October 23, 2017
Most observers agree that Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum backfired; Massoud Barzani overplayed his hand and lost; and, his inclusion of “disputed territories” in the referendum was an overreach. The mood in Arbil is one of resentment because the referendum received no international support. One could perhaps add in this respect that Mr. Barzani’s timing was also wrong coming just one week ahead of the Catalan referendum which made use of double standards impossible.
The people of Iraq have not lived in peace since 1980, the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war. This eight-year war was followed by the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War. Then came the US invasion in 2003. And, the battle against ISIS has been going on for more than three years and has resulted in great human suffering and devastation.
In an article titled “Struggle Over Kirkuk Puts the US and Iran on the Same Side” David Zucchino and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported on October 18 that, according to some analysts, the US approved the Iraqi plan to enter Kurdish-held areas and Iran helped broker the agreement with a Kurdish faction to withdraw its fighters from Kirkuk, allowing the Iraqi forces to take over largely unopposed. Iranian role has also been mentioned in other reports.
Regardless of who intervened, when and how, prevention of another major military confrontation should be a consolation not only for Iraqis but also the whole region. However, as latest as reports on fierce clashes between Kurdish and Iraqi troops north of Kirkuk show, the situation continues to be explosive.
Following Mr. Barzani’s announcement of the referendum, Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara tried to force him to reverse his decision. However, the arrow was shot and there was no getting it back. Following the referendum, the three capitals upped the ante and took punitive measures. Ankara went further than the other two in expressing its deep disappointment with the Kurdish leader with whom it had entertained cordial relations for a long time. The statements by the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership, while drawing a line between Mr. Barzani and the people of the KRG, targeted him in strong language. In a way, he became a second Bashar Assad for Ankara. Furthermore, Turkey was not represented at the funeral of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the founder of one of the main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Iran, on the other hand, despite its closer relations with the Baghdad government remained more moderate in its public criticism of Mr. Barzani and was represented at Mr. Talabani’s funeral by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Thus, it may indeed have played a role in securing the withdrawal of the peshmerga from disputed areas.
Iraq’s multitude of internal troubles are far from over. The immediate challenge now is to avoid triumphalism in Baghdad, resentment and defiance in Arbil so that the two sides may start moving towards what would hopefully be a united, democratic and pluralistic Iraq.
In an op-ed published in the New York Times on October 18, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated the following (*):
“The federal government of Iraq seeks continued support and cooperation from our international partners. For now, we urge regional powers and other outsiders not to interfere in our affairs. Iraq must be able to demonstrate its coming of age by using democratic structures to solve internal disputes. In the medium term, the international community can transition their support from security-based to economic-based. Initiatives that build trusted, efficient and democratic forms of local governance across Iraq, including the Kurdish region, are crucial. The fair distribution of resources must form the bedrock of our approach.
“Achieving this as one Iraq, with a united vision of our place in the world, is best for our stability. And a stable Iraq is what is best for the stability of the region and the world.”
Iran and Turkey should heed this call and make sure that the referendum and its aftermath do not lead to further polarization within and beyond the borders of Iraq. And, Ankara should take care to keep its lines of communication open with all parties.