The Kurdish referendum and Baghdad's miscalculated temper

The Kurdish referendum and Baghdad's miscalculated temper
Comment: Haider al-Abadi must temper Baghdad’s response, without appearing weak, or Iraq will be left with divisions from which it may never recover, writes Gareth Browne.
5 min read
05 Oct, 2017
Kurdish nationalism has been galvanised by its opposition, writes Browne [AFP]

Iranian tanks are gathering on the border of the Kurdistan Regional Government's territory, and Baghdad has grounded flights in, out and passing through the KRG.

At the international level, last week's independence referendum has been met with near total rebuke, something that even the most ardent opponents of Kurdish independence wouldn't have expected.

The US, and the UK, traditionally some of the most steadfast supporters of the KRG expressed opposition to the "timing" of the referendum, while regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and the Federal Government of Iraq have began taking punitive measures.

What was initially merely a symbolic referendum is looking more and more to have devastating real-world effects.

And there is no sign of let up. Baghdad is threatening to forcefully take control of border crossings now under Kurdish control, while Turkish President Erdogan has, somewhat sinisterly, threatened yet further "measures".

The KRG has shrewdly portrayed this unified opposition as little more than bullying. It has also latched onto other secessionist movements such as the Catalan and Scottish causes, even going so far as to court support from Israel in an effort to position itself as an independent state in waiting.

The most self-defeating thing you can do to a secessionist movement is attempt to suppress it

The Streisand effect is "the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely". It takes its name from singer Barbara Streisand, whose efforts to restrict publication of photos of her new house in 2003 hugely backfired, and actually increased the proliferation of the pictures.

The same can be observed in international efforts to prevent, or restrict the effect of last week's Kurdish referendum. Opposition to the poll helped its portrayal as a struggle for national liberation. The same can be said for Baghdad's actions - the most self-defeating thing you can do to a secessionist movement is attempt to suppress it.

One wonders what the situation might now be had the UK and US withheld their condemnation. 

Baghdad's response was a textbook display of how not to deal with a secessionist movement. Iraqi heavy-handedness galvanised support for a referendum that wasn't necessarily as uniformly supported as some had portrayed. Kurdish nationalism has been as reactionary to mistreatment from Baghdad as it has been about Kurdish identity. Baghdad's response to the referendum's announcement played into that exactly.

It would be natural to focus blame on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but in reality Abadi's hand has been forced. As the only thing keeping an Iranian lackey out of the prime minister's office - likely Nouri al-Maliki - he must be seen to act strongly in the face of threats to Iraq's territorial integrity.

Read more: 'Mam Jalal' Talabani: Titan's passing leaves Iraqi Kurdistan in quandary

Many in Baghdad are already poised to capitalise on his perceived weakness ahead of elections next year. Maliki, who remains bitter about being forced out of office in 2014 following Mosul's fall to the Islamic State group, would jump at the chance to oust Abadi even before the election.

Elsewhere, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, was voted out of office by Baghdad's parliament, and pro-Maliki MPs led by deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi have begun efforts to oust Iraq's PUK Kurdish president, Faud Masum.

It's unlikely to succeed, but the effect is the same - in Baghdad a punitive Kurdish witch-hunt is underway and divisions are growing.

Iraq's parliamentary speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, has claimed these efforts are not collective punishment against the Kurds, though it is hard to see them as anything other than exactly that. Combined with joint military exercises with Turkey and Iran, all combine to reinforce the perception that the Baghdad government is not a government for the country's Kurds.

The locomotive of Kurdish nationalism was fired up to hitherto unseen levels, and as the blockade goes on, it continues to gather speed

The Kurds of northern Iraq held another referendum in 2005, but such a backlash then was not forthcoming. Granted the political context was very different, but a noticeable variable was the response to the referendum. The real risk of the referendum of 2017 is that Baghdad's tactics push Kurds beyond reconciliation with the rest of Iraq.

When the referendum was first announced, support was far from absolute. A well resourced "No" campaign, and wavering from the PUK and Gorran, at what some claimed was more a referendum about the future of KRG President Masoud Barzani, indicated that it might not be as much of a landslide as might have been assumed.

But as the rhetoric heated up, and ambassador after ambassador released statements objecting to the vote in some form, support for the referendum among Kurds galvanised. The locomotive of Kurdish nationalism was fired up to hitherto unseen levels, and as the blockade goes on, it continues to gather speed. It won't be stopped easily.

Haider al-Abadi must temper Baghdad's response, without appearing weak on the issue of territorial integrity, or Iraq will be left with divisions from which it may never recover. Abadi must find a way to back down on the blockade of the KRG, while saving face in Baghdad - or there won't be an Iraq left for him to govern.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter formerly based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.