Iran and Turkey are, for obvious reasons, opposed to the long-cherished Kurdish move towards independence. Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, slammed the recent decision by the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, to hold a referendum on September 25, 2017, to determine whether Kurds ought to remain in, or secede from, Iraq. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the move as a mistake and said that Ankara supported the territorial integrity of Iraq. He raised the fear that Arabs and Turkmen inside Iraq would embark on secessionism too, even if his true concern was the fate that befell the 25 million Kurds in his own country, improperly labelled as “Mountain Turks”.
Will Iraqi Kurds approve independence and empower Barzani to start negotiations with Baghdad?
Chances are indeed excellent that a “Yes” vote will prevail even if a “No” vote will alleviate Tehran and Ankara, both of which perceive a politically incoherent Iraq ideally situated to promote their respective interests. In fact, and notwithstanding the epochal transformation that approval would herald, the Barzani referendum will not be an automatic secession. Rather, a victorious Barzani will then embark on serious negotiations with Baghdad to peacefully secure independence. Of course, numerous obstacles will quickly be raised, including accusations of using the newly independent entity as the nucleus for a much larger Kurdistan that will, by necessity, incorporate sizeable parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria.
These are legitimate concerns, but they are paltry when compared with the oppression and occupation to which Kurds were subjected to in the three countries. While the anxiety associated with a breakup of Iraq for Ankara, Tehran and Damascus cannot be underestimated, they are not the only parties that frown on such a development either, and which may yet see interferences in the September referendum. Western powers led by the United States are not keen to embark on the inevitable outcome, notwithstanding an unabashed sympathy with Kurdish aspirations. Ironically, it was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, then senator Joe Biden, who advocated dividing Iraq in 2006 into three regions — Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni — with a minimised central government. That position, which Biden held before he became US Vice-President, was apparently the best way to prevent sectarian violence, “giving each ethno-religious group room to run its own affairs”.
Biden changed his mind in 2015, emphasising the importance of Iraqi nationalism as he backed a strong federal government in countering Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), though Baghdad’s inabilities to create a democratic country defined by a constitution never saw light and added fresh mayhem throughout the region.
For Washington, as for others, the priority was to defeat Daesh, to which Barzani’s fighters contributed in Mosul and its vicinity. Truth be told, Kurdish authorities correctly read Baghdad’s policies vis-a-vis Daesh, which is why they opted to hold a referendum that could place their nation on the path to independence. Indeed, and since 2003, Kurds demonstrated that their future could only be guaranteed in a democratic, secular, federal system, which would protect core interests, ensure prosperity within their autonomous region, allow for concrete power-sharing, maintain a safe distance from Iranian hegemony, and safeguard against yet another dictator. That was a tall order and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who mimicked the Saddam Hussain regime in exceptional ways, systematically undermined Kurdish and Sunni positions precisely to return all power to a central government closely allied with Tehran.
In time, historians will evaluate whether Al Maliki violated the Iraqi constitution, trampled over the principles of compromise so necessary in a society torn by sectarian divisions, and whether his power-sharing mechanism — with the ceremonial presidency entrusted to a Kurd — was little more than a gimmick. His refusal to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga, whose fighting capabilities were legendary and who made a real difference in the Battles for Mosul, cutting the Kurdistan Regional Government budget, and challenging every step that Barzani took to secure oil and gas contracts with international companies operating in his region (according to the Iraqi Constitution), sealed his fate.
Of course, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi continued along his predecessor’s paths, which confirmed that Iraqi democracy in 2017 is nothing but a pretext for Persian domination with no partnership for Kurds, Sunnis, Christians and other minorities. What Al Abadi and the mullahs in Tehran want is subservience under the pretence that their opposition to Daesh prevents religious wars and de facto partition of Iraq and Syria.
The centuries-old sectarian bogeyman returned with a vengeance to the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Shiite revolution though Kurds were determined to protect their interests and not fall, once again, into the post-First World War pledges that never materialised. Today, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and others are all on the thresholds of new transformations, challenged by ineffective leaders who cannot possibly prevent sectarianism from triumphing because all espouse short-term gains over long-term stability. This is the brink where Kurds are at, poised to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, precisely to avoid another century of subservience.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of The Attempt to Uproot Sunni Arab Influence: A Geo-Strategic Analysis of the Western, Israeli and Iranian Quest for Domination (Sussex: 2017).