The leader of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, has announced the appropriate conditions for Iraqi Kurds to hold an independence referendum. Although the leader stressed that even if the results of referendum happened to be positive, it would not imply the immediate proclamation of independence of the region. The reaction of Baghdad and the capitals of a number of other interested states to this statement was wary if not antagonistic.
As is known, the Iraqi Kurds have managed to acquire more rights and freedoms than Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iran or Syria and can hardly complain of any discrimination on the part of the titular nation (the Arabs). Iraqi Kurdistan is a constituent entity of the new Iraqi state with broad rights and authorities. Not only do the Iraqi Kurds independently administer their region, but they are also fairly represented in the central government (by the post of the president, federal ministers, own faction in the parliament, etc.). But why then are the regional authorities so compelled to put such a sensitive issue on the agenda right now, amidst the complicated military and political situation in the country?
As is known, the Iraqi Kurds found themselves on the forefront of the struggle against ISIS militants. Unfortunately, the Iraqi army that was hastily gathered with the assistance of the US after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein turned out to be unfit for service and could not protect the areas adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan, inhabited by ethnic Kurds. As a result, scores of Kurds were killed, and thousands captured. Kurds-Yazidis suffered the greatest loses. After Islamist militants seized the strategically important northern city of Mosul, the town of Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan were under the threat of militant invasion as well. But Kurdish Peshmerga forces with support of US air forces halted the further advance of ISIS militants in the north of Iraq and even managed to push jihadists tens of kilometers back. The overall situation on the frontlines of the struggle against ISIS has somewhat stabilized, though it would be still premature to talk about a victory over the Islamists.
The Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, understand clearer than ever, that they cannot rely on the help and support of the central government. ISIS groups almost completely isolated the southern and central regions of Iraq from the northern parts of the country. Shiite Arabs from the so-called Shiite police are the main force of the newly formed Iraqi army, trained and advised by Iranian military instructors and counselors. These units are not yet ready to launch large military operations to liberate the Sunni provinces of Iraq where the ISIS militants declared the Islamic Caliphate. So far, they have only made timid attempts to invade the areas christened “the disputed areas” of the country (where the ethnic Kurds reside) and take control over these territories. Armed clashes have already been recorded between troops of Shiite police and Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen.
Besides, the central Iraqi government has been long sabotaging (in one way or another) the implementation of provisions of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution prescribing a peaceful resolution of situations with “the disputed areas.” They also refrain (using various excuses) from passing a new law on hydrocarbons and are being consistently late with the transfer of budget funds allocated for the development of the Kurdish region, sometimes they transfer insufficient funds and ignore the needs of Kurdish Peshmerga, etc.
Contrary to the opinion spread among Kurds, Baghdad authorities, essentially, provoked the Shiite-Sunni civil war. If in the first years after the fall of regime of Saddam Hussein an illusion of a coalition government (that included Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds) was maintained (not without intermediary efforts of the Kurds and personally Masoud Barzani), once the US troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, the so-called anti-Baath campaign, unleashed by Shiite Arab majority headed by PM Nouri al-Maliki, gained momentum and was carried to the point of absurdity. Having eliminated the closest associates of Saddam Hussein as well as top state, defense and law enforcement officials of that time, Shiite authorities set about the task of mass cleansings and repressions of the mid- and low-ranking officials. Hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members of Baath: ordinary military personnel, policemen, state employees, etc., were subjected to legal and extrajudicial prosecution. Even those who were willing to collaborate with the new authorities like the Vice President of Iraq and reputable Sunni Tariq al-Hashimi and others like him had to flee from the country. Many Sunni Arabs went into hiding. They created military and political groups or resistances squads.
It is at that time that the process of convergence of former Baath members and military personnel of Saddam’s army with Al Qaeda and later with ISIS that grew out of it began.
In response to armed sorties and acts of terrorism carried out by Sunni militants Shia “death squads,” which engaged the same brutal terrorist methods (blowing up Sunni mosques, public places, etc.), emerged. The waves of violence sweeping across Iraq year after year triggered an open rebellion in the summer of 2014. Eight Sunni provinces, whose population backed the incursion of ISIS militants into Iraq, revolted. Sunni Arabs perceived radical Islamists as a force able to protect them from the hostile Baghdad’s Shiite authorities. By that time, the Kurdish minority had lost its power to influence the decisions of the central Shiite government and could not continue with its role of a mediator in conflicts between Shia and Sunni. The situation in the country was deteriorating due to the worsening corruption of the central government, while the population of one of the richest countries in the world continued to live in poverty: it lacked adequate housing, there were not enough schools and hospitals, supply of electricity and water was unsteady, and thousands of civilians died from acts of terrorism every year. Billions of US dollars of financial aid went to the procurement of new heavy armaments, significant part of which later wound up in the hands of ISIS militants.
These developments compel the authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan to distance themselves ever more from the faulty policy of the ruling Baghdad’s Shiite establishment. Erbil has made an unnerving conclusion that not only is it impracticable for the Kurdistan region to remain a part of the de facto collapsed state, but outright dangerous. Today attempts are being made to not only drag Kurds into the struggle against ISIS in ground campaigns, but also involve them in the massive Shia-Sunni slaughter. Besides, the Kurds have no guarantees that after expelling ISIS militants with the help of the air forces of the western coalition and armed forces of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and after the central government suppresses the Sunni rebellion, it (the government) would not launch a massive “law and order restoration” campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, as happened during the reign of Saddam Hussein.
The reaction of the external players to the forthcoming referendum was far from unexpected. By now, only Israel explicitly supported Barzani’s announcement. At present, Turkey is on the fence, but it looks like the convergence of Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus leaves Ankara no choice, but to also support the referendum. The same can be said about Washington’s disposition. Iran, which hopes to remain the key partner of Iraq and exploit its territory to further expand its influence in the Arab East, is in complete opposition to the idea of independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran openly shows its concerns over a possible upsurge of separatist and autonomist sentiments in the ranks of its Kurds encouraged by the success of their Iraqi brethren. Besides, Iranian leadership believes that having separated from Iraq, Kurdistan might play the role of a buffer state acting in tandem with the US and Israel’s strategic interests in the region. Most Arab countries oppose the idea of independence of the Kurdish region of Iraq, believing the entire territory of this state belongs to the Arab ummah (community).
Surprisingly, opinions are split in Iraqi Kurdistan. While the principle regional party Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) headed by Mr. Barzani fully embraces the idea of referendum, there is no unanimity of opinions in the opposition parties based in the province of Sulaymaniyah (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran party). Some of the functionaries from these parties are closely affiliated with Baghdad’s Shia bloc; the others are supported by Iran.
However, if Mr. Barzani manages to earn the support of the regional parliament and hold the referendum, then the chances that the vast majority of ordinary citizens of the region would vote in favor of independence of Iraqi Kurdistan are rather high. Results of this referendum are quite predictable since any Kurd cherishes the idea of embodiment of the centuries-long dream of restoring historical justice and gaining independence and sovereignty.
Stanislav Ivanov, leading research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies RAS, PhD in History, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“