Image via WikipediaWhat would happen if Iraq lost the Kurdish north? The region is already largely autonomous and is a major center of oil reserves. The conventional wisdom is that independence for “Kurdistan” would prompt a military response, sooner or later, from its neighbors – Iran and Turkey. But would it really?
Iran has its hands full with a poor economy, a hostile neighbor – Saudi Arabia – and an unstable Iraq which is proving harder for Iran to manipulate than it expected. It also has larger issues of concern such as a military attack by you-know-who. So, although there is a longstanding conflict that flares now and again between Kurdish nationalists in the northwest of the country and Tehran, it is exceedingly unlikely that Iran would invade northern Iraq if it became independent.
The question is really, what would Ankara do? I suspect that Ankara might welcome an independent Kurdish Republic for several reasons. First, the Kurds in northern Iraq are not actively hostile to Turkey. The PKK is not welcome as a strong presence and indeed is quite worrisome since any cross border attack against Turkish troops has the tendency to provoke a rapid, overwhelming response from Turkey.
An independent Kurdistan might actually gut the PKK movement – much like the establishment of a Palestinian state would seriously undermine Hamas and Hezbollah. Turkey would benefit in its poorest region, the southeast, and tensions would be reduced. Then, there is the oil. Turkey relies heavily on Russian energy supplies for its growing economy. An alternative source would be a welcome event for Turkish foreign policy advisors and would also allow Turkey to increase its influence south and east at the expense of Iran.
Unlikely as it may seem, an independent Kurdish state would not result in an upheaval. However, it is equally unlikely that Baghdad would appreciate the independence of a key part of the country. To avoid the possibility of such a move, I would expect the Iraqi leadership to continue the façade of an integrated nation while at the same time giving the Kurds as much autonomy, short of secession, as they want.
Iraq needs the oil as well.