The Iraq Report: Is an independent Kurdistan emerging?

The Iraq Report: Is an independent Kurdistan emerging?
Analysis: The New Arab's weekly digest of events in Iraq
7 min read
27 September, 2017
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On Monday, Iraqi Kurds took part in a landmark referendum to decide whether they wanted to remain Iraqi Kurds, or become something entirely different in their own independent state – the first of its kind in the world. While the vote itself proceeded peacefully, with Kurds celebrating long into the night, the subsequently declared “Yes” result could lead to a state anything but peaceful.


Fearing the Kurdish secessionist movements in their own countries, Erbil’s immediate neighbours, Tehran and Ankara, have threatened severe measures against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and have already taken limited steps to punish them for daring to proceed with the vote. With Baghdad howling in indignation at the referendum and swearing to exact punishment, it is unlikely that any more-than-symbolic moves towards Kurdish independence will be as peaceful as the night of the vote itself.


Barzani emerging as a symbolic leader


The KRG opened up the vote to some 5.2 million people, mainly Kurds, with the Kurdish High Electoral Commission claiming that voter turnout was very high, at 72 percent. Eligible voters hailed from the three Iraqi provinces under the KRG’s constitutional authority: Duhok, Suleimaniyah and Erbil. More controversially, the vote also included people living in the provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin and, most contentiously of all, Kirkuk.


These other provinces are all under Baghdad’s authority – at least on paper. However, and with the rise of the Islamic State group and the fight against them, the Kurdish Peshmerga moved into areas the Iraqi military fled in 2014. As with most situations in Iraq, the loss of a military presence in a region translated into the loss of actual control, even once IS was forced out. Rule of law and parliamentary democracy struggle to function in Iraq due to an overreliance on hard power by all factions involved in the country post-2003.


But perhaps the most interesting outcome of the referendum is not whether or not an independent Kurdistan will eventually emerge from the “advisory” and non-binding vote, but to what extent the star of KRG President Masoud Barzani will rise in the eyes of Kurds who support other parties in Iraq, or even beyond in Syria, Iran and Turkey. Barzani can now claim to be the leader to have taken the first concrete steps towards independence through a vote organised, run, administered and even counted by Kurds.


In a televised speech as the result was being announced, Barzani told Abadi on Tuesday night that “no punishment [Iraq imposes on Kurdistan] could be greater than the Anfal campaign” that the Kurds had already suffered, referring to Saddam Hussein’s 1988 crackdown on the Kurds after they sided with the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War. Barzani made it clear that threats from Baghdad and others would not dent his resolve, that he was ready to discuss all outstanding disputes between Erbil and Baghdad.


Barzani’s confidence in the outcome of a “Yes” to independence should not come as a surprise, and neither should the likely boost to his status as a Kurdish hero in the coming months. Seeing an opportunity following Iraqi weakness in the face of IS and riding off the back of years of positive media coverage of the KRG and the Peshmerga standing as a bulwark against global IS terrorism, Barzani called the vote that forced his Iraqi rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, led by ailing politician Jalal Talabani, to get on board behind his initiative or else lose credibility.

Read more: Is oil fuelling the Kurdish referendum?

The same could be applied across all Kurdish organisations and parties regionally. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) waging a war for Kurdish independence in Turkey is often at odds with Barzani due to his often-close relationship with Ankara. For that reason, the PKK and the closely linked People’s Democratic Party (HDP) failed to declare their support for the referendum until the eleventh hour, despite Barzani announcing the poll months ago.


Barzani’s move can be seen as shrewd; he essentially asked his regional Kurdish rivals to either stand by Kurdish independence or – in one way or another – stand against Kurdish independence. Given how close this is to Kurdish hearts throughout the region, the latter option would have been political suicide, while the former option would be viewed as tacit recognition of Barzani’s regional leadership.

Israel was the only government to support the Kurdish referendum [AFP]


Iraq reacts with outrage


A day before the referendum, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned the poll “threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence amongst Iraqis, and is a danger to the region”, vowing to “take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis”.


As Kurds were voting on Monday, the Iraqi legislature demanded that military forces be deployed to disputed territories in the north of the country. This included calls for Kirkuk to be re-occupied by Iraqi soldiers, and for these areas to be restored to Iraqi control within 72 hours. By Tuesday, Abadi had ordered a blockade of KRG-controlled airports, and the Iraqi parliament began baying for military action against the Kurds for daring to hold the poll.


As Abadi and independent analysts have pointed out, there are controversial aspects to the referendum that may yet prove unconstitutional. While Duhok, Erbil and Suleimaniyah are part of the KRG, Kirkuk and other territories are not. While the Peshmerga are positioned in these disputed areas, their presence is only as a result of the military realities that following IS’ defeat - with US assistance - in these areas. In Baghdad’s eyes, they are not there legally - and therefore, among other reasons, the Iraqi Constitutional Court ruled the referendum itself was illegal.


As a measure of how much of an existential threat Baghdad perceives the referendum to be, it has even set aside its differences with Ankara and authorised joint military drills with its one-time foe. Although Iraq has repeatedly accused Turkey of being an invading force due to its Bashiqa base in northern Iraq, it is somewhat ironic that it has now deployed its soldiers to Habur to conduct exercises on its own borders with a country that it has denounced as an unwelcome invader.



Turkey, Iran move to threaten the KRG


Iraq’s rapprochement with Turkey – which could very well last for as long as the Kurdish political crisis – is part of a wider regional push to ratchet up efforts to intimidate Iraqi Kurdistan and make the KRG think twice before formally declaring independence.


Fearing their own Kurdish populations developing any secessionist ideas beyond the sentiments they already hold, both Iran and Turkey have been giving clear indications that they would not tolerate an independent Kurdistan.


Iran said on Sunday that it had blocked all flights to and from KRG-controlled airports at Baghdad’s request, as well as preventing any flights taking off from these airports from passing over its airspace. The hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, fiercely loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also began military drills on their shared border with the KRG.


Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashed a series of fiery statements blasting his erstwhile ally in Erbil, accusing him of “treachery”.


“If Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war,” Erdogan said.


Threatening immediate action and economic sanctions, Erdogan said: “It will be over when we close the oil taps [for Kurdish oil exports at Ceyhan], all [the KRG’s] revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.”

Read more: How Paul Manafort is profiting from the Kurdish independence referendum

While Erdogan certainly can inflict serious economic damage against the KRG, it is still uncertain whether he will pull the trigger or not. Just as Turkey was brought to heel by a Russian sanctions regime in 2016 after they shot down and killed a Russian pilot, Ankara could quite easily inflict an even greater level of economic damage against Iraqi Kurdistan due to its extensive presence in Kurdish markets whose absence will be sorely felt if they withdrew.


However, Turkey is known for making bombastic statements that it does not always back up with action. While Kurdish separatism in Turkey will almost certainly be inflamed should the Iraqi Kurds create their own state, Erdogan will be cautious about risking any moves that could destabilise his own country’s economy, particularly considering the KRG is Turkey’s third-largest export market. Any sustained weakness to Turkish economic output may outrage an already divided Turkish society, and may lead to upheaval against the Turkish leader that he would rather avoid.

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