Kurds' independence vote huge blunder

Masoud Barzani, who engineered the referendum, has miscalculated the powers ranged against it.

The 92% vote in favour of independence in the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region demonstrated once again that the Kurds are their own worst enemy. The September 25 referendum has been condemned by the Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian, and US governments as well as the UN. They see the vote as a bid to divide Iraq and increase instability in an already unstable and war-ridden region.

Iraqi Kurds, 17% of the population, threaten to proclaim unilateral independence if the Iraqi government refuses to negotiate terms for the secession of the Kurdish region, risking warfare involving not only the Iraqi military but also the armed forces of Turkey and Iran, where too Kurdish minorities are demanding self-rule. Turkey’s Kurds account for 25% of its population and in Iran, they are 10%.

The referendum was a monumental miscalculation by Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdish region. While he knew Kurds would overwhelmingly opt for independence, he gambled on a mild response from powers determined to maintain Iraq’s unity at a time they are  fighting Islamic State.

The Iraqi government has shut down international flights into the Kurdish region’s two airports and deployed its military at the Turkish and Iranian border crossings. Turkey has halted training for the Peshmerga militiamen and carried out army manoeuvres on the borders with the Kurdish region on its own and jointly with Iran, which has embargoed exports and imports of fuel products to and from the Kurdish region.

Until the vote, the “autonomous” Kurdish region was independent in all but name. Its airports flew the Kurdish flag, received flights from Europe, North Africa and West Asia, while Kurdish officials were in charge of immigration and customs, and issued visas at entry points. The recognised Kurdish region, which consists of three Kurdish-majority Iraqi provinces, is governed by a president, prime minister, cabinet, parliament, and provincial and municipal authorities.

Since the region was far more stable and safe than the rest of Iraq, Arab  businessmen, professionals, and scholars moved to Irbil, Dohuk and Suleimaniya (“Suli”), the region’s main cities, to open companies, factories, hospitals and clinics, schools and other amenities.

Trade was brisk with neighbouring Turkey and Iran. They provided 90% of foodstuffs and other goods consumed in the region. Its capital, Irbil portrayed itself as a West Asian business centre, built hotels, office blocks, malls and residential quarters. Dohuk and Suli were popular holiday spots with Arab Iraqis fleeing Baghdad’s sweltering summers.

The idylls of the Kurds began to fade in 2011 when war erupted in Syria and refugees flooded into the region. In 2014, the Kurds sustained two major blows: oil prices, the government’s main source of income, fell, and Islamic State swept into northern Iraq and seized Mosul, the country’s second city, and other areas.

The region received two million refugees, 28% of the population. The influx has seriously strained the economy and slender resources of the region. The nearby presence of Islamic State created instability, major investors in the oil sector pulled out, construction slowed, imports fell, and already rampant corruption soared.

The region’s debt stands at $20 billion, civil servants and Peshmerga are paid late, if at all, and electricity is available for only four hours a day in some areas. Relations with Baghdad soured after Kurdish Peshmerga seized Kirkuk, an oil hub inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, and other areas adjacent to the Kurdish region. The Iraqi government was doubly incensed when the independence vote was held in these areas as their fate is meant to be decided in negotiations between Irbil and Baghdad.

Long-standing dream
Barzani, whose presidential term ended in 2015, was the pri­me mover of the independence referendum and engineered the exercise in order to secure his grip on power ahead of scheduled elections in November. He knew the mass of Kurds could not resist a vote on independence, a century-old Kurdish dream. He had the support of his son Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurds’ security council, nephew Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani, and uncle, Iraq’s former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Parliament — its mandate also expired two years ago — met only to approve the referendum and discuss its repercussions. Consequently, the legitimacy of the referendum is under question, particularly by political opponents who warned against it but had to go along because of the Kurdish dream of independence.

The Kurds are famously divided and fought a civil war from 1994-98. The Barzani clan rules Irbil and the west of the Kurdish region, while longstanding rivals in the Talabani clan hold sway in Suli in the east. Suli was initially critical of the referendum but had
to go along because of the emotional appeal of independence. It is now clear the vote could finish off all that the Iraqi Kurds have gained during 16 years of autonomy, and opposition to Barzani could lead to Kurdish infighting.

As they depend on domestic unity and the support of Iraq, Iran and Turkey for their very existence, the Kurds’ independence gamble at a time they enjoyed independence-in-all-but-name could end in tears.

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