Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Kurdistan exit plans on the rocks

There is mounting opposition to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s plans to hold a referendum on the region’s independence, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani may have felt things were going well. He has been polishing up his plans to show the Kurds that they can be better off and escape the Iraqi quagmire by choosing independence in a referendum he has been pushing to be held for years.

In recent weeks Barzani has been pressing ahead with plans to form a breakaway state from Iraq before the end of 2016 and has been looking to foreign governments, the United States, the EU and the international oil markets to raise the political pressure on Baghdad.

However, the strategy does not seem to be working. While Barzani has called for a referendum, no timetable has been set for the proposed vote.

Barzani’s most immediate challenge came on 26 January when he told representatives of the Kurdish political parties that a referendum on Kurdish independence should take place before the US presidential elections in November.

A week later Barzani appealed to the people of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq to push the political parties into starting the secession process.

“The time has come and the situation is now suitable for the Kurdish people to make a decision through a referendum on their fate,” Barzani said in a statement on his Website.

Barzani has also taken his campaign for sovereignty abroad. In January, he sent a delegation to Washington to lobby the administration and Congress for support for his plans to break away from Iraq.

He also outlined his desire to seek independence to diplomats representing 36 countries in Erbil, adding that this may come if a referendum on independence is held. While attending the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, Barzani also attempted to solicit world support for his independence plan.

The Kurdistan referendum is not just recent political history for Barzani. Instead, it represents a user’s guide to Barzani’s fighting his final battle for leaving Iraq.

The only questions now are whether Barzani will play his cards right and whether he will be able successfully to make the case for the Kurds to break away completely from Iraq.

Barzani’s preferred method is a hybrid strategy with a blend of hard and soft power. A combination of tactics, some military and some non-military, has been put together to create a new reality on the ground, confuse and wear down the Baghdad government, boost Kurdish nationalism and create international support.

Following Islamic State (IS) group advances in the summer of 2014, Kurdish Peshmergas forces overran Iraqi army positions in northern Iraq, capturing large swathes of territory, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and declaring them to be part of the Kurdish self-ruled Region.

Since then Barzani has repeatedly said that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will not return what Kurdish officials used to call the “disputed territories” but are now terming “liberated areas” to Iraqi sovereignty.

In December, Barzani said a new agreement was required on the administration of the “liberated areas” after retaking the city of Mosul from IS and trying to use the Peshmergas’ presence in the territories to create a new reality on the ground.

Economically, Iraq’s Kurds have sought to maximise their autonomy in recent years, building their own pipelines to Turkey and exporting oil and gas independently of the rest of the country.

For years, Kurdistan has been bypassing Baghdad and exporting oil directly to the international market through an independent pipeline via Turkey.

The region is believed to be selling more than 600,000 barrels per day (bpd), with most of it going to Israel at discount prices.

The KRG also plans to start exporting 10 billion cubic metres a year of natural gas to Turkey by 2019-2020 and to double that by the early 2020s.

Gas and oil exports will allow the self-governed region to generate much-needed revenue and will bring it closer to economic independence.

Another instrument Barzani is using to justify his intention to leave Iraq is highlighting the failure of the Baghdad government to provide the region with its allocations from the state budget, which it blames for its cash crisis.

For months, the KRG has not been paying salaries to public employees, claiming that this is the result of budget cuts by Baghdad. However, the Baghdad government says that the Kurds’ direct oil exports violate the constitution, and it has promised to resume full payment if Kurdistan hands over its oil revenues to the central government.

Barzani’s resolve to break with Iraq has recently been met with fierce opposition from the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has urged the KRG not to go ahead with the proposed referendum on independence, saying it would be neither in its own interest nor in that of Iraq.

“Kurdistan is part of Iraq, and I hope it remains that way,” Al-Abadi said. “Disintegration is in no-one’s interest,” he added.

Other Shia politicians have refused to allow a referendum to take place in Kurdistan, arguing it would contravene Iraq’s constitution.

It goes without saying that regional powers, especially Syria, Turkey and Iran, which have large Kurdish minorities of their own, are opposed to Kurdish aspirations for independence and have consistently called for Iraq to remain united.

The three countries fear that an independent Kurdish state could embolden their own secessionist movements and encourage them to seek independence.

On the international level, though the world powers have been helping to bolster Kurdistan’s effort to fight IS, they have also been keen to avoid kindling the Kurds’ aspirations to secede from Iraq.

The US has repeatedly expressed its support for Iraq’s unity. Though the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the driving force behind the Kurds’ empowerment and the escalation of their push for independence, Washington has been notably reluctant to give its blessing to a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

During his meetings with European leaders in Munich, Barzani must have been surprised to hear blunt opposition to his moves. 

German chancellor Angela Merkel, her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni expressed “serious concerns” over the planned Kurdish independence referendum.

Even in Kurdistan most of the region’s political parties have showed a reluctance to join Barzani’s separation drive.

Though no national survey has been conducted to show the intentions of Kurdish voters were a poll on leaving Iraq to be held, the issue does not seem to be a priority for most Iraqi Kurds.

Many believe that Barzani is drumming up the referendum issue in a bid to divert attention from the Kurdistan government crisis after he refused to step down when his term in office came to an end in summer last year.

Some have also complained that Barzani has been unilaterally making plans without trying to open a national debate or even a discussion on such an important issue.

Amid rising opposition to the referendum plans at home and abroad, Barzani has tried to dilute concerns among opponents and sceptics by suggesting that the “referendum does not mean proclaiming statehood, but rather knowing the will of the Kurdish people on independence.”

“Holding a referendum and implementing the outcome of that referendum are two different things,” he said in a statement.

Statehood has been a Kurdish goal for generations, but it is far from certain that Barzani can convince doubters at home about his real intentions or whether recent events are playing out to the Iraqi Kurds’ advantage.

Many in Kurdistan want Barzani to stop his forward march and to provide more definitive answers on the current political crisis and economic crunch that are threatening the region, not least the row over his tenure as president and the KRG’s inability to pay civil servants’ salaries.

As for the regional and international objections, it seems it will be even harder for Barzani to persuade neighbouring Iran and Turkey and other stakeholders to soften the external pressures.


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