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The Kurdish referendum imbroglio

What is the first thing you should do when you have dug yourself into a hole? Stop digging, obviously. Those involved in the imbroglio over the so-called independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, due to be held on Monday, would do well to heed this advice.
Holding a referendum on such a contentious issue at this time is bizarre, to say the least. There was no popular demand for it. Nor can those who proposed it show which one of Iraq’s problems it might solve at this moment. In other words, the move was unnecessary. And as the late French politician Talleyrand said, in politics, doing what is unnecessary is worse than making a mistake.
If by independence one means the paraphernalia of statehood, the three provinces that form Iraqi Kurdistan lack nothing: It has a president, prime minister, Cabinet, Parliament, army, police, and even virtual embassies in key foreign capitals. It is also well furnished with symbols of statehood, including a flag and national anthem.
Having said all that, one could hardly deny the Kurds a desire for independence. In a sense, some have dreamt of an independent state for over 2,000 years, when the Greek historian Xenophon ran into them in the mountains of western Asia.
But right now, all indications are that any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence could trigger a tsunami of conflicts that the region, already mired in crises, might not be able to handle. In other words, the hole dug by Irbil may become an ever-deepening black hole sucking a bigger chunk of the Middle East into the unknown. Hence the need to stop digging.
Yet almost everyone is doing the opposite. Masoud Barzani, president of the autonomous government, has lashed out at Turkey and Iran, while threatening military action to seize disputed areas in Iraq. Barzani’s tough talk may please his base, but it could strengthen chauvinist elements in Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran who have always regarded Kurds as the enemy.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi has come close to threatening to use force to stop a process that remains unclear. Threats have also come from Tehran, where National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani said his country would cancel all security accords concerning the Kurdish region, and might intervene there militarily to deal with anti-Iran groups.
Ankara has branded the referendum a “red line,” using a discredited term made fashionable by former US President Barack Obama over Syria. Just days before the referendum, the Turkish Army staged a highly publicized military demonstration on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, presumably as a warning to Irbil.

Whatever its result, the referendum would be accepted as a political fact that could and should be taken into consideration in designing the road map Iraq would need once it has wiped out Daesh.

Amir Taheri

As for Russia, the quiet support given to the referendum is more motivated by hopes of juicy oil contracts than sober geostrategic considerations. Such a stance might win President Vladimir Putin more support from the oligarchs, but it risks dragging Russia into a risky process over which it will not have any control.
Washington’s mealy-mouthed comments on the issue are equally problematic. Iraqi Kurds have been America’s best allies in dismantling the Saddamite system in post-liberation Iraq and the fight against Daesh. The US would gain nothing by casting itself as an opponent of Kurdish self-determination.
Tackling the problem from a legal angle, Iraq’s Supreme Court has declared the proposed referendum in violation of Iraq’s constitution. The national Parliament has urged the Irbil leadership to postpone the referendum, echoing a message from the US and EU. It is unclear where all this talk of canceling the referendum at the 11th hour may lead, but I think cancelation at this time could do more harm than good.
First, it could discredit the Irbil leadership at a time when it needs to prop up its authority, indeed its legitimacy. Whether one likes the Irbil leadership or not, sapping its authority is neither in the interest of Iraqi Kurds nor of Iraq as a whole. Encouraging splits in Kurdish ranks, and promoting a political vacuum in the autonomous region, is the last thing Iraq needs.
Second, last-minute cancelation could strengthen elements who still believe that force and the threat of force are the most efficient means to deal with political problems. Almost 14 years after the demise of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is not yet free of past demons who dream of a monochrome country dominated by a clique.
Third, last-minute cancelation could be seen as a legitimization of the right of Ankara and Tehran to intervene in Iraqi domestic affairs via a mixture of military pressure and thinly disguised blackmail.
So, what is the best way to stop deepening the hole? A possible answer may be built around the position taken by Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd but, apparently at least, genuinely committed to building a pluralist system in Iraq. Masum has not offered an elaborate scheme, but his suggestion that the imbroglio be tackled via talks between Baghdad and Irbil could be used as the basis for a compromise.
In such a compromise, the referendum would go ahead unhindered, while it is made clear that its outcome would not be legally binding on anyone. In other words, the referendum, whatever its result, would be accepted as a political fact that could and should be taken into consideration in designing the road map Iraq would need once it has wiped out Daesh.
Iraqi Kurds cannot impose their wishes by force, especially when they are far from united over national strategy. But Iraq cannot revert to methods of dealing with its “Kurdish problem” that led to so many tragedies for the Kurds and derailed Iraqi national life for decades.
This Monday’s referendum was unnecessary. The best one can do at the 11th hour is to help morph it into a mistake. Politics cannot deal with the unnecessary, but it can deal with mistakes.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
•  Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.