Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tightening the noose on Kurdistan

As the government of Iraq seeks to block the bid for independence by Iraqi Kurdistan, the escalating sparring is leading to an unpredictable and chaotic crisis, writes Salah Nasrawi


Tightening  the noose  on Kurdistan
Tightening the noose on Kurdistan

Adopting tougher measures against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) after its unilateral independence referendum last week, Iraq’s central government in Baghdad has imposed punitive measures on the KRG, including a ban on borders, international flights and oil exports.

Iraq’s neighbours Iran and Turkey have also showed the red card to the KRG’s leadership and signalled their readiness to join Baghdad’s sanctions against the rebellious Kurdish enclave if it does not rescind the outcome of the referendum.

The moves are apparently aimed at showing the autonomous region, a landlocked area surrounded by hostile powers, the hard truth about secession from Iraq, forcing it to abandon its break-away plans.

Iraq’s Supreme Court has ruled that the referendum was illegal and unconstitutional and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has threatened to take “all necessary steps” to restore Baghdad’s authority, including by sending in troops and seizing oil fields in the region.

Baghdad has already blocked international flights to and from northern Iraqi airports after the KRG remained defiant on the non-binding 25 September independence referendum.

Almost all foreign airlines suspended flights to the airports of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah in compliance with the Iraqi civil aviation law that gives the central government in Baghdad the right to control the country’s airspace.

Kurdish airports handle flights to and from some two dozen regional and international airlines, and the ban will force travellers to use Baghdad’s airports for transit.

Effectively, the decision will end the region’s direct access to the outside world, something it has enjoyed since the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. 

A prolonged flight ban also has the potential to further restrict the Kurdish Region’s already struggling economy, as the Baghdad government plans to control border crossings with neighbouring countries through which passes the vast majority of the region’s trade.

The KRG’s vote for secession has also angered Iraq’s neighbours, who fear the referendum could lead to the country’s break-up and to renewed conflict in the region.

Both Iran and Turkey, which face separatist insurgencies from their own Kurdish minorities, have vowed to stand by Iraq following the region’s vote for independence.

Ankara and Tehran have shown unwavering support for Baghdad and promised to coordinate political, economic and security efforts with Baghdad in the sanctions against the KRG capital Irbil.

Iran has banned the transportation of refined crude oil products by Iranian companies to and from the Kurdistan Region and closed its borders with it. Turkish leaders also reacted angrily to the KRG’s decision to hold the independence referendum and threatened retaliatory actions against it.

Ankara has threatened potentially crippling restrictions on the oil trade with the Iraqi Kurds after they backed independence from Baghdad. Most of this oil flows through a pipeline from Iraq to Turkey, and a cut-off would severely damage the KRG, which relies heavily on sales of crude oil for its revenues.

The ban on international flights has also shown that the KRG’s push for independence has come at a price, and further sanctions could be crippling to the fragile KRG economy, which largely depends on its share of the central Iraqi budget and oil exports.

The Iraqi Central Bank has banned all transactions with the region, virtually stripping it of the foreign currency its commercial banks used to receive through daily auctions of US dollars.

The central government has said it will control revenues from the sale of oil from the Kurdistan Region in order to ensure that oil revenues do not go to “corrupt [Kurdish] officials.”

The latter say they can withstand an economic blockade because they are self-sufficient in terms of power generation and fuel supplies and they also have ample agricultural land. They add that the Kurds, who consider the referendum as a historic step towards fulfilling their long-held dream of statehood, can endure the sanctions.

However, more punitive measures seem to be in the pipeline. Iraq’s Defence Ministry said on Friday that it plans to take control of the borders of the Kurdistan Region in coordination with Iran and Turkey.

Iraqi officials said Iraqi central government officials had already moved through Turkey onto the Turkish side of one of the Kurdish Region’s international border crossings.

So far, oil exports from Kurdistan are continuing through Turkey, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that the people of the Kurdistan Region “will starve” when Turkey blocks its trucks from crossing the border.

Al-Abadi said the flight ban and other measures, including the control of border crossings and control on oil revenues, were not intended to “starve, besiege and block supplies” to Kurds in the region.

While the penalties are expected to make daily life in the region challenging, it remains to be seen how that will impact on any political track the Kurdish leadership intends to take with Baghdad.

On Sunday, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and his political allies decided to set up the “Political Leadership of Kurdistan – Iraq” to replace the Higher Referendum Council that had lobbied for the independence vote and declared its intention to talk to Baghdad.

Though the call for “dialogue” with Baghdad is seen as a conciliatory gesture, it can hardly be considered as a concession to the central government, which has insisted that the region rescind the results of the referendum first.

The dispute has been gathering steam as a result of Barzani’s refusal to annul the referendum and to hand over the region’s borders to the Iraqi federal government.

The consequences of the standoff are anybody’s guess. Iran and Turkey, which fear that the Kurdistan Region’s secession from Iraq could trigger the Balkanisation of the region, including of their own nations, have been issuing mounting threats against Kurdistan.

The two countries have started joint military manoeuvres with Iraq on the border with Kurdistan. Pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militia have also raised the stakes by threatening to reclaim territory seized by the KRG from Iraq during the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

But while an all-out war with catastrophic consequences on both Kurdistan and Baghdad seems farfetched, a political void would lead to a sustained standoff and be a possible trigger for military confrontation.

Responding to the unfolding crisis, the United Nations and the United States have offered to help solve the problems between the KRG and Baghdad, including by facilitating talks between the two sides.

However, a political approach to the crisis will remain a dead end as long as the KRG refuses suggestions to annul the referendum and Baghdad insists that the KRG drop its independence plans.

This will likely make stronger sanctions by Iraq, Iran and Turkey the only tool that these countries can use to check the Iraqi Kurds’ ambitions for independence, though the effectiveness of the proposed measures has yet to be seen.

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