Iraqi Kurdistan: Setting the stage for a new war in the Middle East?

Several NATO countries, including Canada and the United States have special forces soldiers deployed in the region.

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Under late Ottoman rule, the countries and even some cities in the vast empire that had once stretched into Europe and across North Africa and was still comprised of what became modern day Turkey and most of the Middle East, had a degree of autonomy in terms of their relationships with the central government. This system of limited local autonomy made a lot of sense, as most of these areas, which comprised the majority of the great civilizations of antiquity, were incredibly ethnically and religiously diverse.

While Europe’s colonial powers had been eying the Middle East for some time, especially after early oil discoveries, the choice of the Ottoman empire, already facing an Arab rebellion in the south, to side with Germany in the First World War, led the main victors, France and the UK, to split up the region.

The resulting Sykes-Picot agreement gave Syria and Lebanon to France and Iraq, the Gulf, Jordan and Palestine to the British. Notably absent from the agreement were the Kurdish people, denied a country of their own and split between Syria, Iran, Iraq and the modern Republic of Turkey.

In each case, the price paid by the Kurds was uniform in the sense that it was tragic, although the circumstances were different in each of the countries where they found themselves a minority population. With this history as a backdrop, as well as a variety of disputes with the current government in Baghdad, it isn’t surprising that Iraqi Kurds, who have for all intents and purposes been self governing since 1992, wanted to hold a referendum on independence.

What was surprising was the timing, coming on September 25th, just as the war with the so-called Islamic State (at least in Iraq) seemed to be nearing its end and before long overdue parliamentary and presidential elections in the region.

A dangerous ploy?

The plebiscite came with one major caveat, as Kurdish authorities claimed a successful vote would give Erbil (their current regional capital) leverage in negotiations with Iraqi authorities but might not necessarily lead to the creation of a Kurdish state. Any attempt to understand why an independence referendum would be called that doesn’t guarantee the same, must try to account for the often fraught politics of the region.

Although there are a large number of Kurdish (and some minority) political parties, Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics are in many ways a tale of two families, the Barzanis and the Talabanis and their parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) for the former and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) for the latter. In fact, the two parties, who joined together to form the current governing coalition in the region, fought a civil war among themselves between 1994 and 1998.

Jalal Talabani, formerly the President of Iraq (a mainly honorary position in the national government as compared to the Prime Minister) and leader of the PUK, which was already declining in popularity, passed away a week after the referendum on October 3rd, creating a vacuum that the KDP may try to leverage or fill.

The Kurdish leadership, under the current Prime Minister, Massoud Barzani, who has held the position without being elected since his second term ended in 2013 (a situation blamed on the rise of ISIS), called the referendum and went ahead with it despite the protests of Iraq’s central government that it was illegal under the country’s constitution.

There was high voter turnout for the plebiscite, at least according to government sources, with 72% of population casting a ballot and almost 93.% of these voting for independence when the final tallies were in.

Despite the celebratory tone emanating from Erbil as these numbers were announced, some  commentators, including a few regional sources writing in English, have argued that there were problems with the vote beyond its lack of constitutionality.

“The referendum was was not endorsed or monitored by any international actors or elections’ monitoring groups, most notably the United Nations, the standard bearer for elections worldwide,” wrote Christine McCaffray, Director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya, after the vote, based on extensive interviews with local people and politicians in the three months leading up to and just after the vote, “This has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process, and some Kurdish locals, officials, and NGOs, such as the Kurdistan Institute for Elections and the Badlisy Cultural Center have made allegations of ballot stuffing and intimidation – a problem that has plagued Kurdish elections in the past.”

The vote could amount to a simple but dangerous political maneuver by Barzani. The Kurdish Prime Minister is a man whose nepotism is legendary, with his extended family occupying many of the government and the bureaucracy’s most important posts. His personal popularity has plummeted in recent years along with the price of the oil that powers the region’s economy.

Accusations have also continued to mount of corruption (and worse) in the KDP, especially against Massoud’s son, Masrour, Barzani may have gambled that the vote would strengthen his hand and within Iraqi Kurdistan itself. If this was the thinking, it seems to have worked, although we won’t know for sure until November 1st, when regional elections, just called on October 10th, will finally take place. 

Adding another wrinkle, as reported by the English language Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, Barzani has promised that neither he nor any member of his family will run for the region’s highest post in the coming election. Considering that the KDP is in may ways a family run business, we should probably take the relinquishing of power implied by the announcement with a grain of salt.

It will also be interesting to see how the second largest force in the regional parliament opposed to the current coalition between the KDP and the PUK, the Gorran Movement (Gorran means ‘change’ in Kurdish) does in the election. Many observers say the party is growing in popularity after being formed to fight corruption in the territory in 2009. On the issue of the referendum Gorran seemed to waver at first but ultimately told their supporters to vote their conscience.

A rift with the neighbors

Outside of this admittedly frustratingly complicated region, the vote has been almost universally condemned, bringing threats of sanctions and tensions that could easily lead to conflict, not only with Baghdad but also with powerful neighboring countries, Turkey and Iran.

Even the American State Department described the referendum by one of their more useful friends in the region as “unilateral”, explaining the US position in an official statement, “The vote and its results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”

Besides a ban on international flights to airports in Iraqi Kurdistan, as reported by Reuters, “Iraq’s central bank told the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) that it would no longer sell dollars to four leading Kurdish banks and would stop all foreign currency transfers,” in an attempt to strangle the region’s economy.

The article cited above also reported that Iraq’s Prime Minister, Hader al-Abadi has called for a “joint administration” with the Kurds as a junior partner, in the oil rich governate of Kirkuk, which the central government and the KRG have both laid claim to.

Baghdad lost the city and surrounding region, which contains some 8.7 billion barrels in total oil reserves, in 2014 when Iraqi forces fled in the wake of an Islamic State attack. IS fighters were later chased out by Kurdish Peshmerga, who have never left and now the area is claimed as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, a decision Iraq’s central government obviously disputes.

The Turkmen in Kirkuk, who at one point were a majority in the city of the same name, and are scattered throughout the whole region, provide the perfect excuse for Turkey’s President Recip Tayyip Erdogan to weigh in on the referendum. The vote has led Erdogan, who has grown both more autocratic and more erratic in recent years, and whose government is fighting a different Kurdish group in his own country, the PKK (which itself has bases in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan but which generally opposes the KDP locally), to openly threaten the region’s economic lifeline.

“It will all be over when we close the oil taps,” the Turkish President recently told reporters,  “All revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going into northern Iraq.”

Although their Kurdish population is not in open rebellion as in Turkey, Iran has its own worries based on its 5 million Kurds, mostly located on the country’s border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian Kurds publicly celebrated the referendum on their side of the border, no doubt raising alarm bells in Tehran.

It’s interesting to note that Iran was one of the first countries to supply Erbil with weapons and ammunition when the region was threatened by Islamic State forces just three years ago and that they probably feel betrayed by their sometime allies.

In the end, only one country officially recognized the vote and at first it seems a strange one. On September 13th, the office of the Israeli Prime Minister released a statement saying, “Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”

Although they have maintained links in Iraqi Kurdistan for decades, the Israeli government would very much like an official ally in this part of the Middle East, no doubt at least in part for wider intelligence purposes and in part as an arrow pointed at the Iran’s Kurdish population who they might imagine as a future Hezbollah, dividing the Islamic Republic and perhaps stoking rebellion in other minority populations.

While it would be heartless to withhold sympathy from the Kurds of Iraq, who suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein, the seemingly boundless cynicism of Barzani and the KDP may have deferred any dream of actual independence over the longer term.

Adding to the potential danger, several NATO countries, including Canada and the United States have special forces soldiers deployed in the region. There is always a chance that with all the different players involved, someone will make a mistake, in the process creating the conditions for a new conflict that nobody wants.

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