Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami - India
Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani went ahead with his decision of conducting the September 25 referendum for the independence of his region from Iraq while defying enormous pressure from Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad for not doing so. Almost 93 per cent of those who took part in the referendum voted in favour of independence.
After Saddam Hussein’s ouster through the US invasion in 2003, Iraqi Kurdish controlled land territory emerged as the most peaceful region in the civil war- plagued Iraq. Problems with Baghdad had arisen earlier when Baghdad stopped the transfer of 17 % budget share of KRG. In retaliation, the KRG started selling its oil directly through Turkey, and also constructed a separate pipeline to sell their oil bypassing Baghdad.
It seems that Barzani defied the huge pressure from the regional powers and went ahead for the Monday (Sep 25) referendum after getting green signals from Washington, Moscow and also from major European capitals.
The only country that openly supported the referendum for an independent Kurdish state is none other than the state of Israel. Whatever the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been saying in public, the United States, however, seems quite favourable to the creation of an independent Kurdish state, and it is a part of American scheme of things in the Middle East.
Although Russia is a close Iranian ally in Syria, and to certain extent in Iraq too, yet the Russians did not oppose the Kurdish referendum and have been sympathetic to the independent Kurdish state. The Americans always had a big stake in Iraqi Kurdish oil, and it is for the sake of balancing between the Americans and the Russians that Barzani has awarded major contracts to Russian energy giants-- Roseneft and Gazprom neft.
The Iranians would not want the disintegration of the Iraqi state which has been its veritable since the ouster of Saddam Hussein by the US invasion of Iraq. It will weaken Iran’s status as a regional military who could not stop the disintegration of its closest ideological ally next door. On the other hand, it may also embolden the Kurdish minority inside Iran for more ethnic and religious rights.
Suffice it to say that it is beyond Barzani’s capacity to take such a huge risk when his neighbours and biggest stakeholders in Iraq and the region Turkey and Iran vociferously opposed the referendum. Barzani could only defy huge pressure from Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara through the tacit backing of the US, the Russians and the EU.
In the post Arab Spring Middle East, Turkey’s relation with KRG is one of the few remaining bright spots of Turkish foreign policy. Although Turkey had upped the ante on the Kurdish referendum and had become more vocal in the last few days of referendum, yet both Turkey and KRG’s President Massoud Barzani would not want to throw away all these major gains of last 15 years. An experienced Politician Massoud Barzani had maintained the restraint and did not say anything that might anger the Turks. He knew it very well that he has no liberty to harm his relations with Turkey which is very vital for the survival of his administration whether the independent Kurdish state or autonomous within the federation of Iraq.
The referendum has also opened the question of survivability of the landlocked region of Northern Iraq as a sovereign entity. Iraqi Kurdish region borders with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and its lifeline goes through its western neighbour Turkey where its closest sea port is also located. If Iraqi Kurdish state has to survive as an independent entity, it has no option other than maintaining more than an amicable relationship with Turkey
There is no doubt that after gaining independence from Iraq, the new Kurdish state will be more dependent on the benevolence of Turkey. Turkey is already the biggest trading partner of KRG, its oil supplies both through the independent pipeline and through the common pipeline of Baghdad are connected with Ceyhan oil terminal in Turkey. Life of independent Kurdish state without the Turkish support will be extremely difficult, and even Massoud Barzani knows it very well.
Turkey has been trading through KRG with the central government of Iraq which is hugely influenced by Tehran. Hence, Turkey would not want to lose Iraqi Kurdish region as an important base to influence Baghdad. If Kurds leave Iraq, the remaining Iraq will become a completely Iranian colony, and Iraq’s marginalised and destitute Sunni Arab minority will become more vulnerable of sectarian aggression of Iran backed Shia militias and the sectarian government in Baghdad.
The fear of more bloodshed in violence that had marred Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 cannot be ignored. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have come to the brink of a serious civil war twice in the past, once in 2008 and then in 2012, during the tenure of previous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.The sectarian divide along with ethnic rivalry will further spill the blood of Iraqis. The Pandora’s Box of greater Kurdish state, including the territories of Turkey, Iran and Syria, which has always been scared of, may get a new impetus.
In Syria Kurds have already got much more territory with the help of US. The less reported local body election in the Kurdish cantons in Syria run by PKK’s Syrian wing the YPG clearly signifies the US regional scheme.
Turkey has not much to lose from the secession of Northern Iraq from its Mainland; Iraqi Kurdish region will remain dependent on Turkey even after its independence. The loss for Turkey will be more for its regional leadership as Turkey’s long term policy has been of opposing the disintegration of both Iraq and Syria.
The Kurds in Turkey are by far the most integrated group in national stream of the country in comparison to Iran, Iraq and Syria. Hence, Iran is more vulnerable of the Kurdish referendum as the majority of Kurds in Iran face double discrimination as an ethnic and Sunni religious minority.
The Kurdish referendum may also provide an opportunity to the regional powers, Turkey and Iran, to come on terms and cooperate each other along with other regional countries to stop further disintegration of the Middle East after the century- old Sykes-Picot Accord which had devised the boundaries of the present day Middle East.
It is pertinent to say that the highly sectarian and discriminatory policies of Iran- backed sectarian governments in Baghdad are equally responsible for the escalation of Kurdish regional crisis. The Kurds fear that after the defeat of the ISIL, they may become the next target of Baghdad as well as the legitimised and streamlined sectarian Shia militias.
The regional powers must have realised that the foreign powers, be it the Americans, the Russians or the Europeans are no friends of Arabs, Turks, Persians and Kurds. Therefore, they need to be vigilant enough not to seek help from Washington, Moscow or Brussels for settling their regional disputes.
Thus, the Turks will always favour the united Iraq where the Kurds of North have greater autonomy for the economic and political management of the territory they have been ruling over since last few decades. The KRG may, through negotiations with Baghdad, get more generous budget allocations, establishment of foreign missions in Erbil and arrangement of directly exporting the energy to the outside world. The KRG within the existing federal structure of the united Iraq with greater autonomy will definitely go to empower Turkey to have an extra leverage on the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
Besides, the victory of the KRG in its referendum might influence the Iraqi central government to concede to some of its major demands, which have so far remained unattended.
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