Threats to Kurds made independence referendum inevitable

Huda al-Husseini
Huda al-Husseini
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An American official asked President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani why they held the referendum now and why they rejected all demands to postpone it.

Barzani told his American guest that Baghdad’s government began to receive heavy and advanced weapons from the US, including military jets, which means that in few years, the balance will be in favor of the Iraqi army. Barzani also told the American official what worries him and said he expects “the Shiites, supported by Iran, to win and the Shiites to be defeated.”

He said: “The (Sunnis’) cities like Anbar and Mosul are all destroyed, ISIS was defeated and the Shiite ‘Popular Mobilization’ has emerged. By doing a small calculation, we can see that no one will stay in the face of the Iraqi government and (the Popular Mobilization). With an armed army, the spikes will be directed against us to eliminate us. This is why we should be ahead of time and call for an independence referendum.”

This American official told me that Barzani refused Iraqi commitments and promises as he does not trust Baghdad.

American guarantees came a night before the referendum as they asked the Kurds and the Iraqis to sit for unconditional negotiations to address the matters which concern them both, including the independence. The Americans proposed to sign a pledge to commit to this proposal and to the negotiations’ results.

Meanwhile, Iraq Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said he will respect the Kurds’ desire.

When Barzani heard about the proposal, he said it came in late, especially that it included postponing the referendum.

Barzani told his guest: “I mobilized the entire Kurdish street. They look forward to this referendum and view it as their life and future. I cannot tell them it’s postponed and if I do, I have to find an island to resort to because I will lose my people’s trust.”

Following all the efforts he made, Barzani was not willing to lose what he achieved. He governed for a long time and other parties began to escalate, oppose and defect. He wanted to play a historical role as a bigger leader so he called for an independence referendum. All parties, including the opposing ones, met the call and Barzani restored his leading role.

Kurds have heard nothing but threats from neighboring countries ever since the referendum was held. All these threats aim to please Baghdad’s government but who can punish an entire region with 5 million people?

This is where the role of Saudi Arabia which has good ties with Baghdad, Abadi and the Kurdistan region comes. Saudi Arabia is the only country capable of inviting both Abadi and Barzani to negotiate under its supervision.

It’s said that Abadi has become accepting of the idea of a confederal Iraq. This must be encouraged because this system grants Arab Sunnis land, rights and existence in the Arabic Iraq and it decreases Iranian influence.

In a confederal Iraq, Kurds’ lands will neighbor Sunnis’ lands and they will form a linked entity that’s parallel to Shiite lands. This extended land can pave way to distribute oil from North Iraq through Sunni lands and to Jordan and it can split the Iranian “extension” from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah.

Regional central governments have rejected the Kurdistan referendum but Kurds in the region see it as the first sign of the domino effects on Kurdish separatist movements in the four countries where there are Kurdish presence.

The Kurds in Iraq voted for a free Kurdistan. Kurds in Syria are implementing a plan to establish a Kurdish parliamentarian regime in Syria, and they’re doing so with America’s support. Turkey views these Kurds as terrorists. The concerned governments think the matter of deciding the Kurds’ fate and independence is not just about unity of land but it also paves way to more wars in the region where civil, ethnic and sectarian battles have been raging for years.

The US and Europe did not criticize the referendum itself but they criticized its timing. Meanwhile, Israel supported it and some interpreted this as a sign of a “hidden American agenda” that aims to sow more divisions and weaken any opposition to American interests.

Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah was disgruntled the most regarding this as he believes that everything outside the context of his opinions falls within the context of American, Saudi and Israeli directions against Iran. Last Saturday, he warned of an ‘Israeli-Palestinian peace’ that’s being looked into and warned the Palestinians agianst accepting it because any Palestinian reconciliation and any peace with Israel aims to target Iran and the axis of the Resistance.

In a confederal Iraq, Kurds’ lands will neighbor Sunnis’ lands and they will form a linked entity that’s parallel to Shiite lands. This extended land can pave way to distribute oil from North Iraq through Sunni lands and to Jordan and it can split the Iranian “extension” from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah.

Huda al-Husseini

Turkey, Iran and Iraq threatened to take military action against the Kurdish Region. Rapprochement among the three countries is shallow and any possible individual or collective military act can lead to serious consequences. The biggest threat is that any military action by these countries will force the Peshmerga forces to shift their attention from fighting ISIS to fighting the new aggressor. This will give ISIS fighters a chance to gather again and neither the US nor Russia want this to happen.

Weak government in Baghdad

Despite its strict rhetoric, Baghdad’s government is weak and its record in terms of operations against ISIS is weak. The same applies to how it resolved ethnic divisions inside Iraq. Without foreign (Iranian) support, Baghdad’s government will not be able to stand in the Peshmerga’s face.

Meanwhile, the Russians have mutual interests with the Kurds in Iraq as the Kirkuk oil fields are under their control. In this case, it is probable that Damascus will keep the Kurds happy in Syria. Let’s keep in mind that last year Russia invested more than $4 billion in the energy sector in Iraq’s Kurdistan, thus surpassing the US as the biggest investor.

As for Turkey, it has been allied with Barzani for a long time now. Barzani opposes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party while Turkey is the biggest economic supporter of Kurdistan. There are 1,730 Turkish companies in there. A Turkish company built the Erbil airport – which until the recent crisis, no plane landed in without a permission from Baghdad. If we review Erdogan’s moves since the crisis erupted, we can see that they did not reflect his fiery statements. His statements were full of rage but his actions have been calculated.

Meanwhile, Iran closed its airspace and advised Baghdad to deploy Iraqi troops on the borders between it and Kurdistan.

Erdogan may increase tariffs on Kurds to transfer their oil via Turkish territories and he may threaten to pay the oil revenues to Baghdad’s government. He will not execute any military operation in order not to jeopardize Russia’s and Turkish businessmen’s interests.

A Turkish source said Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed with Erdogan the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Oil Pipeline. The Russian Rosneft company wants to keep the pipeline open.

Meanwhile, Moscow thinks the revenues of the Kurdistan region’s government are a return on its investments and without the pipeline and open borders or payments from Baghdad to Erbil, the Kurdistan government will collapse thus seriously jeopardizing the Russian project.

Iran’s backyard

Iran may act against Barzani through Baghdad and the Shiite militias it controls. However, in this particular case, support will come from America and Israel, a point which Hassan Nasrallah addressed. Other countries will not hesitate to provide support and play in Iran’s backyard.

Kurdistan’s problem which Barzani led up to put the four countries in a very difficult corner. If they act against the Kurds, they’d be risking a huge war that goes beyond proxy wars, and if they do not do anything, they’d be giving the Kurds in Iraq a chance to declare their freedom and their brothers in Turkey, Iran and Syria will follow suit. The end result of this path will be very bloody.

Those who think the US is losing its influence in the region are wrong. Proxy wars via militias and that have prolonged for the purpose of dominating the Middle East will finally return “home” to Iran and Turkey.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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