Politics of the Middle-East

Op-Edge: Why is it almost impossible for Kurds to secede from Iraq?

October 9, 2017

The official referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan is soon. The referendum which is designed to sense the will of Iraqi Kurds about independence from Iraq and starting a Kurdish state among Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Theoretically, this might seem possible since Kurds already enjoy an autonomous rule in northern Iraq, they have their own president paramilitary forces and parliament. Plus the decision is being taken through democratic means. But in fact, the Kurdish dream is still out of reach and would most-likely remain so for a long time.

Before speaking about the referendum itself, we should speak about the timing of it. In other words, why did the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership decide to do it in such a critical time? The answer is definitely related to the ongoing events in Iraq and the instability followed the rise of Islamic State. Damascus and Baghdad are currently busy fighting a major terrorist threat on their mainland, along with Kurds of course. But at the same time the ongoing distraction and chaos in Iraq in the past 4 years, gave the KRG a better experience in self-rule away from Baghdad. The expansion of ISIS have literally cut Iraq into two halves, an Arabic half, and a Kurdish one. Geographically speaking, this offered the Iraqi Kurds a further momentum of a de-facto independence.

Barzani have been watching the continuous and recent defeats of ISIS, the terrorist group which is coming to an end and soon. The Kurdish leader wants to exploit the lack of power in the ISIS-Freed areas, to reconstruct a new balance of power with Baghdad, before the latter takes affairs back in charge. In short, the picture is not clear yet in Iraq, and order is not fully returned yet. The KRG leadership sees the moment a golden one in all its history to redesign borders of Iraq. In addition to that, the rise of Salih Muslim and his Democratic Union Party, in neighbouring Syria, released pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan from the Syrian west. It gave Barzani an impression that they are not alone in the struggle for national independence.

Despite all the pro-independence factors and conditions, the operation itself remain pretty dangerous and almost impossible for the KRG. First, the KRG and the PYD are not on good terms, and they represent two opposite Kurdish camps. It is not very sure, whether Muslim and his group will support such an action by Barzani. Furthermore, the KRG move might generate a rough backlash from Turkey, Syria and Iran on the young and newly-founded Kurdish “autonomous region” in Syria. The previous countries would fear a quick imitation by the PYD towards independence. Therefore, the KRG move might not be in the short-term interest of Syria’s Kurds, especially at the time being. The PYD might simply stay neutral on the poll event, and not support Erbil.

Despite the official Israeli support to the independence of KRG both in public and in private, there are two other regional powers who totally oppose the move, and fear it. The recent meeting between the chiefs of Turkish and Iranian armies is a clear sign of how serious might the situation develop, not in the favour of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s military Chief of General Staff Mohammad Bagheri wound up a three-day visit to Turkey in August. The KRG referendum was on the negotiation table, with no single doubt. Turkey and Iran have their decent amount of Kurdish population as well, thus the KRG move towards independence is a direct threat triggering internal movements inside of Turkey and Iran. Syria might also join the Turkish-Iranian camp cooperating against the KRG referendum and its consequences on the whole Middle-East. Two days ago, the Turkish Defence Minister publicly hinted for a military action in northern Iraq, if the referendum is to lead to a true independence. He also demanded an immediate cancellation for the poll, which he sees it as a direct threat to the Turkish National Security. As a result, independence wont be a picnic for Iraqi Kurds, and the regional consequences might deprive them from what they have already achieved since 2003 -the fall of Saddam Hussein regime.

Moreover, even the American and Russian official stances remain vague and not very clear. The Americans criticised the Kurdish move but never asked for the cancellation of poll. The Russians did not neither, instead they have showed preference for the integrity and stability of Iraq. Russia’s oil investments in the Iraqi Kurdistan might be the reason behind its neutral stance on the issue. Few days ago, Russian oil major Rosneft announced that it will invest in gas pipelines in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan, expanding its commitment to the region, to help it become a major exporter of gas to Turkey and Europe. Rosneft secured a deal to develop five fields and has also agreed to help the region expand its oil pipeline infrastructure through which crude is exported via Turkey to global markets. For the USA, it is not satisfied with the Turkish rapprochement with Moscow, and might use the Kurdish card to pressure on Ankara, further complicating its regional and internal affairs -Despite of being two close allies in NATO. On the other hand, both Moscow and Washington fear the current timing of independence poll, as the fight against ISIS is tensing and progressing. A crack between Baghdad and Erbil would badly alter the progress made in the fight against ISIS. Moscow also careful about its good relations with Ankara and Tehran, especially in terms of the need for their full cooperation in ending the ongoing Syrian conflict. To conclude, even international powers are not in concrete support to the KRG move, and Barzani needs such support before anything else. That is if he really wants the referendum to be recognised. Especially that the Kurdish Peshmerga Forces solely depends on the US military and technology support.

From an economic point of view, the KRG economy is heavily dependent on oil, and the region barely produces anything. In short, its highly dependent on trade with neighbouring countries. A blockade scenario by Turkey, Iraq and Iran on the KRG would be a nightmare for Barzani. Plus, the region is not mature enough in terms of administrative regulations and laws, its well known for the institutional and formal corruption and the lack of effective economic planning. Political and economic reforms cannot be done over a night and seceding from Iraq would further complicate their internal affairs as Baghdad remains much more developed in administrative and institutional structure and experience.

The conclusion tells, the Kurdish poll will most likely happen on time, but it would be impossible to implement in such political, geographical and economic conditions. I personally believe that Iraqi Kurds must save what they have achieved so-far, rather than risking it all in an unexpected adventure. It is just not the right time and place.

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