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Kurds look to old enemies for survival

SINCE the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US has been allied with the Kurds in their drive for regional autonomy. Washington has been committed to maintaining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Iraqi state. As a result, the Bush and Obama administrations have failed to articulate a clear policy objective with respect to future US ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The US has left the field without formalising its role as security guarantor or nation-builder in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an uncertain Middle East, the Kurds must find a new patron to protect their quasi-independence, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would apparently like to nullify.

Lacking access to the sea and entirely dependent on outside expertise to develop their oil sector, the Kurds cannot pursue an isolationist policy. With Syria in turmoil, Iran attempting to dominate Baghdad through Maliki and US regional power in irreversible decline, only Turkey can offer the KRG political protection, sufficient technical expertise, and access to Western markets for its hydrocarbons. Despite the past century of animosity between Kurds and Turks, it is clear that their long-term interests have increasingly aligned over the past years.

In the wake of the US withdrawal, the central government in Baghdad has descended into an all-too-predictable crisis with overtly sectarian implications threatening Iraq's continued existence as a functional state. Only the Kurdish region remains unscathed thus far.

Arab Sunnis feel threatened by Maliki's ties to Iran and attempts to centralise power at their expense. They see his attack on Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi as a threat to their community's independent voice in central government affairs. As such, recent events have provoked demonstrations for greater regional autonomy in the Sunni-majority provinces. Should things continue on this trajectory, the Sunnis may sue Maliki for a divorce, asking to follow the Kurdish model, and the fragmentation of the Iraqi state would be complete.

The KRG already possesses a large degree of authority and independence of action within Iraq's constitutional framework. Were Maliki to try to resurrect Saddam Hussein's centralised state in a Shia guise, it would be no surprise if Iraqi Sunnis rallied behind the banner of increased federalism and found common cause with the Kurds. It is meaningful that al-Hashemi fled to Kurdistan for protection from the Iraqi central government.

The under-reported aspect of this story and the US withdrawal is how Iraqi Kurdistan is affected. To investigate this, I joined an informal American research delegation to Kurdistan. We held candid discussions with leading KRG ministers, whose message was clear and forceful: despite considerable economic growth during the past decade and increasing security, Kurdish leaders feel abandoned by the US. They wonder if their 20 years of protection, first under a no-fly zone and then by the US military presence in Iraq, have been prematurely ended. In the words of Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG's department of foreign relations: "The Americans have conducted rebuilding projects in Baghdad and have invested vast amounts of resources into building the Iraqi national army, yet they have neglected their proven allies in Kurdistan. They continue to arm the Iraqi army while neglecting the Kurdish Peshmerga, who supported the Americans throughout the 2003-11 war."

Bakir's pleas for concrete support have fallen on deaf ears. "If America wanted to strengthen its alliance with the Kurdistan Region, it has a whole range of tools at its disposal," he said. "It could encourage its allies in the Middle East and the Arab world to further support the KRG, lift the Kurdistan Region from the State Department's travel advisory, and provide further incentives for US companies to work here."

The Kurds are not ready for independence, yet they must strengthen their military, economy and regional ties to prepare for the day when formal independence becomes a necessity to escape the predations of Baghdad and Tehran. They know they need a protector. The Kurdish political elites appear unanimous in wanting that power to be the US, but they feel forsaken yet again.

What appears to not be understood in Erbil is that the US troop withdrawal was a necessity for Barack Obama and that it is irreversible. The US President had to fulfil his electoral promises, promote Iraqi self-reliance and attempt to recast America's stigmatised imperial relationship with the region.

Ankara has watched the decline of US influence and stepped into the void. Fouad Hussein, chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and President of the KRG, says: "The struggle in the Middle East represents a Cold War between Iran and Turkey. Both powers have gained in influence as a result of the Arab Spring and skilful backing of emerging actors."

Turkish companies dominate the construction and import-export sectors in the KRG, and since the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey's relationship with the KRG has become less ideological. The Turks can foresee a future where most Kurdish oil transits through Turkey to reach Western markets. Increased federalism in Iraq benefits Turkey; increased centralisation of authority favours Iran.

Conventional wisdom holds that Iran is the primary beneficiary of the US withdrawal. Viewed from Kurdistan, Turkey appears to be the main beneficiary of both the Arab Spring and the US withdrawal. KRG is likely to increasingly align itself with Turkey, which is gradually growing into its neo-Ottoman role as the regional superpower from Libya to Iraq.

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