Heading for chaos
Yassamine Mather looks at the reaction to the independence referendum
The much anticipated referendum on independence for the Kurdish region of Iraq took place on September 25 and, as expected, the result was decisive. According to the electoral commission of the Kurdish regional government (KRG), 92% voted ‘yes’ in a turnout of around 72% of those eligible to vote.
Of course, no-one ever doubted how the vote in Erbil, capital of the KRG, would go. This is the stronghold of president Masoud Barzani. But it was a different story elsewhere - particularly in the oil city of Kirkuk, where the referendum was boycotted by Turkmens, as well as Shia, Sunni and secular Arabs. In the days before the vote cities such as Kirkuk witnessed street battles and looting that worried everyone from the United Nations to the more intelligent members of the US state department. In the evening following the vote, as Kurds in Erbil and elsewhere were already celebrating in anticipation, Kirkuk was under curfew.
There are divisions between the Sorani Kurds, who tend to support the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Badianis, who prefer Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). PUK leaders and their supporters in Sulaymaniyah were reluctant to endorse the referendum and all reports from the city show there was little celebration there afterwards. Some in the PUK’s leadership believe that the four-month campaign has actually damaged the cause of Kurdish independence and, what is more, they do not trust Barzani. Many in Sulaymaniyah were telling reporters that they are against ‘one family’ (ie, Barzani’s) running the KRG.
The PUK, together with Gorran (Movement for Change), viewed the referendum as an opportunist move by Barzani, whose grip on power has been seriously challenged by a sustained economic downturn, due partly to the falling price of oil and partly to the incompetence and corruption of the Erbil government. The KRG has a debt of around $28-30 billion and most Iraqi Kurds have witnessed a drop in their standard of living over the last few years.
As I write, the only positive response so far has come from Israeli politicians. As has often been the case recently in the Middle East, Israel is the winner in all this. The country that strives with all its might to deny the Palestinian people the right of self-determination has been the champion of the Kurds’ right to exercise it. Minister of communications Ayoob Kara had previously tweeted his support: “The Kurdish referendum will expedite a comprehensive arrangement in the Middle East, and correct the historic Sykes-Picot agreement, which failed to consider the needs of many minorities, including 40 million Kurds.”
However, the opinion pages of the Ha’aretz newspaper in Tel Aviv carried more critical messages. For example, commentator David Rosenberg wrote on September 27: “Independent Kurdistan looks like a Zimbabwe in the making.”1
For her part, Dahila Scheindlin commented:
Israel’s rightwing government might end up regretting its public support for Kurdistan. After all, if historical justice legitimates Kurdish and Jewish self-determination, it’s just as applicable to the Palestinians.
Dahila quoted Ghassan Khatib, professor of political science at Ramallah’s Birzeit University:
I think the Kurds have the right to self-determination and they should be allowed this right. Supporting the right of self-determination for the Kurds should encourage people to follow the same principle and support the right of self-determination, independence and statehood for the Palestinian people - although we Palestinians are used to double standards, when it comes to rights, by the international community.2
However, with the exception of Israel, the Kurds have found no allies amongst their former supporters. The United States, which has been served well by Iraqi Kurdish leaders since 1990, has criticised the vote - called against the wishes of the Iraqi government - and leading US figures have declared that the fragile situation in Iraq could lead to a new conflict in the region. A US official who spoke to the Al-Monitor website “on strict conditions of anonymity” voiced worries that the referendum could even lead to the collapse of the government in Baghdad. The Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, told a reporter: “We’ve been very, very clear that this is not something we support ... we felt like it would weaken [Iraqi prime minister Haider] al-Abadi, as he runs for re-election, and we didn’t think the timing of it was good.”3 Congress is now considering blocking a pending $296 million deal to arm two peshmerga brigades.
The reaction from Baghdad itself was what could have been expected - the vote was simply “illegitimate”. However, the Shia government will do what it can to “preserve Iraq’s unity”. And on September 26, Baghdad ordered the KRG to hand over control of its airports to federal authorities or face a flight ban. Al Abadi also accused Barzani of leading a corrupt government - ironic, given the level of corruption and nepotism prevalent in so many aspects of successive Iraqi administrations since 2003.
The referendum was also opposed by Shia clerics, although some Sunnis seem convinced that the country will be divided along religious and national lines sooner rather than later. Sheikh Ahmad al-Kubaisi, who came out in support of Kurdish independence, said: “Iraq will be divided. The strong Sunni area will be Kurdistan, and it will not be restricted to the Kurds, but all Arab Sunnis are insistent on joining it.” But the Arabs in Kirkuk do not seem to agree with him.
As for Iran, on September 24 the Islamic republic cancelled all commercial flights to Iraqi Kurdistan and began shelling Iranian Kurdish fighters on the Iraqi side of the border near Haj Omran. However, on the same day, Barzani admitted that he had just met Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. One possible reason for Suleimani’s trip to the KRG is that he was mediating between the PUK and KDP (both are former allies of Iran and the Revolutionary Guards, as much as some Iranian Kurds tend towards amnesia on this particular subject). Another explanation could be that, as Baghdad and Ankara harden their positions against the KRG, Tehran believes it can be the winner by presenting itself as less of an enemy, more a ‘concerned ally’.
The official press and media in the Iranian Kurdish cities of Baneh and Sanandaj actually broadcast pictures of Iraqi Kurds celebrating the result - an interesting example of the way Tehran is dealing with the referendum. Once again Iranian opposition groups on the left who support ‘regime change from above’ got it badly wrong when they celebrated the Kurdish referendum as ‘a first step to the overthrow of the Islamic regime’.
I mentioned Ankara’s hostility and it is important to understand why Turkey’s reaction is so important: the KRG economy relies heavily on oil and the 550,000 barrels a day it exports are the main source of its income. Unfortunately for Barzani, however, this is solely dependent on a pipeline running to Turkish terminals on the Mediterranean. The day after the referendum, Ankara, concerned about Kurdish nationalism within Turkey’s own borders, made it clear that it will no longer be business as usual with the KRG - Turkey has financed major infrastructure projects there, including the new airport.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the vote “illegal and illegitimate” and threatened to close the border and cut oil flows. Erdoğan referred regretfully to the close economic and political ties Ankara and Erbil have cultivated over the last decade: “This referendum is unacceptable. We stood by them during their most difficult times.” Referring to potential Turkish military operations in Syria, he added:
We will not shy away from doing the same in Iraq … It will be over when we close the oil taps. All revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop . Iraqi Kurds must give up on independence or go hungry.
As for Barzani himself, he is probably relying on the myth that the Kurds can only benefit from the threat of independence. Nothing can be further from reality. As I keep saying, the current US administration is now expressing openly what has been Washington’s foreign policy for a while, even under Obama. Donald Trump spelled it out clearly in his speech to United Nations general assembly last week, when he made it clear that the US no longer claims to be interested in ‘nation building’. Its involvement in the Middle East is purely to safeguard US interests - and those interests do not involve creating ‘democracies’ and empowering ‘civil society’. On the contrary, the current level of military intervention, including air raids and drone attacks, can only lead to the weakening and eventual destruction of currently constituted states - even those that are considered allies of US, such as Turkey, or those headed by regimes imposed following US military action, such as the current Shia Iraqi government. Only idiots such as Barzani and supporters of Iran ‘regime change from above’ do not get this.
Of course, Marxists should welcome the destruction of dictatorial regimes in states created with artificial borders decided upon by colonial powers. However, there are two ways of achieving this: the revolutionary way from below; or the current US policy of deliberate destruction and creation of anarchy. In the Middle East, Syria and Libya - and to a certain extent Afghanistan and Iraq - all provide a clear indication of what that can lead to.