Iraqi Kurds’ insistence on independence not welcomed in region

Sunday 25/06/2017
Flag business. An Iraqi man sews a flag of Kurdistan, in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Reuters)

Ankara-The decision by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, to have a refer­endum on the independ­ence of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and several dis­puted areas was met with national and regional displeasure.

The Iraqi central government in Baghdad was one of the first in the region to blast the measure. “Any decision concerning the future of Iraq must take into account the constitutional provisions. It is an Iraqi decision and not one party alone,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office said in a state­ment shortly after the KRG an­nouncement.

The KRG’s northern neighbour Turkey did not welcome the deci­sion either. Ankara has been vocal in slamming the Iraqi Kurds for their decision to pursue independ­ence, despite having good ties with the KRG.

The worsening relations be­tween the two sides could affect the economy as well. Ankara has a trade volume of about $11 billion with Iraq, 85% of which is with the KRG, but relations could be shat­tered with the referendum deci­sion made by Erbil.

“Stepping on northern Iraq’s independence is a threat to Iraq’s territorial integrity and it is wrong,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the referendum decision “irresponsible” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry labelled it as “a grave mistake.”

Ankara was also critical of the fact that the referendum, set for September 25, would include a vote on the annexation of several disputed areas such as the Turk­men-populated Kirkuk. “Kirkuk’s annexation is certainly unaccepta­ble for Turkey,” Can Acun, a Mid­dle East expert for the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), told the English-language Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.

A senior official from Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) said the KRG has every right to call a referendum on its future. Point­ing to the International Charter of the United Nations, KDP Group Deputy Chairman Tariq Gerdi said: “The charter states that every eth­nic group and human entity has the right of self-determination.”

The Turkish government also appears concerned with the mes­sage of cessation an independent Kurdish state would give to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and its Syria affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — both enemies of Turkey.

The YPG has bad relations with the KRG and Iraq’s Kurdish pesh­merga forces have frequently clashed with PKK militants, which are supported by Iran, inside Iraq. The weakening of the KRG’s ties with Turkey would leave both sides more exposed to PKK/YPG threats.

The international community is worried by the regional impli­cations. The United Nations As­sistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) distanced itself from the KRG’s bid and said in a statement that it would not be “engaged in any way or form” in the referendum pro­cess.

US State Department spokes­woman Heather Nauert said Wash­ington favours “a unified, stable and democratic Iraq.” Despite its support for the KRG’s self-deter­mination in principle, the Trump administration did not openly back the independence referen­dum.

British Ambassador to Baghdad Frank Baker said the United King­dom was not currently “support­ing the idea to hold a referendum.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Berlin “can only warn against one-sided steps on this is­sue. The unity of Iraq is on the line.”

The European Union was not very welcoming of the independ­ence idea. EU foreign ministers said that “unilateral steps must be avoided and that all open ques­tions must be resolved through consensual positions” based on Iraq’s constitution.

Should a state of Kurdistan be created, it would find itself sur­rounded by neighbours that view it as a threat.

It would have a border with Iraq, with which it presumably would continue to have territorial dis­putes. Regardless of who controls the Syrian border with the KRG — whether it is Syrian rebels or the YPG — Syria would be too un­stable to be a reliable neigh­bour for Iraq’s Kurds.

Cetiner Cetin, an Ankara-based Kurdish journalist, said the independent KRG may lead to a war between the Kurds. He contended that the PKK has al­ready been seeing the KRG as an en­emy. “It is about who will form an independ­ent Kurdish state first. If the KRG achieves it, the PKK or the YPG from Syria may attack the inde­pendent KRG,” he said.

The inde­pendent KRG would also have borders with Iran and Turkey, whose militants are expected to continue using KRG territory as a base to attack their home countries. This means that from day one, Kurd­istan would have external and inter­nal security problems that would undermine its independence and self-determination.