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The Hidden Stakes of the Independence Vote in Iraqi Kurdistan

In Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Democracy, Middle East & North Africa, The Search for Peace on September 19, 2017 at 10:06 PM

By Bernard J. Henry

A new nation may soon emerge in the Middle East. A nation that has been in the hearts and minds of its people for centuries, but nowhere to be found in geography textbooks or diplomatic directories. A nation named Kurdistan, carved out of what is currently the autonomous northernmost part of Iraq.

On September 25, all native Kurdistanis – people born in Iraqi Kurdistan, whether they are Kurds or from the area’s solid ethnic minorities – will have to answer a question asked by the President of the Kurdish Regional Government, Massoud Barzani: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”.

Yet behind the possibility of a “Kurdexit” driving the region away from the federal government in Baghdad, there may be more to the vote than meets the eye.

Capture d'écran 2017-09-19 23.15.13

In green on this map, Iraqi Kurdistan

1280px-Flag_of_Kurdistan.svg

The Kurdish flag

Seeking independence – from dissent at home?

Since 2014, the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of President Massoud Barzani and its archrival, the leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) once led by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have been at odds with a third contender for leadership – Gorran, “Change” in Kurdish, a center-left movement that spawned from rejection of the two main parties’ policies.

Barzani

Massoud Barzani

Barzani, who had reneged on leaving his post and reluctantly agreed in the end, cited the rise of Da’esh, the “Islamic State”, to maintain himself in power. Created in 2009, Gorran quickly secured a blocking majority in parliament, forcing the election of one of its members as speaker as well as many concessions from Barzani, who appeared too eager to push back the PUK and along with it any attempt to remove him from power.

When the referendum was announced, Gorran immediately voiced opposition, not out of heartfelt rejection of independence and die-hard loyalty to Iraq but because Barzani was felt as using the issue to stifle any debate on domestic issues, whether with Gorran or the PUK.

“Most of those voters who will say no will not be rejecting independence, but really telling Barzani they want a fair presidential election first,” comments Emran Mensour, a Kurdish lawyer from Syria living in exile in Paris. “The political feud between Barzani and Talabani stops where independence is at stake. But domestically, rivalry never stops.” Even though breaches have since appeared within Gorran and some members have started voicing support for the referendum, the party apparatus continues to stand up to Barzani.

With an estimated 80% of likely voters supporting independence, Gorran appears unlikely to block Barzani’s plans. But the party has made its point and the President of a future independent Kurdistan will know that (s)he must reckon with the third force.

Minding the “big brothers”

Already struggling with dissent at home, alienating others beyond borders is the last thing Barzani needs. In a September 10 official message, the Kurdistani leader called on referendum campaigners to observe the “spirit of brotherhood that binds the people of Kurdistan with the Iraqi people”. He had no choice as the debate on independence is spilling over to neighboring countries, especially Iran and Turkey, the “big brothers” the Shi’a majority in Iraq and the Turkmen minority in Kurdistan look to, respectively.

The Iraqi government and most Iraqi political parties have spoken out against the referendum, as have the governments of Iran, Syria, and Turkey, Ankara’s opposition being echoed in Kurdistan proper by a Turkmen party, the Iraqi Turkmen Front. Understandably, the three countries besides Iraq on whose national territory historic Kurdistan spreads cannot live with the thought that “their” own Kurds may choose independence someday, if only by joining a former Iraqi Kurdistan turned independent. Even then, the main issue will not be with either of the “big brothers”.

Emran_Mensour

Emran Mensour

“Kurds in all four countries are not bound together with the same strength,” Emran Mensour comments. “There is a strong bond between the Kurds of Iraq and Syria”, the former being now organized in a self-declared autonomous entity, Rojava – the Kurdish for “west” –, led by the Syrian branch of Turkey’s Marxist-Leninist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Like its Iraqi counterpart, Rojava has been at the forefront of the military struggle against Da’esh, while also antagonizing the Syrian opposition forces and thus becoming an objective ally of the Damascus regime. Yet Barzani’s paternalistic style of leadership hardly matches the democratic confederal structure of Rojava, at least on paper, and an alliance or a merger between the two looks the least probable outcome of a successful independence vote.

Short-circuiting a “Shi’a crescent”

If not the creation of a greater, mightier Kurdistan, another stake of the referendum is the influence of Shi’a Muslims in an area whose politics have been dictated predominantly by Sunni leaders. “If Assad should remain in power in Syria,” Mensour adds, “he and his counterparts in Iran and Iraq would be able to form a ‘Shi’a crescent’ in the Middle East, obviously a scary thought for every Sunni country in the region”.

No wonder both King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu – none the keener about an independence referendum in Palestine – have expressed support for the vote.

King_Abdullah_portrait

King Abdullah of Jordan

As for Turkey, the main Sunni power west of Iraq, though its President turned autocrat, Reçep Tayyip Erdogan, recently tried to sway King Abdullah, the monarch held firm. Now it is uncertain that Ankara, in business with Iraqi Kurdistan through an oil deal struck outside of Baghdad’s authority, will have the leverage, let alone the will, to resist an independent Kurdistan on the long run. Especially if Erdogan should decide to durably play (the former) Iraqi Kurdistan against the PKK at the helm in Rojava.

More than independence

If any region in the world knows that independence does not guarantee freedom, let alone stability, the Middle East does.

On September 25, Kurdistanis will have to decide on a lot more than independence or not. Should the vote be positive, the ball will be in the court of a world that has shunned peace and human dignity in the Middle East for much too long.

Bernard J. Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Association of World Citizens.

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