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The Democratic Gamble That Failed: Why Iraq's Kurds Lost Their Own Independence Referendum

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Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, members of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iran), take part in routine military exercise in Koya, Iraq, October 22, 2017.
Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga, members of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Iran), take part in routine military exercise in Koya, Iraq, October 22, 2017.Credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP

Just a month after Kurdistan’s independence referendum, the region considered the safest in Iraq is teetering on the edge of a new round of violence.

Iraqi forces, backed by Iranian sponsored Shi’ite militias, conquered the oil city of Kirkuk. Iraqi forces also conquered the cities of Nineveh and Diyala, which are considered part of the regions contested by Iraq and the Kurds. These developments, along with the embargo that Iraq, Turkey and Iran have imposed on the province, feed the potential of a military confrontation between the Kurdish province and Iraq. The old cliché that nature abhors a vacuum once again proved itself, and a new war is now being waged over the liberated territories.

The Americans hoped to establish last week an arrangement between the Kurds and Iraq, but the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, jumped the gun. The Kurds believed they could continue controlling territories liberated from the Islamic State and turn them into inseparable parts of Kurdistan. But neither Iraq nor Iran ever intended to yield the richest oil region as a present to the Kurds.

According to the Bloomberg news agency, the American mediator, Brett McGurk, intended to offer the sides joint control of the American military base K-1 net to Kirkuk, thereby giving both rivals something for their efforts in the war against the Islamic State, but mainly to prevent a direct confrontation between them. However, it seems that al-Abadi and Iran were determined to exploit the opportunity for Iraq to seize full control of Kirkuk and to push the Kurds into an inferior position in their pursuit of holding a referendum on the status of the city, according to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

The capture of Kirkuk is now perceived not only as a victory for the Iraqi government over the Kurds, but also as “Iran’s victory over the United States and Israel,” as a senior Hezbollah official described it.

In this picture taken on September 25, 2017 and provided by Rojava Photo, Syrian Kurds citizens wave their parties and Kurdistan flags as they tour by their cars celebrating after the Iraqi Kurds in ECredit: Baderkhan Ahmed/AP

And indeed, the architect of the conquest was General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The president of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, said that Soleimani reached an agreement with the heads of the rival faction Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led since 1975 by Jalal Talabani until his death this month and now informally run by his wife, Hero.

According to that agreement, the Peshmerga forces affiliated with the Patriotic Union would withdraw from the city without a fight. Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, directly blames the rival faction of treason and threatens to settle scores with the “traitors.” The Iraqi and Iranian governments did a good job of exploiting this rivalry, which developed in the early 1990s during the Kurdish civil war between the two factions until the reconciliation between them that had prevailed the past two years.

The immediate result of this capture is the significant drop in Kurdish oil exports, that had been 500,000-600,000 barrels a day before losing Kirkuk. Kurdistan managed to export just 250,000 barrels last week through the oil pipeline to Turkey. It is liable to be a fatal blow to the Kurdish economy, whose external debt approaches $20 billion. And their debt to oil companies that was paid in advance for the oil is about $3.5 billion. Without quickly reaching a compromise deal with the Iraqi government or receiving massive external aid, the Kurdish government is liable to go bankrupt.

Meanwhile the Iraqis will still be unable to derive income from the capture of Kirkuk because most of the oil exports from Kirkuk go through Kurdistan, and without a deal with the Kurds, the Iraqi government will be forced to consume the oil itself. The problem is that the Kurds’ room for maneuvering is much narrower than that of Iraq, especially after it became clear that the American government failed once again to attain an agreement that would restore the status quo.

The weakness of America was made clear even earlier, when it failed in its attempt to broker reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side and Qatar on the other. Qatar is still under an economic embargo by its Gulf neighbors.

These failures illustrate the extent to which the Trump administration is unprepared for threatening political developments that are emerging as the war against the Islamic State nears its end.

It seems that the Kurds themselves already understand that when the battles end its doubtful they will find an open door in the White House, and that they will have to solve their economic and political crises with Iraq, Turkey and Iran on their own.

Barzani is now waging an epic battle against his political rivals within Kurdistan. Some of them demand dissolving the government, establishing an interim government and holding presidential elections.

Others argue the referendum was a mistake, and citing the economic distress that has come in its wake are calling to nullify it. But, the main complaint against Barzani are claims he has lost the legal legitimacy to continue his tenure. There are calls for him to resign and not to try for reelection.

Barzani, a seasoned political fox, has maneuvered out of difficult situations in past. But the crisis looming now may prove too much for him to survive. If Kurdistan is unable to establish a stable regime, the sweeping victory over ISIS is liable in the end to cause a strategic change in the balance of forces in Iraq – one that will serve Iraq and Iran, and not the West.

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