The Kurds are redrawing the region’s map
The Kurds had their independence referendum. Granted, it was a historic moment in the Middle East but it doesn’t mean that the independent Kurdish state will see the light any time soon. The road ahead is very difficult, if not impossible.
However, I guess the Kurds thought the referendum would give them leverage in their negotiations with the central government in Baghdad, assuming there is someone in Baghdad who wants to negotiate with them.
Before the referendum, it was difficult to imagine that Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani could withstand the pressure exerted on him to delay the referendum but withstand he did, even though he had to make concessions regarding the thorny case of Kirkuk.
Barzani insisted that the referendum “was the first step for a people longing for independence” and had nothing to do with fixing the borders of the Kurdish state but where would Kirkuk be if Kurdistan becomes a state?
Looking at the parties that exerted tremendous pressure on Barzani to have delay the referendum, we realise how difficult it must have been for the Kurdish president to maintain the referendum date.
Turkey’s opposition to the referendum cannot be ignored, especially when Ankara explicitly called the referendum a threat to its national security. The pressure from Iran must have been tough to resist, as it implicitly signalled the danger of a confrontation between Iran-backed militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces and Kurdish peshmerga.
The most difficult opposition to ignore, however, must have been the US administration’s. The United States must have had a hand in getting the UN Security Council to condemn the Kurdish referendum but the Trump administration lacks a clear strategy for the Middle East.
Barzani could have chosen to bide his time and wait for the opportune moment to push for Kurdish independence but he didn’t. He really had no choice but to go ahead with the referendum. For one, backing away from the referendum would have spelled political suicide for him personally and his entire clan. Second, it wasn’t clear whether there would be another chance for such a referendum, for which Barzani had meticulously set the stage.
Three days before the referendum, Barzani spoke in Erbil and insisted there would be no backing away from the referendum. He demonstrated a great deal of logic, persistence and coherence with his position despite concealing the many shortcomings in his programme and the thorny question of Kirkuk in particular.
Barzani made a strong argument in favour of the referendum. He pointed out that none of the parties opposed to the referendum had given a logical reason for delaying it. He raised many pointed questions. For example, if the referendum were delayed, should the Kurds wait for new developments to ask for their independence again? What are those new developments that would make it possible for regional and global powers to agree to a referendum in Kurdistan? Can anyone offer a new date for the referendum?
The simple truth of the matter is that, in the current Iraqi context, the opponents of the referendum had no alternative to offer the Kurds, other than calling for the delay of the referendum. Worse, some parties advanced Iraq’s unity as an argument in favour of the delay, knowing that this so-called unity has become a joke. For all practical purposes, Iraq crumbled the day the US forces in effect handed it on a silver platter to Iran. If anything, that experience showed that Iraqi-style power sharing is a doomed experiment.
In post-2003 Iraq, sectarian militias backed by Iran gradually took control of a much-weakened state. These militias mutated into the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and, for all practical purposes, have replaced the Iraqi military. The venerable Iraqi Army has no future as long as the PMF is in control, just like the case of the Iranian Army and the omnipotent Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran.
The Kurds, of course, could not find their place in the religious regime placed in Iraq by Iran, just like they could not find a place under the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein. Although there are occasional signs of resistance to Iranian hegemony from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr or Ammar al-Hakim, the end of the tunnel in Iraq is receding rather than approaching.
In the end, the Kurds had no choice but to move forward with their dream of independence. Given the aftershocks of the devastating political earthquake caused by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq, the Kurds weren’t sure they would ever have an independent state.
The Kurds are not only creating a new reality in Iraq, they are forcefully redrawing the region’s political map. An independent Kurdish state is no easy matter but at the same time the reasons given by Abadi for refusing secession are also baseless and unrealistic. Ironically, Abadi spoke of corruption in Kurdistan but conveniently forgot the festering corruption in Iraq.
In truth, the problem is that neither Abadi nor Nuri al-Maliki before him could come up with a convincing blueprint for a confederate state in Iraq. If it is accepted that the Kurdistan region’s experiment failed, that failure is nothing compared to the humongous failure called post- 2003 Iraq.