The Middle East’s next conflict
The Kurds hardly need a referendum to confirm what they already know — they wish to have their own country — but Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani’s announcement that he intends to call a referendum on Kurdish independence in September risks reigniting civil war in Iraq.
While the referendum would only have symbolic value — the same exercise took place 12 years ago — it is deeply dangerous for two reasons. First, the Kurds are bitterly divided, particularly between Barzani and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who, though incapacitated, runs neighbouring Sulaimaniya province through an alliance with different Arab groups. Second, Iran, Turkey and the government in Baghdad are experts at dividing the Kurds and playing on the fears that many Arabs from northern Iraq have of falling under Kurdish rule.
The broader context matters. The coalition that is in the process of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) on the battlefield lacks the means to defeat the organisation’s broader philosophy, which continues to attract Sunni Muslims who feel politically excluded by a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad (and the Kurds in the north).
Various neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, exploit the sectarian tensions between the Sunnis and Shias. The fear of Sunni Arabs is compounded by the fact that the offensive against Mosul was spearheaded by Iran-backed Shia militias, notwithstanding the fact that the local population is overwhelmingly Sunni. These militias are more powerful than the Iraqi Army and have become a state within the state.
Many Sunnis want neither rule by the centre nor by Shias nor various Kurdish militias. ISIS recruits may lie low but they will make a comeback.
Included in the analysis should be the prospect of a proxy war between Iran and Israel. To forestall an Israeli attack on its nuclear programme or an attempt at regime change in Tehran, Iran has backed local proxies and striven to build a corridor that links it geographically to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. This “forward defence” takes the place of missiles that can effectively target Israel, which Tehran lacks.
Hezbollah offers Iran a launching pad within 80km of major Israeli cities. Turkey also feels threatened by this Iran-built corridor because it skirts its border with both Syria and Iraq.
Kurdish leaders are not alone in seeing ISIS as the result of an ideological marriage between Arab chauvinists and Islamic radicals, both equally intolerant of the ethnic and religious other. By the same token, they fail to appreciate, as many in the West do, that ISIS’s anger builds off Kurdish actions in and around the disputed cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. These regions included a rich diversity of Turkmens, Chaldeans, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and other smaller groups.
Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein targeted these areas for demographic engineering but reversing that process by force cannot be done without more violence.
The region also happens to be rich in oil, which is a major factor in modern politics and explains why the region was bitterly fought over after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Petroleum Company, a forerunner of the Iraq Petroleum Company, was set up in 1912 because of the growing belief that the area contained substantial oil reserves. Because they needed oil to fuel the Royal Navy, the British made sure they owned, through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, 50% of the shares in the new company.
Although oil was only found in 1927, the British ensured that their new protectorate, Iraq — and not Turkey — should have suzerainty over the province of Mosul. The security of the provinces’ mountainous boarder was another factor at play.
Both countries and non-state groups — such as ISIS and the Kurds — can be drawn into the regional prism of pain as they struggle for power. Iran says it is surrounded by pro-American countries — Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkey and, further afield, Israel. Saudi Arabia sees a revolutionary power, Iran, encircling it in a region — Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen — it thought it dominated. The human cost of these rivalries has been extraordinary, as has the destruction.
More bloodshed will not bring peace and prosperity to the Kurds. Their leaders should relinquish control of areas they have taken from ISIS outside the Kurdish region and negotiate with Baghdad with the help of the United Nations.
They have friends in Western capitals, including Washington, and reaching a compromise could secure their core interests, including the key question of who owns and obtains oil revenues.
By insisting on a referendum in September, the Kurds risk losing their position of strength. They know that neighbouring Iran, Turkey and the Baghdad government do not wish to see an independent Kurdistan. A resurgent ISIS feeding on deep Arab resentment over Kurdish land grabs would bring them neither stability nor peace.
After the devastation and human suffering of recent years is it too much to hope that wiser counsels will prevail? Washington might weigh in on the side of the angels but it is doubtful whether it has the means or the political will.