By Reva Bhalla
At the edge of empires lies Kurdistan, the land of the Kurds. The jagged landscape has long been the scene of imperial aggression. For centuries, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Russians and Europeans looked to the mountains to buffer their territorial prizes farther afield, depriving the local mountain dwellers a say in whose throne they would ultimately bow to.
The hot temperament of this borderland was evident in an exchange of letters between Ottoman Sultan Selim I and Safavid Shah Ismail I shortly before the rival Turkic and Persian empires came to blows at the 1514 Battle of Chaldiran in northern Kurdistan. The Ottoman sultan, brimming with confidence that his artillery-equipped janissaries would hold the technological advantage on the battlefield, elegantly denigrated his Persian foes:
Ask of the sun about the dazzle of my reign;
Inquire of Mars about the brilliance of my arms.
Although you wear a Sufi crown, I bear a trenchant sword,
And he who holds the sword will soon possess the crown.
Safavid Shah I, also writing in Turkish, poetically retorted:
Should one embrace the bride of worldly rule too close, His lips will kiss those of the radiant sword ...
Bitter experience has taught that in this world of trial , He who falls upon the house of 'Ali always falls.
The armies fought to the limits of their empires and, after a series of wars culminating in the Treaty of Zuhab of 1639, the Zagros Mountains came to define the borderland between the Ottomans and Persians, with the Kurds stuck in the middle.
A Rivalry Reborn
The Turkic-Persian competition is again being fought in Kurdistan, only this time, energy pipelines have taken the place of gilded cavalry. At a recent energy conference in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil, I listened as hundreds of energy executives murmured excitedly in the audience as Ashti Hawrami, the minister of natural resources for Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, declared in perfect, British-taught English that an oil pipeline connecting Kurdish oil fields to Turkey is complete, operational and will be pumping oil by the end of the year with or without Baghdad's consent. This, effectively, was as much a Kurdish declaration of independence as it was a Turkish-backed Kurdish declaration of war against Baghdad and its Persian sponsors.
Roughly 25 million Kurds occupy a region that stretches from the eastern Taurus Mountains in Turkey through the Jazira Plateau of northeastern Syria across the mountains and plateaus of southeastern Anatolia before dead-ending into the northern spine of the Zagros Mountains, which divide Iran and Iraq. This is a territory spread across four nations with bitter histories and a shared commitment to prevent Kurdish aspirations for independence from eroding their territorial integrity. For Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, this restive buffer had to be preserved and contained, though it could also be exploited. The fratricidal tendencies of the Kurds, bred by their divisive mountainous home, gave the surrounding states a useful tool to undermine one another whenever the need arose.
As power changed from indigenous empires to colonial hands, from monarchs to Baathist tyrants, from hardcore secularists to Islamists, the Kurds remained too divided and weak to become masters of their own fate able to establish a sovereign Kurdish homeland. The Kurds themselves are divided and sequestered along geographical, tribal, linguistic, political and ideological lines across the four states they inhabit. But unique circumstances over the past decade enabled a politically coherent Iraqi Kurdistan to temporarily defy its own history and inch toward quasi-independence.
A String of Good Fortune
The chain of events began with the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein. His attempts to eradicate Iraq's Kurdish population through chemical attacks in the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s and other aggressions in the region eventually led to the creation of a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. With the threat in Baghdad effectively neutralized and U.S. troops covering Mesopotamia, Iraq's Kurdish leadership put aside their differences to form the Kurdistan Regional Government, further solidifying the boundaries of the northern autonomous zone.
Ultimately, the United States was a strong but unreliable protector for the Kurds. When U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, a nervous Kurdistan looked to energy firms as their next-best insurance policy. So long as Western energy firms were committed to making money in northern Iraq, their presence would give Arbil the leverage it needed to balance against a government in Baghdad, slowly re-strengthening under Shiite dominance and committed to keeping Kurdish oil revenues under its control.
But as tensions with Baghdad grew over the distribution of energy revenues, the Iraqi Kurds unexpectedly found a sponsor in Ankara. The moderate Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party had effectively neutered the military's political influence in Turkey and was ready to experiment with a new strategy toward its Kurdish population. Instead of suppressing Kurdish autonomy with an iron fist, Ankara went from regarding Kurds as confused "mountain Turks" to recognizing Kurdish language and cultural rights and launching its most ambitious peace negotiation to date with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. This policy of engagement extended to Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Turkish government was earnestly eyeing Kurdish oil and natural gas to fuel Turkey's expensive energy appetite and loosen Russia's energy grip over Ankara.
At this point, Iran was too preoccupied to effectively balance against Turkey's deepening involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iranian regime was busy defending its allies in Syria and Lebanon while trying to manage a highly antagonistic relationship with the United States. Meanwhile, Baghdad had its hands full in trying to manage intra-Shiite rivalries and fending against a reinvigorated jihadist threat spurred by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the Syrian civil war — all while trying to prevent the Kurds from breaking out on their own.
A cooperative Ankara, a weak Damascus, a preoccupied Tehran, an overwhelmed Baghdad and a host of anxious investors formed the ingredients for an audacious pipeline project. It began furtively in 2012 as a natural gas pipeline designed to feed the domestic Kurdish market. When the pipeline quietly skirted past the power plant it was supposed to feed, underwent a conversion to transport oil and began heading northward to Turkey, the secret was out: Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government were working to circumvent Baghdad and independently export Kurdish energy.
As the pipeline construction progressed, Kurdish peshmerga forces continued spreading beyond formal Kurdistan Regional Government boundaries in disputed areas and held their ground against demoralized Iraqi army forces. And in the name of guarding against a real and persistent jihadist threat, Kurdish forces built deep, wide ditches around the city of Arbil and are now building one around the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, marking the outer bounds of a slowly expanding Kurdish sphere of influence.
A Complicated Future
We have now arrived at the question of when, and not if, Kurdish oil will flow to Turkey without Baghdad's consent. The completion of the tie-in of the pipeline at a newly constructed pumping and metering station at Fishkhabor near the Turkish border, bypassing the station controlled by Iraqi federal authorities, marks the boldest foreign policy move that Turkey has made in a very long time.
Turkey has put itself in a position where it can receive 250,000 to 300,000 barrels per day of crude from Iraqi Kurdistan (potentially including crude that could later be pumped from the disputed Kirkuk field through the Khurmala Dome complex in Kurdish territory) at the Turkish border. From Fishkhabor, the crude will reconnect to a 40-inch pipe that runs parallel to a 46-inch pipe traveling westward to the Ceyhan port terminal. While the 46-inch pipe of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline in federal Iraqi territory is operating at just one-fifth of its capacity due to disrepair and frequent militant attacks, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government are essentially appropriating the section of the 40-inch pipe lying in Turkish territory to complete their independent energy project.
Plans are quietly being discussed to build another parallel line on the Turkish side to Ceyhan to completely divorce the pipeline infrastructure from any claims by Baghdad. Even now, by Ankara and Arbil's design, Baghdad has no physical means of interrupting the oil flow through the new pipeline route. And while Baghdad can quietly try to facilitate, or at least turn a blind eye to, jihadist attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan in a bid to undermine investor confidence, Kurdish security and intelligence can still put up a formidable defense against threats from both jihadists and Iraqi national forces — that is, at least until Baghdad develops its air force and regains the military bandwidth to refocus on the north.
The speed and cunning with which the pipeline was completed demand respect, even — however reluctantly — from an outraged Baghdad. At the same time, the geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting once again in this volatile region, promising to complicate the energy strategy engineered by Arbil and Ankara down the line.
Iran may have been too distracted to balance Turkey in Kurdish lands over the past decade, but the coming years will look different. Iran and the United States are both serious about reaching a strategic rapprochement in their long-hostile relationship. Though there will be obstacles along the way, the foundation for a U.S.-Iranian detente has been laid. Turkey is already starting to adapt to the shifting balance of power, struggling to reach an accommodation with Baghdad, Tehran and Washington over the thorny issue of how payments from this new export pipeline will be handled. For now, the United States is trying to avoid becoming entangled in this political morass, prioritizing its negotiation with Iran while publicly maintaining a "one Baghdad, one Iraq" policy. But with time, the United States will regain its ability to manage a balance of power between Shiite Iran and Sunni competitors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The more U.S.-Iranian relations progress, the more time and attention Iran can give to strong-arming regional allies, like Baghdad, in the face of a deepening Turkish footprint in northern Iraq.
The age-old Turkic-Persian rivalry will reawaken in Kurdistan as Iran reinforces its Shiite allies in Baghdad to pressure the Kurds, using military operations in its own Kurdish region to justify cross-border interventions. Iran is also already starting to discuss energy exploration in the border region with Iraqi Kurdistan, asserting that if Arbil has a problem with such activities, it can take it up with Baghdad. But the sharpest tools Iran and its allies in Baghdad have to undermine Turkey's alliance with the Kurdistan Regional Government are the Kurds themselves.
The past decade of Kurdish unity between Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is highly anomalous and arguably temporary. Iraq's Kurdish region has effectively been split between the Barzani and Talabani fiefs politically, militarily and economically, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party ruling the northern provinces of Dohuk and Arbil and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan ruling Suleimaniyah to the south. Though the two parties have demonstrated the ability to suppress their rivalry in times of extreme stress or opportunity, the fault lines that intersect this fractious Kurdish landscape are still present. On the surface, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have united their peshmerga forces into a single, unified ministry. In reality, the political lines dividing Peshmerga forces remain sharper than ever. Further complicating matters is the political rise of the Gorran movement, a faction that broke away from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan now that the latter is suffering from a leadership vacuum. Though the Gorran can only claim votes at this point, it is only a matter of time before it, too, develops its own peshmerga forces, creating an even wider imbalance of power among Iraq's main Kurdish parties.
The cracks in the Kurdish landscape will be exploited the more competition grows between Turkey and Iran. One does not even have to reach far back in history to get a sense of just how deep Kurdish rivalries can run. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were engaged in an all-out civil war from 1994 to 1996 that arose from a property dispute. More willing to turn to their regional adversary than compromise with their ethnic kin, the Kurdistan Democratic Party reached out to Ankara and even Saddam Hussein for assistance, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan took help from Iran. Those fault lines have tempered since the fall of Hussein, but the influx of oil money into an already highly corrupt and competitive leadership, a growing imbalance of power among the main Kurdish parties and a developing rivalry between regional forces Turkey and Iran will apply enormous stress on the Kurds' brittle union.
For now, Kurdish and Turkish officials and energy executives alike will brush these inconvenient warnings aside; their eyes will remain set on the hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude and billions of cubic meters of natural gas lying beneath Kurdistan's rocky surface. From their point of view, how could Baghdad refuse the commercial benefits of another viable export line out of Iraq? It's only a matter of time, they say, until Baghdad comes to the negotiating table on Ankara's and Arbil's terms and a win-win solution is achieved.
But matters of territorial integrity, financial sovereignty and nationalism are not easily trifled with at the intersection of empires. This is easy to forget when watching heavy concrete blocks being lifted by cranes over Arbil, a bubble of a city where two five-star hotels are filled with expats and Versace-clad locals who look like they belong in a "coming soon" promotion on the oil riches about to be bestowed on Iraqi Kurdistan.
Just a few miles from that glitzy scene is a crowded, smoke-filled cafeteria filled with women in head scarves, screaming children and a mix of men wearing business suits and the traditional Shal-u-Shepik style of baggy trousers with thick bands around the waist. Carts filled with tea in tulip-shaped glasses, warm sheets of flatbread, Kurdish kabob, hummus, cucumbers and radishes rattle noisily through a maze of long tables. Across from me, a young Kurdish man with bright eyes and an American flag on his phone fidgets in his seat. After a long pause, he says, "you know … we have a saying here. Kurdistan is a tree. After a long time, we grow tall, we become full of green leaves and then the tree shrivels and becomes bare. Right now, our leaves are green. Give it enough time. This tree won't die, but our leaves will fall to the ground again."