Iraqi Kurds voted in a very controversial non-binding referendum to split from Baghdad on 25 September. 72 percent out of the 8.4 million strong Kurdish population partook in the referendum and 92.7 percent voted ‘yes’. Iraqi central government under Haider al-Abadi has refused to recognize the referendum, calling it unconstitutional. Prior to that Supreme Court of Iraq had tried unsuccessfully to scuttle the referendum. Both regional and international powers have been unanimous in their opposition to the Kurdish quest for an independent state and voiced their support for the territorial integrity of Iraq
Referendum took place in autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq. Semi-autonomous since after the Gulf War when American forces invaded Iraq and created ‘safe haven’, it was constitutionally recognized by Iraqi parliament in 2005. The Kurdish region consists of Sulaymaniya, Dahuk and Erbil, its capital. Capitalizing on its gains against ISIS, Peshmerga, Kurdish security force, extended its tendrils to Kirkuk, an oil-rich disputed area claimed both by Baghdad and Erbil. Kirkuk has a significant minority population of Arabs Yazidis and Turkomans, which fear the prospect of living under Kurds should Kurdish Regional Government declare unilateral independence.
Domestic Rationale and Evolving Security Situation in Iraq.
Since the break-up of Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Kurds have been dispersed in five states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. Without a state of their own, they have been called the biggest ‘stateless nation’ in the world. The Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Great Britain carved out the artificial boundaries of Modern Middle East, indifferent to due Kurdish rights and denying them a state of their own. Despite this, their aspiration for independence has never wholly been quashed. The referendum is an obvious reflection of their desire to secede from Baghdad and have a separate state of their own.
But this referendum is as much about Kurdish aspirations to have a state of their own as it is about internal politics in Iraq and the evolving situation in Middle East. In 2005, Iraqi Parliament constitutionally recognized the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which has its own parliament and president. Barzani became its president and held this post until 2015, when his presidential mandate ended. But he has refused to step down, despite protests from other Kurdish factions active in Iraqi Kurdistan. The government of Barzani has been accused of corruption and patronage. The call for referendum and the couching of political rhetoric in nationalist terms would not only gloss over these charges but also seem to be a calibrated move by Barzani just before the parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for November 1, 2017.
Peshmerga, KRG forces, have played an instrumental role in defeating ISIS in Iraq. Supported by American firepower and special forces, Kurdish and Iraqi security forces along with Shiite militias have driven out ISIS from its strongholds. The recent capture of Mosul has led some to surmise whether it portends an ultimate doom of this terrorist group. The physical dislodgement of ISIS is a palpable reality and it is on the verge of literally losing all its areas. It is important to make a slight digression. Kurdish Regional Government had also called a for referendum for independence in 2014, but it coincided with ISIS attack on Erbil, prompting Kurds to delay the vote and work with Iraqi central government to fight ISIS. But as the urgent threat of ISIS recedes, the important matters of geo-politics and lurking tensions among states and ethnic groups come to the fore. Kurdish Regional Government wants to capitalize this tumultuous situation so as to wrest a better deal from Baghdad and make western powers, especially America, to recognize its sacrifices against ISIS. Having said that, this referendum should not be called a bluff nor the aspirations of Kurdish people be reduced to the workings of a shrewd and cunning elite.
Regional Implications of Kurdish Referendum:
Despite the non-binding nature of referendum and subsequent caution shown by Barzani from refraining to announce unilateral independence, Iraq and regional powers have been rattled by this move. Opposing Kurdish secession from Iraq, Turkish President, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, threatened Kurds with starvation. “It will be over when we close the oil taps; Kurds will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.” Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) conducts most of its trade and oil exports through Turkish port of Ceyhal. Turkey had also conducted military exercises with Iraqi security forces to send a message to Kurds as to where it stands on referendum question and to what extend it can go prevent the materialization of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. Echoing Erdogan, Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said, “Iran and Turkey and other regional countries will not stand silent and will stand against this abhorrent deviation. The Muslim nations will not allow the creation of a second Israel.” Iran has also reportedly deployed tanks and artillery to border with Iraq’s Kurdish region. On 30 September, it imposed fuel sanctions on Kurdish region and flights between Tehran and Ebril have been suspended. Like Turkey, Iran too has conducted joint drills with Iraqi security forces.
These bombastic statements and rhetoric and aggressive actions are coming from two regional countries that have enjoyed cordial relations with Iraqi Kurds. In the Whirlwind War, as Khomeini called the 8-year Iran-Iraq war, the former supported Kurds against Saddam Hussein. Kurdish connivance with Iranian security forces in Operation Fajr was invoked by tinpot dictator to unleash a reign of terror, by dropping chemical weapons, on thousands of Kurds. Halabja became a household name of brutality and symbolized Kurdish oppression. Cheap oil of Iraqi Kurdistan has been a major import of Turkey, while Kurdish exports have heavily relied on Turkish ports. Turkey has also viewed its good relations with Iraqi Kurds as a means to scuttle the ominous prospect of Kurdish People’s Workers (PKK) entering into any alliance with Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Iran and Turkey have their own substantial minority Kurdish populations. They have had tense and at times violent relations with Ankara and Baghdad. Kurds in both these states have celebrated the referendum. Iran and Turkey fear the precedent of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would encourage Kurds in their countries to clamor for freedom. It is not surprising they are averse to the notion of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq.
Interestingly the only country that has enthusiastically supported the Kurdish demand to secede from Baghdad is Israel. This gesture emanates not from any altruistic motive, but is linked to geo-politics and Israel’s historical ties with Iraqi Kurds. For Israel a weakened Iraq under Saddam engaged in an internecine war with its own ethnic minorities would post not a great threat to it. Moreover, an independent Kurdish state in Iraq could possibly prove to be a buffer between Israel and its arch-enemy Iran. Israel also happens to be the biggest importer of Kurdish oil.
The ‘yes’ vote in referendum was not followed by a unilateral declaration of independence by Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The refusal of international powers and regional countries seems to make a subsequent announcement calling for secession from Baghdad an unlikely prospect. Interestingly, Peshmerga forces are cooperating with Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in their fight against ISIS in Hawija.
AS things stand now, there is every chance that a negotiated deal with Kurds would be the sanest approach, rather than bombast and trite threats. The political situation will only take a dramatic turn or one must say towards a conflagration, when Kurds go for all-out independence. Are Kurds ready to bear the toll attendant to such a course of action?
Sajid Ali is IPI researcher specializing in Middle Eastern politics.