Despite the fact that the United Nations, LAS, the United States of America, Russia and the countries sharing borders with Turkey — Syria and Iran, as well as all the Arab States, not to mention the central government of Baghdad, have protested in advance, the parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan has approved the holding on September 25 of this year of a referendum on the independence of this region, which has the status of broad autonomy within the country, as legally enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution.
65 out of 68 deputies have spoken in favor of the plebiscite. The authorities of the autonomous region are thus unilaterally willing to carry out the decision to secede from Iraq, despite the strong negative position of Baghdad, which considers the vote on this issue illegal. Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, has not ruled out the possibility of a military intervention in the event that the planned referendum would lead to an escalation of violence, and has stressed that he will not refuse to enter into negotiations with Erbil. For Iraq, the withdrawal of IK from the Iraqi state could mean not only the further disintegration of the country by its spliting into Sunni and Shiite strongholds, but also the loss of part of the territories occupied by the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This primarily concerns the areas near Mosul and Kirkuk and the Kirkuk oil field, where up to 40% of all Iraqi oil is mined.
The independence of the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq could also lead to invasion by the Turkish armed forces, which have for many years been fighting with Kurdish armed groups within the country as represented by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria. The Turkish leader has already stated that Ankara will announce measures in response to the forthcoming referendum to be held on September 25. Moreover, citing references to high-ranking diplomatic sources, influential Turkish newspaperHaberturk reports the presidents of Turkey and France, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Emmanuel Macron respectively, are set to work out a joint initiative to respond to the prospects for holding a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the reports, President Erdoğan, who is currently attending the UN General Assembly in New York, intends to discuss the issue in detail with President Macron and propose a three-tiered plan of action. The specific details of the response measures (sanctions) to the vote by Ankara will be formulated on September 22 during a National Security Council of Turkey. In the meantime, as the first step, Erdoğan intends to invite Paris to draft a joint appeal to Erbil to not hold the referendum scheduled for September 25. Once IK agrees to this, Ankara and Paris will act as intermediaries between the Kurds and official Baghdad in the implementation of the constitutional rights of the population of IK, the disputed regions (e.g. Kirkuk) and prepare an appropriate road map, which will be the second item of this initiative. On the other hand, if Erbil refuses to cancel the vote, Turkey suggests that Paris impose a set of sanctions against IK. This would constitute the third phase of the initiative, given the responses of the two countries, as Ankara suggests, shall be similar or identical. Turkey not only views this initiative as bilateral, but is also ready to include in it any country that wishes to influence the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum situation.
In the meantime, Turkey has begun concentrating its troops, including artillery and armored vehicles, along its border with Iraq. Ankara is primarily concerned with the impact of the declaration of independence of IK on the situation in Southeast Anatolia, where over 20 million Turkish Kurds reside and where an already yearlong war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militias has been raging. It is unlikely that Turkey will allow almost a third of its territory and more than 25% of its population to be separated from the country and become part of an independent Kurdish state. Moreover, the establishment of autonomy in the contiguous Kurdish areas of Syria, which shares borders with IK and Turkey, is unacceptable for Ankara. It is understandable that the Syrian Kurds will be the first to join an independent Kurdish state. Moreover, these areas of the Syrian Arab Republic are rich in oil, and with the fighting against the Islamic State, the US has sent its troops to the region. It is no coincidence that along with the concentration of troops near IK, an active transfer of Turkish armored vehicles to the Turkey-Syria border continues in the place where Turkey borders with the Idlib province, concentrating up to 8,000 soldiers on the border, and about 5,000 “moderate terrorists”, 40 tanks, more than 140 different armored fighting vehicles, and up to 50 guns with caliber in excess of 100 mm.
The idea of an independent IK is hard to understand in Iran, where there are Kurdish areas with a population of over 2 million people. Tehran understands that the US is obsessed with the dismemberment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially as, in addition to the Kurds, there are very large national minorities of Azerbaijanis and Baluchis in Iran. And under the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination, Washington will spur separatist sentiments in order to weaken the ruling Islamic regime and ensure its subsequent overthrow.
So far, Washington has been slow in implementing its plans to resolve the Kurdish question. Indeed, the September 25 referendum could lead to a new armed conflict in the Middle East. And the US troops would simply not be able to pull it, given its involvement in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Americans will certainly later return to the idea of an independent Kurdistan in order to weaken the Arab countries and put pressure on Turkey and Iran. The White House is closely following the old British slogan “Divide and conquer”. But not now, while the war in Syria is raging on.
Therefore, just a few hours after the decision of the Kurdish parliament, the administration of the President of the United States of America, through a statement by the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, called upon the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities to renounce the referendum on independence set for September 25. The statement emphasizes that its conduct is distracting from attempts to defeat the banned terrorist group “Islamic State” (IS) and to stabilize the situation in the areas liberated from it. Washington also called on the Kurdistan government to engage in a sustained dialog with Baghdad. It is noted that the US is ready to mediate in the negotiations of representatives of the Kurdish autonomy with Iraq.
Naturally, following the communication from Washington, the United Nations Secretary-General also made some statements. The official spokesman for the UN Secretary General António Guterres, Stephane Dujarric noted that a planned independence referendum in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region “would detract from the need to defeat” Islamic State and to reconstruct regained territories, reports Reuters. As he explained, the Secretary General “respects the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq,” and considers that all outstanding issues between the federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government should be resolved through structured dialogue and constructive compromise.” “The Secretary-General calls upon the leaders across Iraq to approach this matter with patience and restraint,” Dujarric said. In general, the Western powers are concerned that this referendum in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, which includes the rich oil city of Kirkuk, may divert attention from the war against “Islamic State”.
To date, only Israel actively supports the establishment of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, as this would significantly weaken the Arab world as a whole, and would also distract the attention of Syria, Turkey and Iran from the Syrian war, in which Iran and Islamic countries as well as Hezbollah have seriously settled militarily near the border of the Syrian Arab Republic with Israel in the Golan Heights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated last week that Israel supports the “legitimate efforts” of the Iraqi Kurds, while reiterating that the PKK, based in Turkey, is a terrorist group. Netanyahu had previously said that he supported the “desire for independence” of the Iraqi Kurds, and that Israel supports the establishment of the Kurdish state. It must be noted that Tel Aviv, in an effort not to draw attention to it, has been maintaining military, intelligence and business relations with the Kurds since the 1960s, regarding this ethnic minority as a buffer against the Arabs.
In principle, from the point of view of Israel, everything is logical. The bid on Sunni extremism turned out to be untenable because of Russia and Iran, and the situation in Syria is developing in an unfavorable direction for Israel, as there is a growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah, both of which are strategic opponents of Israel. In this regard, support for Kurdish separatism in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran is a fairly effective method of “turning the tables” for the purposes of giving the Arabs a new headache following the defeat of the IS. The problem of the self-determination of the Kurds is a systemic one for the region (at the same level as the Arab-Israeli conflict), so that the intensification of the conflict, into which Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey could be dragged, would be quite advantageous to Israel, as it would somehow weaken the country’s regional opponents .
In any case, the situation following the outcome of the decision by Erbil on the referendum smells a lot of war. The Kurdish Peshmerga has preemptively deployed dozens of armored vehicles and several thousand soldiers to Kirkuk, as Erbil fears that in the near future, a confrontation may break out with Iraq and its ally Iran, which in this conflict could act through a large Shiite militia (totaling more than 150,000 persons) such as “Hashd-Shaabi”, with close links to the Ministry of Defense of Iraq.
It is likely that Russia would assume its traditional role and act as the peacemaker, suggesting that the parties resolve their problems through negotiations, although, of course, Iraq and Iran would be more interested in persuading Moscow to more actively support the position of official Baghdad. However, this leads to a fundamental question: if even the small peoples of Polynesia potentially possess and have already exercised their right to self-determination, why could 32 million Kurds not follow suit?
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”