Disunity casts doubts about Iraqi Kurds’ independence dream
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by President Masoud Barzani announced that it would call a referendum on independence in September. In a little over three months, the Kurds could be taking the first steps towards their dream of independence, creating a Kurdish state that may stand a chance of outliving previous attempts at statehood.
Many people routinely adopt the discourse that Kurdish independence has been hampered by the countries in which the Kurds live as minorities — Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. While it is certainly true that all four of these countries have stood in the way of Kurdish ambitions for independence, the fact that Kurds cannot decide among themselves who should be leading their bid for independence is often neglected.
Previous attempts at statehood have led to further Kurdish divisions and bloodshed. The republic of Mahabad, founded after the second world war, was brutally ended when the Iranians executed its leadership in 1947. However, some of its key ministers and figures set up shop in Iraq, including Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Ibrahim Ahmad, a Kurdish intellectual.
This is of immediate relevance to the Iraqi Kurdish question, as the history of disputes and bloodshed between the two main rival Kurdish clans — the Barzanis and the Talabanis — find their roots here. Mustafa Barzani, Masoud’s father, was a conservative nationalist but Ahmad was a leftist separatist.
This created a schism in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as the two could not reconcile with each other on an approach to take with Baghdad after the Ba’athist coup in 1963 under Abd al-Salam Arif. While Mustafa Barzani favoured talks, the more radical leftists represented by Ahmad and his ally, a young Jalal Talabani, considered this as capitulation. After the leftists were exiled, they created their own organisation, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
In the popular Western consciousness, the Kurds are a unified people with a shared aspiration for freedom. There are, however, several main factions and parties that often disagree with each other and violently so.
The KDP and PUK have had stormy past, despite both being Kurdish separatist movements and sharing the goal of Kurdish independence. The KDP and PUK fought a Kurdish civil war from 1994-97, with the former seeking Saddam Hussein’s support while the latter relied on Iran — both avowedly anti-separatist actors. This showed Kurdish pragmatism that undermined their own struggle.
Adding to the confusion, and since the US-led invasion in 2003, new movements have arisen. Just as PUK developed as a leftist offshoot of the KDP, the Gorran Movement split off from Talabani’s PUK in 2009. Led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, who died last month, Gorran was formed out of factions that were disillusioned by the KDP-PUK infighting that had failed to bring about Kurdish independence.
However, Gorran expressed opposition to the plebiscite. This is not because Gorran opposes independence, far from it. Gorran has adopted the sensible position that a referendum must be voted on by the dormant Kurdish legislature and not simply announced following a hastily cut deal between the KDP and PUK.
The main contention between Gorran and the traditional Iraqi Kurdish parties, then, is the primacy Gorran places on the Kurdish parliament, which has not convened since 2015. Given the opposition to the referendum, and the previous Kurd-on-Kurd bloodshed, one must wonder as to what kind of democracy may emerge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Masoud Barzani’s 8-year term as KRG president ended in 2013 and a parliamentary extension of two years ended in 2015. Nevertheless, Barzani still clutches to power after more than 12 years as president.
Although the Talabani faction may tolerate this to get a referendum, it is certain that it will not tolerate a Barzani dictatorship. This is not out of love for democracy — after all, Jalal Talabani has been the head of his party even after he fell victim to a stroke — but because the PUK will covet ultimate power for themselves at the expense of its KDP rivals.
It is that independence will suffer from massive internal chaos, as the various Kurdish parties vie for power and influence in the new state. This is quite apart from the regional powers that will want to continue their long-standing behaviour of influencing the Kurdish factions for their own ends.
With odds such as these, it is unlikely an independent Kurdistan will bring democracy. It will instead herald conflict and war.