Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

After Kurdistan vote

Iraqi Kurdistan has voted to break away from the rest of the country, threatening growing animosity with Baghdad and years of costly regional uncertainty, writes Salah Nasrawi


Kurds celebrating their victory

Answering a call from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s strongman Masoud Barzani, Kurds turned out in huge numbers on Monday to vote in a referendum to leave Iraq with implications that could shape not only the future of Iraq but also the entire Middle East.

Turkmen and Arab neighbourhoods in Kirkuk, show the boycotting on the referendum

Since June when Barzani announced plans for the vote in September, the independence-hungry Kurdish nationalist leader has sought to convince Kurds in the northern autonomous enclave that their partnership with Iraq is over.

Barzani resisted pressures to scrap the vote and escalated the independence rhetoric in the face of appeals by Iraqi, regional and world leaders to give his decision to hold a referendum on secession from Iraq a second thought.

Hours before the ballot, Barzani told a public gathering in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region that the people of Kurdistan must choose between “a life of subordination or one of freedom in an independent Kurdistan.”

Throughout his independence campaign, Barzani promised the Kurds that the aspired state of Kurdistan would be “democratic, federal and pluralistic,” embracing his political rivals and inhabitants of the region other than the Kurds.

The Iraqi government, backed by the United Nations, Western powers and regional heavyweights, blasted the poll as unconstitutional and threatened that it would take all necessary steps to foil the move towards independence.

Both Turkey and Iran, Iraq’s powerful neighbours, worry that the independence vote by the Iraqi Kurds will stir unrest among their own Kurdish minorities, and they have indicated schemes to torpedo the planned independence.

The White House has also called the vote “provocative and destabilising.” Brett H McGurk, the United States envoy to the region, has described it as “a very risky process” that has “no prospect for international legitimacy.”

The United Nations Security Council has expressed concern over the “potentially destabilising impact” of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) plans to unilaterally hold the referendum.

Several proposals to abandon the plebiscite and consider talks with Baghdad to find solutions to the standoff  were turned down by Barzani. The UN also offered to sponsor “structured, sustained, intensive and results-oriented partnership negotiations between Baghdad and Kurdistan.”

However, Barzani refused to back down and has said that after the referendum Iraq will become “a neighbour” of the Kurdistan Region. He said Kurdistan would invite the Iraqi leaders for talks on their future relations with the independent state of Kurdistan.

What happens now that the Kurds have voted to leave Iraq?

The road ahead is unclear, but the consequences are certainly dire. Fears are also mounting that Monday’s vote could trigger an ethnic bloodbath in Iraq and across the region.

It is not clear how things will evolve immediately after the vote. But here are some of the things we might expect over the coming weeks and months.

Iraq has said that the poll is non-binding, and it has vowed to use all measures at its disposal to block Kurdistan’s independence. Baghdad has even threatened to intervene militarily if the vote leads to violence.

Hours before the region was set to carry out the controversial referendum, Iraq’s central government started imposing sanctions aimed at cutting Kurdistan off from the outside world and suffocating its fragile economy.

Baghdad ordered the KRG to hand over all border crossings and airports to federal government control. It also warned foreign countries and companies to deal with the Iraqi federal government alone with regard to oil exports.

The Iraqi parliament ordered the government to take punitive measures and to deploy security forces in Kirkuk and other areas seized by Kurdish forces in 2015 following military advances by the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Neighbouring Turkey and Iran threatened to take political, economic and security measures to force Kurdistan to rescind the referendum. Both countries decided to work closely with the Baghdad central government to tighten the noose around the KRG. 

Iran said it was closing its airspace to flights from the KRG following a request from Baghdad. Turkey shut its Habur crossing to all travellers coming from northern Iraq. The two countries are Kurdistan’s only outlets to the outside world.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to both close the border and cut off the KRG’s oil exports, warning that Turkey is “prepared to act militarily” if the vote threatens its security.

There are already some signs of military action.

Ahead of the planned poll, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launched military drills codenamed “Muharram” in north-eastern west Azerbaijan province bordering Iraqi Kurdistan. The drills featured armoured units, artillery pieces and aircraft.

On Tuesday, Turkey and Iraq launched a joint military exercise on the Turkish-Iraqi border. The Turkish general staff said Iraqi units would join Turkish military exercises starting earlier this week in the Habur border area, known as the Ibrahim Khalil crossing, on the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Turkey has renewed a bill allowing its military to intervene in Iraq and Syria if faced with national security threats, a move seen as an indication of a possible Turkish military operation in northern Iraq.

The United Nations, the United States and other Western nations have also voiced their strong opposition to the referendum and their support for Iraq’s unity.

Even within Kurdistan itself, the turnout in the referendum has shown that not all Kurds are on board with Barzani. It was reportedly low in Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk, which are controlled by Barzani’s rivals.

Political foes of Barzani said they had cast their votes to avoid demonstrating national divisions, but they still think Barzani should negotiate Kurdish statehood with Baghdad.

Many have expressed concerns that the KRG leadership is corrupt and dysfunctional, and that it has not yet built the democratic system necessary for statehood. Others consider the poll to be a manoeuvre by Barzani to distract attention from criticism of his heavy-handed rule and clinging to power.

The referendum was boycotted by Arabs, Turkmen and Christians in Kirkuk and other areas annexed by the Kurdistan Region. Activists and human rights groups reported massive crackdowns by KRG security forces on members of non-Kurdish ethnicities who did not turn out at the polling stations.

Barzani, meanwhile, has remained defiant even with Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran mulling more retaliatory measures. His main objective for now is to withstand the pressure and to try to soak up the opposition.

“The international community will eventually accept [the results of the referendum] as a de facto [status] for Kurdistan,” Barzani told a press conference on the eve of the poll.

As for fears of the consequences of the ballot on Kurdistan’s population, Barzani said that “the people have made their decision and they should bear the consequences.”

Yet, behind the referendum’s success all eyes will remain focused on Barzani’s next step. Many believe he will not be reckless enough to declare immediate independence and will be satisfied with the symbolic victory of the poll.

They think Barzani will try to resolve differences peacefully with the central government in Baghdad. He will also try to convince Kurdistan’s neighbours that his dream of Kurdistan’s independence will not turn into the region’s nightmare.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of unease about Kurdistan’s future and Barzani’s ability to keep the KRG on the right path and that the result of the plebiscite will not threaten the region’s security and stability.

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