marginalization or outright suppression of Kurdish language and culture in the four countries with substantial Kurdish minorities. In Iraq, the late dictator Saddam Hussein launched genocidal attacks against the Kurds. Earlier in Turkey, the generals who launched that country’s 1980 coup publicly referred to Kurds as “mountain Turks,” thus denying their separate ethnic identity.

The KRG supplies the following translation of Ey Reqib:

“Oh foes who watch us, the national whose language is Kurdish is alive

It cannot be be defeated by makers of weapons of any time

Let no one say the Kurds are dead, the Kurds are alive

The Kurds are alive and their flag will never fall

We are the sons of the red color of revolution …”

Until very recently, the KRG would not have risked publishing anything so provocative to Baghdad or a newly supportive Ankara, but the the series of lightning military strikes in northern Iraq launched in late June by Arab Sunni militant group Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) has turned Iraq’s political landscape upside-down. In the words of Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani in recent media interviews, it has changed everything for Iraqi Kurdistan.

Even so, while instructing the region’s parliament in early July to prepare a referendum on independence, Barzani continued to insist that Kurdish political strategy was based on two possible courses of actions: first, working with national forces to rebuild Iraq, and secondly exercising the right of self-determination if efforts to save Iraq failed.

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As matters now stand, the second option of the two-pronged strategy seems by far the more likely to succeed, the biggest impediment to Plan A being the refusal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down so that a new national unity government can be formed.

“Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, whose parliamentary bloc emerged victorious in the April 20 election, has no intention of giving up power,”  Gryphon Partners President Zalmay Khalilzad, who was US ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007, wrote recently in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. “The major obstacle to the formation of a unity government is the vehement opposition of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and some Shiite parties to prolonging Mr. Maliki’s rule. Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has also signaled his preference for change. As the American ambassador to Iraq, I worked directly with Mr. Maliki, and I know that he will stubbornly resist attempts to replace him. If he ultimately agrees to step down, he will likely demand a guarantee that his successor be chosen from among a small, trusted circle; he may also insist on a position elsewhere in the government.”

Khalilzad’s article bears the headline “Get ready for Kurdish independence.” The KRG, its international public relations machine in full throttle, has republished it on its website.

So what would the emergence of an independent Kurdistan mean for international crude oil supply?

If all goes according to the KRG’s script, it should mean the unbottling of a new, plentiful supply of non-OPEC crude in the short to medium term. In recent statements, senior KRG officials have predicted that the region could be economically self-sufficient on the back of revenues from international oil exports by the end of this year. The KRG Ministry of Natural Resources has for the past year targeted crude output of 1 million b/d by the end of 2015 and 2 million b/d in 2019, most of it for export.

Longer term, matters are not quite so simple, as a partitioned Iraq’s  northern and southern oil would lose their last shreds of infrastructure, marketing and administrative links along with any hope of rebuilding a cooperative export framework in the foreseeable future.

Output from Iraq’s giant southern fields, with only the narrow strip of the country’s Persian Gulf coast as an export point, would be more vulnerable to all kinds of disruption from periods of bad weather to armed turmoil. With Baghdad turning more of its financial resources to fighting the ISIS insurgency without the help of Kurdistan’s Peshmerga force and international investors shunning the region, most of the significant southern oil development projects launched in the past five years would grind to a halt.

If by some miracle Maliki were persuaded to step down, or were forcibly removed, Baghdad’s policy of opposing Kurdish oil exports were reversed and a determined Iraqi unity initiative emerged, the continuation of southern oil development would still be far from assured but might be a little more likely. However, the signs are not favorable.

In a further snub to Baghdad, which nominally administers a country in which Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages, the KRG Ministry of Natural Resources website has dropped its Arabic version and is now available only in Kurdish and English.

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  1. Alex Whitcomb at July 20, 2014 5:36 am

    The national anthem has actually been on the KRG website for years, but I enjoyed reading its history and your analysis!

  2. Tom Ramsey at July 20, 2014 4:26 am

    Thank you for providing this fine-grained detail.

  3. najad khouri at July 18, 2014 8:59 am

    In Brasil we say each one is pushing the coal toward his sausage.
    But you can make a better barbecue if you have 3 sausages and common fire


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