Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Barzani’s dangerous move

Egypt was among many world countries that have expressed regret and deep concern over the independence referendum the government of the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq insisted on holding last week. The Foreign Ministry called upon all concerned parties to exercise restraint and avoid any unilateral decisions that could further complicate the situation and weaken international resolve in fighting terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda that pose a key threat for Iraq and other countries in the region. 

All of Iraq’s influential neighbours  — Turkey, Iran and Syria, the United States, that has been the key backer of Iraq’s Kurdish region since defeating former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council — have asked the president of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, Massoud Barzani, not to hold the referendum, and to negotiate instead with the central government of Baghdad on building a true confederation, according to the Iraqi constitution.

However, Barzani refused and the referendum took place, producing the expected result of a sweeping 93 per cent majority in favour of declaring Kurdistan an independent state in an extremely volatile region that’s already marred with several ethnic and religious wars.

There should be no question that Kurds, as an ethnic group, have legitimate demands and aspirations since scores of “modern” nation states were created by colonial powers, mainly Britain and France, 100 years ago. Kurds were intentionally denied their own nation-state, and the areas where they lived were divided among four countries whose borders were determined by Britain and France: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

However, it has already been 100 years, and many realities were created on the ground, making Barzani’s decision to hold the referendum a very risky and dangerous choice that could lead to more wars and bloodshed in the Middle East region. 

The central government in Baghdad, Turkey and Iran have already declared several retaliatory measures to confirm their opposition to the referendum, which they saw as a major threat to their national security and interests. Besieging Kurdistan, which is landlocked, will only lead to hardships and suffering for the people of that region.

The central government in Baghdad does not want to lose one-third of Iraq’s territory, especially in so-called disputed areas such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where several ethnicities exist along with the Kurds, such as the Arabs and Turkmen. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abbadi immediately announced that he would be shutting down Kurdistan’s two international airports and said that no oil revenues would be paid to the region by the central government.

The choice of independence is also a taboo for Turkey which has the largest Kurdish minority in the region and has been fighting for decades against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that led the call for creating an independent Kurdish state. Right after the results of the referendum were issued, Turkey’s president warned he might shut down the pipelines that transfer oil produced in the Kurdish region to the outside world through his country. Iraq and Turkey also announced they were to hold joint military manoeuvres along the border between the two countries, not far from the Kurdish region.

The same applies to Iran, although the Kurdish independence movement there has never been as strong and outspoken as the situation has been in Turkey and Iraq. The very close relationship — based, unfortunately, on sectarian grounds — between Tehran and Baghdad led Iran to announce, as well, retaliatory measures and shutting down its border with Kurdistan.

Furthermore, not all Kurds have agreed on the need to hold the referendum right now. Many observers agree that Barzani insisted on holding the referendum to strengthen his own domestic standing, considering that his term as president of the Kurdish region ended two years ago. 

Barzani made the wrong decision and he himself admitted that having a referendum calling for the independence of Kurdistan will not necessarily turn into a reality as soon as the results were out. Having an independent Kurdistan at this point will simply not happen, and the only way to avoid further tension and possible military escalation is — as Cairo and many other capitals stated — dialogue with the central government in Baghdad and maintaining Iraq’s current borders.

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