Iraq’s Kurds badly miscalculated by deciding to hold a referendum on independence just as the last remnants of the Islamic State were being pounded out of existence in both Iraq and Syria. Now, the Kurds’ long-held dream of building a state for what has often been called the world’s largest nation without a state has been put on the backburner yet again.
The U.S. and regional stakeholders urged the autonomous region of Kurdistan to delay the referendum for fear of inciting tensions with the Iraqi government, but the Kurds pressed ahead with their bid to secede from Baghdad. Shortly after the results were announced — with the overwhelming majority voting for independence — Iraq moved in to retake Kurdish-held towns and cities, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, with little resistance.
The spectacular backfiring of the Kurds’ quest for self-determination wiped out many of the territorial gains they had made in Iraq when the Islamic State seized parts of the country in 2014. It has also squandered much of the international goodwill the self-sufficient Iraqi Kurdistan region had earned up until this point. Internally, the loss of oil revenues and land has sparked an economic crisis, political squabbling over who’s to blame for the mess, and anger at Washington for abandoning the Kurds, who have proven to be among the best fighters in the battle against the Islamic State.
The imbroglio has even entangled Iran, as accusations surfaced that Tehran conspired with one of Kurdistan’s two main political parties in a backroom deal to overtake Kirkuk. In fact, amid the chaos, finger-pointing and backstabbing, some observers point to Iran as the real threat to Middle East stability.
At least that’s the view of two seasoned diplomats: Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States from 2013 to 2016, and James Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who from 2010 to 2012 headed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Both spoke during a heated Oct. 18 panel discussion at the National Press Club that attracted well over 100 people. The event, hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization, also featured Arshad Al-Salihi, leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and a member of the Iraqi parliament.
Al-Salihi was supposed to be on the podium with Faily and Jeffrey. Instead, he spoke via Skype from Kirkuk because of what he called the “security situation” there following Baghdad’s move to reassert its presence after the Sept. 25 referendum, in which 93 percent of those voting chose independence.
Calling the plebiscite organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) “illegal and destructive,” Al-Salihi said it was planned to benefit politicians and their own self-interest.
“There is no question that this referendum has violated Iraq’s constitution,” said Al-Salihi, himself a politician. “In addition, the KRG extended the referendum to territories that were not designated in the constitution. We think this is wrong, and it clearly violates both Iraq’s constitution and international rules.”
For all three panelists, the central issue is Iraq’s future after the referendum, which took place not only within Iraqi Kurdistan’s accepted borders, but also in disputed territories that have been under de facto Kurdish control since their liberation from forces loyal to the Islamic State, or ISIS.
“There’s a reason why Turkey, the U.S. and many Western European countries were against the referendum,” said Jeffrey. “It was a bad idea, bringing instability to the region at a time when countries are facing tough choices. Many world leaders believe the current situation in northern Iraq would distract from efforts to defeat ISIS. The U.S. warned Irbil not to do it, and they did it anyway.”
Jeffrey, a career diplomat, said Washington did not abandon the Kurds, as many pro-Kurdish politicians have angrily insisted. He noted that the capture of Kirkuk by Kurdish forces when the Islamic State began its assault on Iraq was seen by many as a land grab.
“The United States has made it clear that it considers the territorial integrity of Kurdistan to be a very important issue, but it never signed up for turning over Kirkuk and its mixed population and, by my estimate $20 to $30 billion of hydrocarbon infrastructure and billions of barrels of oil, over to Irbil,” he said, referring to the de facto capital of Kurdistan. “That was never part of the deal.”
In fact, he continued, “we never signaled anything other than real reluctance to make any movement — other than the very theoretical constitutional provisions that some day, inshallah, there would be a referendum. That point was made clear by me personally and by everybody I know. Why that message was not picked up is still a mystery to me.”
Some blame Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, for the fiasco. Barzani enjoyed good relationships with the U.S. and Turkey, so it’s possible he naively expected both to back — or at least turn a blind eye to — the nonbinding referendum. But once Washington and Ankara made it clear that they adamantly opposed the move, Barzani chose to ignore those warnings, perhaps not expecting such a fierce backlash. He has since resigned, though he’ll remain an influential player in Kurdish politics.
Iraqi Kurdistan has long been divided between Barzani’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). “Now the rift has grown wider still, with Barzani blaming the loss of Kirkuk on a deal cut by a wing of Kurdistan’s other main party to allow Iraqi troops to enter,” wrote Loveday Morris in an Oct. 20 article in The Washington Post.
Some speculate that Barzani, who had been in power since 2005, may have wanted to cement his legacy by making one last-ditch push for independence. Even a reported offer by the U.S. to facilitate talks with Baghdad in exchange for postponing the referendum did little to sway his decision.
There is good reason why Barzani might have doubted Washington’s intentions. While the West has generally praised the gains that Iraq’s self-governing Kurds have made, it has never fully backed independence for them, knowing it would trigger an uproar in nations such as Turkey and Iran, which fear secession from their own sizable Kurdish populations. But that hasn’t dampened the deep-seated Kurdish desire to one day have their own nation.
“The Kurds of the Middle East are a proud people of nearly 30 million who have been treated as second-class citizens in every country where they reside. From Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, the Kurds can tell chronicles of war, deception and systemic discrimination. When the international community enforced a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect them from the murderous Saddam Hussein regime in 1991, Iraqi Kurds had their chance to shine. They did just that,” wrote Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha Center, in a Sept. 27 op-ed for The Globe and Mail. “The KRG attracted foreign direct investment, especially from neighboring Turkey, built prosperous and cosmopolitan cities, and further cultivated its language and culture. Kurdish nationalism was born again and, for more than 25 years, Iraq’s Kurdish semi-autonomous government has tried to prove it was ready for secession.”
The KRG consists of three governorates that are home to roughly 6 million of Iraq’s 37 million people. In addition to ethnic Kurds, the population consists of Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis and other communities.
Since the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, which granted the Kurdistan region autonomy within the new federal Iraqi state, the roughly 40,000 square kilometers under KRG jurisdiction have been largely safe and prosperous. Oil has helped ensure that prosperity. The region boasts an estimated 43.7 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 25.5 billion barrels of potential reserves.
Under the Kurdistan Region Oil and Gas Law of 2007, the KRG shares oil revenues with the central government in Baghdad and receives 17 percent of all revenues back. But the Kurds have long complained that they were not getting their fair share and in 2014, began shipping their own oil through Turkey despite Baghdad’s objections.
The Kurdish region can ship as much as 700,000 barrels a day via a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, providing billions of dollars in revenue to the KRG. But the loss of Kirkuk’s oil fields and a concerted effort by Iraq, Turkey and Iran to isolate the landlocked enclave have threatened to cripple its oil-dependent economy.
For now, Turkey’s threats to shut down oil pipelines used by the KRG haven’t materialized, because the economies of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey rely heavily on each other. But Ankara’s decision to suspend flights from its territory to the KRG forces travelers to fly to Baghdad instead — underlining the fact that the KRG is indeed part of Iraq rather than a separate entity.
What Turkey does is hugely important, warned Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador in Ankara from 2008 to 2010.
“President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan thinks like a democrat, regardless of how he’s regarded by certain circles in Washington. He still needs to win an election in 2018 or 2019. Turkey, the United States and most countries in the Middle East have common interests, which start with the regional status quo. Turkey had no choice but to line up with the U.S., Iran, the U.N. and the EU to oppose Kurdish independence. Whoever thought anybody would support that? Certainly not Turkey.”
He added: “To the extent there is an integrated Kurdish population anywhere in the Middle East, it is Turkey. They’ve had a 40-year conflict with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], but on the whole Turkey is doing well. It’s going to have 5.5 percent growth this year. Why would it at all want the KRG to become independent? Those people in Washington who were advising the KRG folks, I don’t know what they were smoking. I’ve spent the last 50 years dealing with difficult situations, and I haven’t seen anything as clear-cut and dumb in my entire 50-year career.”
In addition to Turkey (and obviously Iraq), the other major regional player opposing Kurdish independence is Iran, home to roughly 7 to 8 million Kurds. In mid-October, Iran’s chief spymaster, Qasem Soleimani, traveled to Iraq to meet with the Kurdish PUK party, which traditionally has had closer ties to Iran than the ruling KDP. Shortly afterward, rumors erupted that the PUK had cut a deal with Tehran to abandon Kirkuk in exchange for joint administration of the city alongside Iranian-backed militias.
“It is not known what Suleimani — the Middle East’s most cunning operative — told the P.U.K.’s leaders. But, within hours, their fighters began abandoning their posts, making way for Iraqi military units just across the front lines,” wrote Dexter Filkins in an Oct. 16 article for The New Yorker. “Not long after, Iraqi forces took over the former Kurdish positions and a stretch of oil fields near the city of Kirkuk. With the Iraqi Kurds now split in two — the P.U.K. on one side and the K.D.P. on the other — hopes for an independent Kurdish state appear to be fading fast.”
As Shiite-majority nations, Iran and Iraq share close relations. Jeffrey argued that “the single biggest danger to the future independence of Iraq” is the powerful Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that Baghdad relies on to bolster its weak military. But the PMF is also looking to expand its political influence, with its main factions agreeing to run on a unified list in Iraq’s April 2018 parliamentary elections.
“The situation in Iraq is not as far gone as it certainly is in Damascus and Beirut, but that’s the trend line if there isn’t an attempt to bring these people back,” he warned of creeping Iranian influence.
“You cannot debate anything about Iraq — particularly Kurdistan — without the shadow of Iran, and Iran’s ability to influence events on the ground in military, political or clandestine terms,” Faily said.
The former Iraqi diplomat said Iran’s growing influence in Kurdistan is precisely why “both the U.S. and Turkey have an interest in having an autonomous Kurdish region under the constitution with its own capability to defend itself — and with the ability to produce oil on its own territory under an agreement with Baghdad.”
In the long term, Jeffrey contends that the Middle East needs to worry more about Iran than the Islamic State, which isn’t the ruthless, feared terrorist organization it once was. Israel, he said, has already figured this out, with its focus on Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Syria.
“The only people I know in the region who still think there is a collective, common fight against ISIS is the U.S. government. This is false, wrong and dangerous,” he concluded. “The 69-country coalition all pounded ISIS into the sand. It is about finished as an organization. As an army, it’s down to a couple of thousand in towns nobody has ever heard of, and nobody in Irbil is worried about the ISIS threat anymore. They’re worried about other security concerns now. Iran and its friends have a plan; the U.S. does not.”
In fact, on Nov. 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri suddenly resigned in protest against Iran and its Hezbollah allies after less than a year in office. The surprise resignation — which many say was orchestrated by Riyadh — was the latest escalation in the power struggle between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite archenemy Iran, which supports Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In a televised address from Saudi Arabia, Hariri accused Iran’s proxies of meddling in Arab affairs, warning that “the evil Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it.”
Hezbollah is also a sworn enemy of Israel and is strongly opposed to the Kurdish referendum. Its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned in late September that the vote would lead toward partition of the Middle East and internal wars. Iranian officials have voiced suspicions that the referendum might have been a nefarious plot to install an Israeli-backed foe on its border.
In fact, one of the few nations to openly support the Kurds’ independence drive is Israel, which maintains good relations with the KRG.
While Faily and Jeffrey diverged on several points, they did agree on one thing: Israel’s outspoken support of an independent Kurdistan is both misguided and irrelevant.
“Even if Israel has 100 percent sponsorship of it, what can it do on the ground? It’s not a U.N. Security Council member, so it can’t veto anything,” Faily pointed out. “So I don’t think the Israeli dimension is a factor that should even be in our calculations.”
Jeffrey said it was “inexplicable” that Israel, of all countries, should support the Kurdish push for independence.
“Why take a position that puts you at odds with two important partners — the U.S. and Turkey — where Israel has just recently mended their relations? My take is that some of the same people who were advising the Kurds told [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu that Congress would overturn the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] … and that President Trump was going to walk away from it. They believed that,” he said, referring to the Iran nuclear deal signed by six countries. “They also thought the United States would flip and support the KRG.”
The debate has drawn in much of the Middle East, with some Arab leaders calling the referendum a “Zionist plot” backed by the Mossad. For his part, Netanyahu denied any involvement, declaring in Jerusalem only days after the vote that “Israel had no part in the referendum, apart from the deep, natural, longstanding sympathy of the people of Israel for the Kurdish people and their yearnings.”
For now, it appears those yearnings will go unrealized. Barzani agreed not to extend his term past Nov. 1 and elections have been postponed by eight months, leading to political jockeying and uncertainty within Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, in a humiliating sign of backpedaling, the KRG “froze” the referendum results in an effort to start a dialogue with Baghdad. But so far, Iraqi officials have demanded nothing less than a full cancellation of the referendum.
At a news conference in Baghdad in mid-October, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that the referendum “is finished and has become a thing of the past.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.