Keeping or Tipping the Balance

January 16, 2012

Once again, the role of the Kurds in Iraq has returned to the forefront. We often used to say the Kurds needed to decide whether they are spectators or players in Iraq’s politics.

The Kurds have been presented a new opportunity to play a key role in the country’s political development — especially given that the Americans are gone and aren’t particularly interested in Iraq or Kurdistan.

The Kurds found themselves in the middle of the storm in the first political crisis that emerged after the Americans left, and were expected to play the same role as they did when the Americans were here.

The polarization between the Sunnis and Shia of Iraq is so strong today that anyone who tries to be in the middle could be overridden.

The Kurds may soon need to decide which side they’re on. They seem to be stuck between history and geography: While their history of persecution is shared with the Shia, their geography is more closely aligned with the Sunni.

The behavior of their historic allies is constantly sending them signals that the prospects for future partnerships are more and more bleak. The main party that opposes any demand resembling the Kurdish vision for the future is their historic ally, the Shia, who are in control of Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia bloc seems to strongly oppose all of the issues that the Kurds are demanding be resolved.

Oil, revenue-sharing, the Peshmerga status, federalism and Kirkuk and Article 140 are all issues that the prime minister and his team bristle at the minute they are mentioned.

The main reason is the centralist intention of the prime minister and his ruling group. He has a become a control freak who sees every attempt to make things in the country work better as an attempt to undermine him and his rule.

The prime minister is still the acting minister of interior and is responsible for security in the country. Instead of working from the ministry of interior to maintain security to prevent another massacre from taking place, he is holding meetings and making all kinds of statements against federalism — the only formula of governance that is working in the country.

A few days ago, he told a delegation from Salahaddin’s provincial council — which is vying to create a semi-autonomous region — that federalism was what destroyed the Islamic state in the Middle Ages! Statements like these should serve as an alarm bell for the Kurds.

This is all coming from the party that the Kurds historically considered their allies. At the same time, they are finding their old adversaries — the Sunni Arabs — in the same trenches as them. They are both starting to see the effects of a strong and centralised government, which is a repeat of the old Iraq. The Sunni calls to create in their areas are clear indications of that.

The Kurds will soon have to decide how are they going to proceed, or, in other words which side they want to be on. Historically, they managed to sit on the fence and and mediate between the Sunnis and Shias. But this neutral position could end soon.
It would be very difficult for the Kurds to strengthen a side that sees them as outlaws and as people who want to partition Iraq by calling for federalism.
The Kurds will soon have to chose between pleasing the Shia of Iraq, the government of Iran and the current Syrian regime on the one hand; and the Sunnis of Iraq, Turkey and the rest of the Sunni Arab world and the West on the other.
At first, the choice between the two may seem obvious. But the geopolitics of the Kurds could work against them if they want to make the right decision.
Naturally, geography, not history, dictated politics for the Kurds. Our geography dictates a pro-Sunni policy because we have no border with the Shia Arabs. Externally, however, we are restricted by Iran and they can hurt us if they choose.
The dilemma here is that the Kurds can’t afford to be on either side, and they will need to continue balancing both sides until an event happens that can significantly tip the balance in one side’s favor.
Removing the Iranian regime, for example, could tip the balance.

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