Dangerous gambit

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Kurds celebrate in support of the independence referendum in Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 26. Photo: ARI JALAL/REUTERS

At the Arbil airport on September 28. All international flights to and from Arbil were suspended from September 29 as Iraq increased pressure on Kurds over the independence referendum. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP

At a polling station in Kirkuk on September 25. Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

Peshmergas take part in a gathering to urge people to vote in the referendum in Arbil. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP

Iraqi Kurds hold and win a referendum for an independent state defying strong warnings from neighbouring countries and the central government in Iraq. The U.S., a close ally of the Kurds of northern Iraq, was against the timing of the referendum.

The September 25 decision of the Kurdish “autonomous” government in northern Iraq to go ahead with a referendum on setting up an independent state of Kurdistan, despite the advice to the contrary from its patron, the United States, has generated new and dangerous tensions in the volatile region. The only country that supported the holding of the referendum was Israel, a long-time ally of Kurdish separatists. The idea of creating a Kurdish state is not acceptable to any government in the region. The United Nations Security Council had issued a strong statement urging the Iraqi Kurds to not go ahead with the referendum. The statement expressed concern “at the potentially destabilising impact of the Kurdistan regional government’s plans to unilaterally hold the referendum”.

Kurds, the fourth biggest ethnic group in the region, are without a state of their own. Kurds in Iran and Syria have been intermittently raising the spectre of secessionism since the end of the Second World War. Eastern Turkey hosts the largest number of Kurds. Kurds have a distinctive language and culture although a majority of them adhere to the Sunni school of Islam.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been waging a long struggle for an independent state. The PKK started out as a communist-inspired movement but has now morphed into a surrogate fighting force of the U.S. in the region. The PKK’s sister organisation, the YPG (People’s Protection Units), is fighting alongside U.S. forces in eastern Syria with the goal of carving out an independent state. Syrian Kurds, who constitute less than 10 per cent of the country’s population, now control 25 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the country’s oil resources. Turkey has the most to fear from the emergence of an independent Kurdish state as it could act as a catalyst for the demand for a bigger Kurdish state that would encompass the Kurdish region on its territory.

After the Second World War, Kurds were briefly supported by the Soviet Union as they waged war against Iran, then under the pro-Western regime of Mohammad Reza Shah. Israel has been among the earliest supporters of an independent Kurdistan. The countries in the region fear that an independent Kurdish republic will be a replica of Israel, a pro-Western entity pointed like another dagger at the heart of the Arab and the Islamic world. Iran perceives Iraqi Kurds as an ally of the U.S. and views creation of an independent Kurdistan as another important step by the West to encircle it militarily with a ring of bases.

The U.S. already is a close military ally of Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Washington would like nothing better than to encourage Iranian Kurds to break away as the Donald Trump administration seeks to tear up the nuclear deal the previous administration had signed with Iran and then militarily confront that country. Kurds would be invaluable allies of the U.S. if such a scenario materialised. The Iraqi and the Syrian Kurdish fighters, trained by the U.S. and Israelis, now have plenty of battle experience. The U.S. has been relying on Kurdish militias to wage battles against the Daesh (Islamic State) and now increasingly against the Syrian Army. Soon their guns could be turned against the Iraqi Army, too, as tensions build up in Iraq.

The Trump administration opposed the holding of the referendum at this juncture because it created unnecessary complications for the U.S. in its efforts to prevent Iran from establishing a secure supply route through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. Without the U.S.’ help, Kurds would not have been able to achieve their goal of running a government in northern Iraq in the first place. It was the U.S.’ decision to introduce a “no-fly zone” over northern Iraq in 1991 that prevented the Iraqi Army from reuniting the country. Iraqi Kurds have been helping the U.S. since then in various ways. Northern Iraq was one of the staging grounds for the 2003 invasion.

Kurds have been running a government in northern Iraq since 1991 with the support of the U.S. and its close allies such as Israel. Iraqi Kurdistan was carved out in the wake of the First Gulf War. As expected, Kurds of northern Iraq have voted massively in favour of independence. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Arbil continues to claim that the entire exercise was merely “consultative” and will not result in the immediate formation of an independent Kurdish state. The Iraqi Parliament had overwhelmingly opposed the holding of the referendum. The Iraqi Constitution guarantees “the unity of Iraq”. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said that his government might have to use force to “protect” sections of the population that were being coerced to vote in the “independence” referendum in northern Iraq. There have also been recorded instances of “ethnic cleansing” in northern Iraq, with the Kurdish government forcing out minorities from contested cities and villages.

Costly exercise

The referendum was a costly exercise to show to the world that Iraqi Kurds wanted to chart out an independent course for themselves, free from the diktats of Baghdad. Not that the Kurds themselves were completely united on the referendum issue. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, which shares power with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, was divided on the issue. Only the Kurdistan Islamic Union Party fully supported the referendum. The substantial population of Arab, Turk and Yazidi minority are opposed to the break-up of the federal Iraqi state. Kurdish authorities have said that 72 per cent of the four to eight million registered voters cast their ballot in the referendum. According to the authorities, 93 per cent voted in favour of an independent Kurdish state. Iraqi Kurds, under the clannish leadership of the Barzanis and the Talabanis, have been expanding their influence in the north of the country after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. They took over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which has sizable Arab and Turk populations, in 2014, following the collapse of the Iraqi Army after the fall of Mosul. There is no way that the Iraqi government will part with Kirkuk, which is a multi-ethnic hydrocarbon-producing hub of the country. Kurds constitute around 22 per cent of Iraq’s population of 32 million.

A new civil war could soon ignite on this issue. The Arab and Turkish population in northern Iraq have already raised the banner of revolt, alleging discrimination and high-handedness by the Kurdish authorities. Local Turk leaders had called on the central government to despatch troops to Kirkuk to prevent the holding of the referendum. Kirkuk is not the only disputed city. The Iraqi government says that the Kurdish government has no right to lay claim to other smaller cities such as Sinjar, Khanaqin, Mandali and Makhmur. Kurds in northern Iraq are completely dependent on oil revenues for their economic sustenance. The high price of oil had buoyed its economy until prices came crashing down three years ago. Grandiose construction projects have come to a halt. The salaries of government servants and teachers are delayed while there is no let-up in corruption, which has been a glaring feature in northern Iraq since 2003.

The biggest market for oil and gas from northern Iraq was Turkey. Oil revenues were to be shared with the central government in Baghdad. But a weak Iraqi government fighting for its own survival was in no position to force the Kurds to adhere to the revenue-sharing formula. The Iraqi government accused Kurds of building an illegal oil pipeline to Turkey and siphoning off Iraqi oil and gas, which was sold in the international market. In all, 600,000 barrels of oil were exported from northern Iraq every day. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq has control of over 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves. Now the tide has turned. With the recapture of Mosul, which was coveted by Kurds, the Iraqi government is in a much stronger position. Transcending the sectarian divide, there is a strong desire that the unity of the country be preserved at all costs. The Iraqi parliament has urged the government to send troops to the disputed areas such as Kirkuk in the north, which are currently under the control of Iraqi Kurds.

Sharp criticisms

The decision of the Kurdish government to go ahead with the referendum, despite strong warnings from neighbouring countries and from the central government in Baghdad, has, not surprisingly, elicited sharp reactions from all of Iraq’s immediate neighbours. Barzani, the President of the rump Kurdish republic, seems to have seriously miscalculated. A day after the elections were held, the Iraqi Prime Minister ordered the Kurdish regional government to surrender control of its two international airports or face a ban on all international flights to the region. By the beginning of October, most international flights had stopped flying into Arbil and Sulaimaniyah, the two major cities in northern Iraq.

Prime Minister al-Abadi said that he was forced to take the step as the holding of the referendum in the north had “seriously destabilised” the region. The armies of Turkey and Iran have been conducting military exercises along the border with northern Iraq. The two countries have temporarily closed border-crossing points to the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. Al-Abadi had warned that if Kurds went ahead with the referendum, present-day Iraqi Kurdistan “might disappear” altogether. He has sent a high-level delegation to Iran “to coordinate military efforts” to counter the moves of Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi troops and allied militias are already in the vicinity of Kirkuk.

Turkey threatens blockade

Turkey has threatened to impose a trade blockade on the region. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in late September that the action of the Kurdish leadership could result in a wider war breaking out in the region. A blockade by Turkey, he warned, would leave the Iraqi Kurds “hungry”. About 95 per cent of northern Iraq’s food is imported, mainly from Turkey. Erdogan has threatened to stop all energy imports from northern Iraq and to close the lucrative oil pipeline through which Iraqi Kurds export their oil to Turkey and the international market. Erdogan also did not rule out possible military action against Iraqi Kurds.

Erdogan said that no country, except Israel, would recognise Kurdish independence. “Who will recognise your independence? Israel. You should know that the waving of Israeli flags will not save you,” Erdogan warned the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement supporting the holding of the referendum and the creation of a new Kurdish state. Israel has been training the “Peshmerga”, as the Iraqi Kurd army has been called since the mid 1960s when the Kurds were led by the current President’s father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Israel wants to foment trouble in Iran with the help of Kurds.