Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Chasing Kurdistan’s dream

Barzani may win his referendum to take Kurdistan out of Iraq, but will he be able to spare it the mayhem that may follow, asks Salah Nasrawi

 

Chasing Kurdistan’s dream
Chasing Kurdistan’s dream

For months President of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani has been insisting that he will go ahead with plans to hold a referendum for the self-ruled enclave to leave Iraq in the face of mounting opposition from inside and outside the wider region.

Many have thought that the veteran Kurdish leader was bragging and grandstanding, predicting that Barzani would not follow through on his promises and would eventually back down and seek a compromise with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

However, Barzani has dug in his heels by dismissing Baghdad’s opposition and shrugging off rising anxiety in the region about the Kurdish state he plans to declare after the independence referendum slated for 25 September.

Indeed, Barzani has shown remarkable defiance during the campaign in urging the Kurds to vote yes by promoting a clear message: our partnership with Iraq is dead and buried and it is time to make the Kurdish dream of independence come true.

On 15 September, Barzani summoned the autonomous Kurdistan Region’s parliament to approve his plan for a referendum on independence. The 111-member assembly has not met for more than two years after a row over Barzani’s clinging onto power after his term in office expired in 2015. 

The parliament reconvened hours after Barzani met with senior diplomats from the United States and Western allies who pressed him to ditch what they saw as a “very risky” poll. They also presented him with an alternative plan in an attempt to avoid a conflict between the KRG and the central government.

Whereas the vote was celebrated by Barzani’s supporters in the region, it has underscored a sharp division within Kurdistan’s political factions and the region’s rank and file. Many believe the referendum move is ill-advised or premature and fear that it is self-serving and designed to help Barzani consolidate power.

Exasperated by Barzani’s intransigence, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has warned that he is prepared to intervene militarily if the planned independence referendum results in violence.

But most importantly, the vote has angered the United States and other Western allies who fear it could spark fresh conflict while they are still engaged with Iraqi forces in fighting the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Hours after the decision, the White House publicly called on the KRG for the first time to cancel the referendum, warning that the vote was “distracting from efforts to defeat IS and stabilise the liberated areas.”

The British foreign office also opposed the holding of a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan that it said “may increase instability in the region at a time when the main attention should be paid to the victory over IS.”

The United States, Britain and the United Nations have also moved to propose a new format for negotiations between the government of Kurdistan and of Iraq as a whole in a bid to avoid conflict between the region and the central government in Baghdad.

Kurdistan’s powerful neighbours, however, have been more bellicose.

Turkey has warned the KRG that “there will most certainly be a price to pay” for its insistence on holding the referendum. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the referendum was “an issue of national security” and that Turkey would take the “necessary steps” to block it.

Turkey’s National Security Council and cabinet are to convene on 22 September to discuss Ankara’s next move, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and chief of staff Hulusi Akar will travel to Tehran for talks with Iranian officials on the escalation.

Iran, meanwhile, has remained vehemently opposed to the poll, with top Iranian politicians and military commanders warning that the consequences of the Iraqi Kurdistan plan would be dire for Iraq and the broader region.

Last week, Tehran dispatched the powerful head of the Al-Quds Force, Iran’s foreign legion, Qassem Suleimani, to Iraqi Kurdistan to press Kurdish leaders to defer the controversial referendum.

On Friday, Iranian National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani threatened that Iran would close its borders with northern Iran after the poll is held, cutting Kurdistan off from one of its main trade routes.

With almost all Kurdistan’s allies and neighbours against the referendum poll, attention has shifted to Kurdistan itself and Barzani’s next move in what is increasingly becoming a toxic game.

What can be expected next remains a mystery.

There are two possible scenarios. One possibility that could emerge is that Barzani will accept a proposal made by the United Nations to drop plans for the secession referendum and enter into talks with Baghdad.

Under a plan suggested by Jan Kubis, the top UN envoy in Iraq, the world body will sponsor “structured, sustained, intensive and results-oriented partnership negotiations on how to resolve all outstanding issues” between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kubis has proposed UN backing for immediate negotiations between the country’s federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region that would aim at reaching a deal within three years.

If Barzani gives the green light to the UN plan he will facilitate efforts to break the deadlock and allow the KRG to engage in negotiations with Baghdad.

He could also ease the euphoria among his domestic audience by convincing them that the campaign has achieved its goals by putting Kurdistan’s independence on the international agenda and even created new dynamics that the Kurds could use in future to bolster their push for statehood.

He then could argue that he has saved Kurdistan from the hardships it could suffer if Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran decide to punish the region with economic and other sanctions for its defiance.

In the second scenario, Barzani would stick to his guns and refuse to postpone the referendum, continuing with his bid to declare the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq an independent state.

In this case, when taken together with a weak yes vote in the referendum expected as a result of a widespread boycott, the poll would inflame the already volatile situation between Erbil and the central government in Baghdad.

The KRG would also risk losing the international support it has received and anger Iran and Turkey who have never hidden their intention to block Kurdistan’s independence.

Many Kurds in Iraq consider the poll to be a step towards achieving their long-held dream of statehood. But as the opposition to Kurdistan’s independence mounts, their hopes for a swift and amicable divorce from Iraq may be dashing.

As a result, it is time for Barzani and other Kurdish leaders to cause their people to admit the truth about the risks and challenges that lie ahead, because they know that dreams are buried under the lies and false narratives they have been telling themselves in order to feel satisfied when they are ready to give up.

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