Less than a month remains before the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, the pace of preparation being intensified at a literally accelerated pace as the fateful date for all Kurds approaches. It is common knowledge that the referendum will include the entire region of Kurdistan as well as the areas disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, such as Kirkuk. The commission has chosen an electronic voting process because it was concerned that some foreign governments might not allow the opening of polling stations in their countries where Kurds live. The Independent High Electoral Commission has called upon the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan living abroad to register their names on their website, beginning on September 1, to ensure a smooth voting process at the forthcoming referendum.
However, people who doubt the legitimacy of the referendum are also concurrently voicing their opinions. For example, Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament and representative of the Gorran Party, Yusuf Mohammed, stated that the Kurdistan independence referendum scheduled for September 25 will not have any “legitimacy” unless it is confirmed by a decision of the parliament, whose work has been suspended since the fall of 2015 due to the sharp political differences between the Gorran Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). He also believes that the issue of the referendum and the ultimately proclamation of an independent state of Kurdistan is a “national matter” that must unite all parties rather than cause “discord and enmity” among them.
By the way, the Kurds have been waiting for their freedom and independence for many centuries, constantly picking up arms to defend their rights. It would seem that a favorable opportunity for that very process began to dawn after the end of the First World War in 1920, when the Sevres Treaty was concluded between the European winners and the former Ottoman Empire, according to which Kurdistan was separated from Turkey. An Anglo-French-Italian commission was appointed to determine its boundaries, after which it was planned that the Council of the League of Nations should determine whether the population of that region was “capable of independence”, and Kurdistan would be granted “autonomy” depending on the answer to this question (Art. 62-64). But since the “high priests” were the colonial powers, they divided the Kurdish lands between the newly-created Iraq (the British mandate), Syria (the French mandate), while the third part remained within Turkey, and the fourth in Persia.
In the case of Iraqi Kurdistan (with its capital Erbil), the region effectively detached itself in the days of Saddam’s regime. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds, led by the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Masoud Barzani, turned out to be the most organized force in the ensuing chaos. First, they were able to create real state structures, including a functioning democratic electoral system, a local government and the Peshmerga army. Secondly, they repelled all the attacks of DAESH, and took control of the oil-bearing areas near Kirkuk, thus laying a solid foundation for their economy. Most importantly, in the new Constitution of Iraq, which proclaimed the federal structure of the country, Kurdistan was granted broad autonomy, the right to withdraw from the federation, and even a mechanism for that process was prescribed. The Iraqi Kurds have now decided to exercise their legitimate right and hold a referendum with positive results that are known.
In connection with the recent events, Barzani cited as an example the many sufferings of his people that have occurred under the Iraqi Government over the past decades, in particular Operation Anfal, in which thousands of Kurds were killed using chemical weapons. After the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds believed in the new government and took a direct part in the formation of the new political system. However, since then, Shiite-dominated Baghdad has violated a number of articles of the constitution and removed both Sunni and Kurdish authorities from power. Thus, in the view of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, the government of the country itself pushed the Kurds to a referendum on independence.
However, the referendum is not as simple as it seems at first glance. The international community is rather cautious when it comes to the Kurdish issue, and many politicians are skeptical about both the possibility of holding a referendum and the creation of a new independent state. Of course, much will depend on the United States, which, in the early 1990s, established the so-called no-fly zone over the Kurdish region of Iraq, which was the beginning of the independent development of the Kurds.
At present, however, the Trump administration, as with many other international issues, is hesitant, and does not have a clear position on the Iraqi Kurds. On the one hand, Washington must take into account the interests of Israel, which is very anxious to weaken Iraq in every possible way, and has long-established friendly relations with Erbil. On the other hand are the interests of Turkey, a member of NATO, which is anxious to do everything possible to prevent the Kurds from establishing their own independent state. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, Washington continues actively arming the Iraqi Kurds by encouraging their military independence from Baghdad, and with the willingness of international banks to lend Iraqi Kurdistan money, the region could gain full financial sovereignty.
Not knowing how to proceed on this issue, and having no clearly-established guidelines, Washington has always been making some kind of vague statements. For example, the U.S. State Department said it was concerned that the referendum would be a distraction from “more urgent priorities” such as the defeat of the DAESH terrorists. In a telephone conversation with Masoud Barzani, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington “wants the referendum to be postponed, and that issues between the Kurdistan region and the federal government in Baghdad should be resolved through dialogue.”
The current events are quite in line with the theory of “managed chaos” that the United States is implementing, in particular, its plan to remap the Middle East while simultaneously pursuing several other objectives, such as clamping down on the obstinate Erdogan, partitioning Syria, “putting” Iran “into place”, etc. In this regard, the visit of the American delegation to Erbil in mid-August attracted much attention. The members of the delegation included Commander of the United States Central Command General Joseph Votel, Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, the United States Ambassador to Baghdad and several other high-ranking individuals. While receiving the delegation, the Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, stressed that Washington’s references to the “untimely” nature of the referendum in connection with the priority need to combat DAESH were untenable, since Kurdistan had already demonstrated to the international community its commitment to continue the war against terrorism. The Kurdish leader also noted that the problems that initially led to the increase in terrorism in Iraq remain unresolved, and warned of the possible emergence of other terrorist groups similar to DAESH. At the same time, Barzani assured the United States delegation that the vote would not affect the war against terrorism, and that Kurdistan shall remain a loyal ally of the United States in this fight. According to the representative of the Ministry of Peshmerga, negotiations are underway to increase the number of United States military advisers and specialists in Kurdistan and to expand their scope of activities.
Turkey is very strongly opposed to the referendum, which is understandable, given its Kurdish population, also seeking independence. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that the Kurdistan region has the right to seek the observance of its rights by the central government in Baghdad, and that Ankara supports ongoing negotiations between these parties. He however noted that Ankara expresses its concern on the plans of Erbil, believing that this could not benefit either Iraq or Kurdistan. The Turkish official also said that his country is ready to act as an intermediary between Erbil and Baghdad to resolve their protracted disputes. “However, we believe that Baghdad should hear Erbil,” he added.
Everyone understands that the de facto subdivision of Iraq into three zones (Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni) that occurred after the occupation of the country in 2003 by troops of the US and its allies is one thing. It is quite another when the splitting of Iraq through such a procedure as a referendum begins to set a precedent not only for Syria, but also for Turkey and Iran, where the Kurds also live. As a result, the task of carrying out the operation for the reconstruction of Iraq (if it appears on the geopolitical agenda for the Middle East of the major external players) requires fulfilling certain conditions under which Iraq, not Syria, shall be the most central country around which everything would start revolving.
The fact that the referendum is scheduled to take place in the so-called “disputed territories”, including the oil-rich Kirkuk formally under the control of the central government, adds to the urgency of the situation. It may therefore happen that the declared “common” victory over DAESH will lead to a direct military conflict between Baghdad and Erbil, more precisely, between the Shiites and the Kurds, and a new aggravation of the relations between Shiites and Sunnis would ensue. This would bring the problem of the disputed territories in Iraq to the level of international litigation, followed by a “chain geopolitical reaction”.
It is obvious that the Middle East needs stability, and many experts rightly believe that without resolving the Kurdish question, it is virtually impossible to talk of the stability of the region. It is a generally understood fact that it is precisely because of their lack of statehood that the Kurds have been subjected to one genocide after another. Therefore, hopes should be laid on the possibility that the future Kurdish state will never allow this to happen again against the Kurdish people.
Victor Mikhin, a corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”