Barzani’s Referendum

All peoples have the right to self-determination, but now is not the time to seek Kurdish independence

By Abdel Bari Atwan

I only met Masoud Barzani once in my life. It was at an event organized by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in September 2012 marking the conclusion of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s second term as its secretary-general (party rules prevented him from remaining for a third term).

The leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was one of three star guests at the conference. The others were Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, who had just been elected, and Khaled Mishaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau. All were feted by their Turkish hosts, but the attention lavished on Bazrani was particularly striking, reflecting his close personal and family relationship with Erdogan.

Two of the trio have since disappeared from the political scene. Mursi was deposed and unjustly imprisoned, and is behind bars serving several life sentences. Mishaal’s term expired in April and Hamas elected a new leadership, and he currently lives in Qatar.

It is an open question whether Barzani too will face the same fate after he insisted on holding Monday’s referendum on Iraqi Kuridsh independence, ignoring all international and regional attempts to persuade or implore him to cancel or postpone the vote so as to avoid the worst.

The outcome of the referendum has been beyond question for months. ‘Yes’ voters are in the overwhelming majority according to all opinion polls. The big uncertainty is what happens on ‘the day after’, in the period that follows the referendum. All the signs indicate that it will be a difficult and unstable time. Given the reaction of neighbouring states, some of which see the vote as a declaration of war against them, it could light the fuse for a war whose main victims will inevitably be Kurds.

Barzani’s fighters fought with unprecedented zeal against Islamic State/Daesh, and hundreds were killed in the battle to liberate Mosul. This was not done for its own sake but at the instigation of the US in exchange for a promise of eventual independence, albeit without agreeing a schedule.

The war on Islamic State united opposing sides: Kurds and Arabs, Turks and Iranians, Americans and Russians, Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shia. It was the cement that held together an alliance between them all and kept them bonded for some four years. That war is now approaching its end, and the alliance has begun rapidly to disintegrate, perhaps setting the stage for an even more ferocious regional war. Wars have a tendency to reproduce and replicate in our Middle East region, which is prohibited from being stable.

Barzani chose the wrong time for this referendum. In so doing, he has united his Arab, Iranian and Turkish neighbours against him and his people. Moreover, Iraqi Kurdistan does not have the makings of a viable state at present. It is landlocked and its borders are not defined, its debts are mounting, its treasury is almost empty, its public employees have not been paid for months, its democracy is deficient or rather non-existent, its president’s term expired two years ago, and it is doubtful that the next presidential polls slated for November will be held. Barzani suspended the Kurdistan parliament two years ago when he began being asked questions about where the region’s oil revenues were going and some MPs called for his absolute powers to be regulated. Moreover, corruption is absolutely rife, and there are sharp differences between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two parts: the eastern enclave around Suleimaniya controlled by Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Barzani dynasty’s fiefdom centred on Irbil.

Visitors to Irbil report that the atmosphere there is highly tense. The vast majority of Kurds feel a mixture of joy and apprehension: joy at the holding of the referendum and the prospect of declaring independence, and apprehension about the future. The blockade against them began before the vote was even held, with Iran and Iraq closing their land borders and airspace, Turkey and Iran conducting joint military exercises, and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization forces speeding up their battle for Haweija so they can turn their attention to Kirkuk,  Khaneqin, Sinjar, the plain of Nineveh and other Kurdish-controlled areas outside the official jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Governent (KRG)  and seize them back from the peshmerga. The really big blow will come when Turkey close down the pipeline that takes Kurdish oil, the KRG’s main source of income, to the outside world. European governments, whose advice to postpone the referendum was disregarded by Barzani, have threatened to cut off aid to the region.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has accused Barzani of usurping state authority and rebelling against the rulings of the Supreme Federal Court which ruled that the referendum was unconstitutional.  Turkish Premier Binali Yildirim has called the vote a threat to his country’s national security. Barzani retorted that Iraq had turned into a sectarian religious state rather than a democracy, that independence was the only worthy reward for the mothers of Kurdish martyrs, and that he was ready for all eventualities.

Israel is the only country in the world openly supporting the referendum and urging Barzani to declare independence. It may in time be the only country to recognize the State of Kurdistan. This could well end up resembling Rauf Denktas’ Turkish Cypriot state, which was proclaimed four decades ago in northern Cyprus but has failed to obtain meaningful international recognition. The difference in the two cases is that the rival Greek Cypriot side is weak and accommodating, and Greece and Turkey are partners in Nato. The would-be Kurdish state, in contrast, would be besieged by four regional powers – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – who see it as a prelude to their dismemberment because they are home to Kurdish minorities that have the same aspirations for independence.

This was summed up by Nidhal Qablan, a former Syria ambassador to Turkey, when he remarked in a TV interview that Syria would not allow a ‘Zionist state with baggy trousers’ to be established on its northern border, a reference to growing separatist sentiment among Syrian Kurds, the US-backed advance of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on Deir az-Zour, their seizure of oil and gas fields in the region, and their holding of municipal elections in Kurdish-held areas of Syria as a prelude to parliamentary polls. There can be no doubt that the Iranians and Turks feel the same way.

Self-determination is the legitimate right of all peoples. But the necessary resources and guarantees need to be in place and the timing has to be appropriate. I do not believe that Barzani made his calculations carefully enough before proceeding on this pivotal step in the history of his Kurdish nation.

Monday’s referendum may achieve ‘theoretical’ independence for our Kurdish brothers and sisters, but it could trigger an ethnic war that drags on for decades. What I fear most is for the fate of the Kurdish State to end up being similar to that of the Islamic State, notwithstanding the huge differences between the two and the circumstances of their inception. The fact remains that the alliance which came together to eradicate the former is, in large part, bracing to wage war on the former even before it is born.