The risks of not postponing the Kurdish independence vote

The risks of not postponing the Kurdish independence vote

Senior Iraqi Kurdish official Mala Bakhtiar on Monday raised the possibility of postponing next month’s independence referendum in return for economic and political concessions from the central government in Baghdad. Among those concessions, he said Baghdad should help the Kurds overcome a financial crisis and settle debts owed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which he estimated at $10-12 billion.
Bakhtiar’s comments would seem to be in line with those by the KRG’s representative in Iran, Nazem Dabbagh, who last month said the referendum is really a negotiating tactic to pressure Baghdad into making concessions. If this is the case, however, it is a rather odd tactic, because it is trying to exact major concessions merely for an undefined postponement of the referendum, not its indefinite shelving. What, then, is Baghdad’s incentive to play ball?
In light of the US call earlier this month to postpone it, and KRG President Masoud Barzani’s insistence that the referendum — planned for Sept. 25 — will not be delayed “by one minute,” the Kurds’ strategy may be to pin the blame for not postponing it on Baghdad’s refusal to negotiate terms that the KRG knows are unrealistic. But it is doubtful whether this would fool anyone.
It is in both sides’ interest to hold wide-ranging talks under a mutually agreed agenda and timetable. But such talks should be undertaken in recognition of that mutual benefit and necessity, not as one party holding the other hostage. 
Neither should Baghdad insist on taking Kurdish independence off the table as a precondition. It cannot be in denial that independence is, in all likelihood, a matter of when, not if. As such, comments last month by Iraq’s ambassador in Tehran that independence is “impossible,” and that a Kurdish state would be “sill-born,” are counterproductive.
There is much to negotiate over — politically, economically and territorially — whether the Kurds secede or not. Without substantive talks, if the referendum goes ahead next month it could well create conflict — even a civil war, as Turkey warned earlier this month — which could easily spill over beyond Iraq’s borders. This would benefit no one except parties such as Daesh that thrive on chaos and vacuums.
The problem for Barzani and the KRG is that they have painted themselves into a corner by repeatedly insisting on holding a referendum, and on holding it this year. As such, going back on this pledge risks a backlash among Iraqi Kurds that could be politically costly with parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 1.

It is in both sides’ interest to hold wide-ranging talks under a mutually agreed agenda and timetable. But such talks should be undertaken in recognition of that mutual benefit and necessity, not as one party holding the other hostage. 

Sharif Nashashibi

Nonetheless, there are valid domestic considerations that justify a postponement, other than the obvious benefits of trying to negotiate an amicable divorce. Firstly, the military campaign against Daesh in Iraq, in which the Kurds are a key ground force, will still be ongoing by the time of the referendum. 
This means the vote could divert Kurdish attention away from the military campaign, create divisions among its various ground forces or even direct conflict between them, and otherwise play into Daesh’s hands by acting as a lightning rod for recruitment. It is in the context of the war against the group that the US requested the referendum’s postponement. 
And as long as the campaign continues, there will be Iraqi government forces and powerful Shiite militias in the north whose patrons in Baghdad and Tehran oppose Kurdish independence. 
Their presence so close to the proposed state, and the likelihood of the vote causing upheaval in contested areas (from which Shiite militias have threatened to expel the Kurds), cannot be ignored. Indeed, when asked if he worried the Iraqi army and Shiite militias would attack Kurdish regions, Dabbagh replied: “One hundred percent. That is my fear.”
There is also the related matter of recent discussions between neighboring Turkey and Iran on possible joint military action against Kurdish militant groups, amid warnings by both countries against holding the referendum.
The Kurds are surrounded by countries and forces that oppose the very idea of their independence, regardless of when the referendum is held. But rejecting the US request for postponement until after Daesh in Iraq is defeated risks alienating one of their most important allies, at a time when a landlocked Kurdistan would be at its neighbors’ economic mercy. “We are an enclosed geographical area surrounded by Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria,” said Dabbagh. “If they want to, these countries can strangle us.”
With the clock ticking, the KRG does not have much time left to decide whether it is in the best interests of its people to heed nationalist sentiment now, or wait for a more expedient opportunity.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view