ERBIL, Iraq — In a statement that could have a dramatic impact on regional politics in the Middle East, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling party recently told a Kurdish media outlet that the Kurds in Iraq have the right to self-determination. The statement has been relatively overlooked so far, but could signal a shift in policy as Turkey has long been a principal opponent of Kurdish independence, which would mean a partitioning of Iraq.
“The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the Justice and Development Party, told the Kurdish online news outlet Rudaw last week.
The Kurds have been effectively autonomous since 1991, when the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Turkey, a strong U.S. ally, has long opposed the creation of an independent Kurdistan so that its own eastern region would not be swallowed into it. But Celik’s statement indicates that the country may be starting to view an autonomous Kurdistan as a viable option — a sort of bulwark against spreading extremism within a deeply unstable country.
“The Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate,” Celik told Rudaw, in a story that was picked up by CNN’s Turkish-language outlet. “Turkey has been supporting the Kurdistan region till now and will continue this support.”
Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have recently forged a strong bond over oil, much to the chagrin of Iraq, which claims that Baghdad has sole authority over oil in Kurdistan. Turkey recently signed a 50-year energy deal with Iraqi Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous government to export Kurdish oil to the north, and Kurdistan has increased its exports this week despite the insurgency by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — known as “the Kurdish Jerusalem” — has long been an obstacle to independence. The Kurds controlled it briefly in 1991 before Saddam Hussein drove them out amid a horrific chemical weapons attack. Last week, they retook control of the disputed city when Iraqi forces fled ISIS, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to give up the city’s oil reserves. Kirkuk is capable of producing as much as half of all of Iraq’s oil exports, although Kirkuk’s pipeline is currently offline following militant attacks in the spring.
On Tuesday, Sherko Jawdat, the chairman of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Natural Resources Committee, told The Huffington Post that Iraqi Kurdistan is aiming to claim a quarter of Iraq’s total oil sales.
“Oil has become an important political card in the region and the whole world,” he said. “Oil is key to Kurdistan’s economic independence, which will eventually lead to political independence.”
Syria and Iran have long opposed the creation of an independent Kurdistan, but Turkey has been the most significant obstacle, as it previously threatened to invade the area if the Kurds declared independence. With Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki tied up in civil wars, neither seems to be in a position to stop the Kurds from becoming fully independent.
The United States has also taken a stand against an independent Kurdistan, largely in support of Turkey. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leading foreign policy voice in conservative circles, was stunned to hear that a Turkish spokesman had opened the door to what the U.S. has so long opposed. “I’m surprised,” he told The Huffington Post. “But what about the Kurds in Syria? What about the Kurds in Turkey?”
He said he worries that it would only create more instability and that he never believed in what he called “the Biden plan,” or independent Kurdish, Sunni and Shia states. Vice President Joe Biden strongly pushed for partition during the early stages of the Iraq war.
“The Biden plan of partitioning Iraq never made sense to me because the Sunni areas are held by people kicked out by al Qaeda,” he said. “Just absorb what I said. From Aleppo to Baghdad, you’re gonna have a radical Islamic Sunni group that was too radical for al Qaeda.
“This is what I worry about if you let Iraq fracture: Iranians are going to own the south. ISIS is going to own everything in the Sunni area, and if the Kurds break away, you’ve got friction for a long time to come between the Turks and Kurds because there are Kurdish elements in Syria, Iran and Turkey.”
The Kurds, he suggested, would not settle for a state only in what is today Iraq. “If the Kurds break away, are you going to create a movement inside of Syria? Inside of Turkey and Iran to have a Kurdish state that encompasses those people? So this thing could spiral out of control and that could be another front,” he said.
Laura Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said that she would “refer [HuffPost] to the Turks regarding their views on Iraq.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, was much more open to Kurdish independence, suggesting that regional players must decide what’s best. “That’s such a complex part of the world over there and it’s not up to the United States to answer questions like that,” he said. “It’s for those folks to answer.”
Ryan Grim reported from Washington.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to note that Chambliss is from Georgia, not Mississippi.