It would not be wise for Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to deliver on his threat to send forces to the oil fields in Kirkuk and impose a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, if the president of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, does not hand over control of the airports in irbil and Sulaymaniyah to Baghdad. Furthermore, Abadi’s pledge to the Iraqi parliament that the government would not enter in dialogue with the Kurdish leadership unless it abolishes the referendum and its outcomes, blocks any possible political accord and opens the door to a military confrontation between Arabs and Kurds, and may even invite Turkish and Iranian intervention.
The accumulated mistakes and stubbornness of the Kurdish leaders led to the dangerous current situation, where the Kurds have backed themselves into a difficult corner, emerging from which safely will not be easy. The supporters of the referendum believe backing down from it would have been political suicide for Barzani, without international guarantees and a firm timeline for independence. But critics blame Barzani for taking such a big risk against all advice and entreaties to postpone the vote, so that the Kurds do not trigger the partition of Iraq. These critics now say that the Kurds are committing suicide between the fangs of Turkey and Iran and the claws of the Iraqi state because of their determination to hold the referendum at this time. Now, there is no other option for all players but to back down.
There is a dire need for preemptive American and Russian intervention to prevent further deterioration and a military confrontation. The Saudi-led Gulf engagement of Iraq recently could pave the way for a positive role in the context of internal power dynamics in Iraq, especially in light of improving relations with Haider Al-Abadi. The Kurds are saying the state of Iraq is a sectarian Iranian-dominated entity, and one of the leading goals of their referendum is to engage in serious dialogue with Baghdad, using the results of the vote as a card to secure a confederate democratic state in Iraq, instead of continuing to allow Iraq to be subject to Iran’s will. But what now after tension reached dangerous levels, with threats issued not only for Irbil to abolish the referendum, which Baghdad deems to be illegitimate and unconstitutional, but also giving Kurdish leaders 72 hours to hand over airports, crossings, and northern oil fields in Kirkuk and disputed areas to the control of the central government in Baghdad.
Perhaps one of the easiest and simultaneously toughest compromises lies in defining the purpose of the referendum, to render it closer to being a poll rather than a document initiating Kurdish statehood in Iraq. This way, it would be possible to buy time to start negotiations, while acknowledging the reality that 92 percent of Kurdish voters voted in favor of independence. This way too, the Iraqi government can gently back down from its impossible and illogical demands for having the referendum, which has already been held, abolished.
Several US circles have encouraged the Kurds in Iraq to press ahead with their independence project, deeming a Kurdish independent state in Iraq an irreversible fait accompli. These circles have blessed the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk as a key source of oil wealth, based on the premise that imposing a de facto reality on Baghdad would force it to accept it. These American circles persuaded Kurdish leaders that the time is right to impose an independent Kurdish state now, and that the time has come to cash in on the Kurdish military investments in partnership with the US against Daesh.
The surprise came to Kurdish leaders through the positions declared by the Trump administration. The Kurds did not want to believe the US objection was serious and were shocked by the US reaction. The Kurdish leadership had been overwhelmingly confident about US support for their independence project, which in practical terms was a project for starting the partition of Iraq. To be sure, the US had put the Kurds in the front lines of the war on Daesh, and the Kurds believed that had secured for them a distinguished position with Washington.
Then there is the Iran factor, which was an unknown number in the calculations of Iraq’s Kurds. At times they had received military support from Iran during anti-Daesh operations, but at most other times, the Kurds understood that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were exporting their model to Iraq, via the Popular Mobilization Units, to dominate the country. The institutionalization of the PMUs was a source of concern for the Kurds, who believed that unless they acted immediately, it would soon be too late, and the Kurds would lose their seat at the table.
“We are the obstacle hindering the Iranian project in the region,” as one informed Kurdish source put it. “The Kurdish leaders have refused to allow Kurdish areas to be corridors for Iranian weapons shipments to Syria.” This is why the US position was shocking to the Kurds, as it effectively endorsed Iran’s projects in Iraq. “They proved their loyalty to their biggest ally, Iran, despite their claims that it is a threat to their friends and that it is a sponsor of terror.”
The Kurds are apprehensive that Iraq will be dominated by Iran, and they feel marginalized and excluded. They perceive the US, Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi reactions to their vote as unfair and unjust. The sharp reaction of UN chief Antonio Guterres has astonished them. The Kurds had probably calculated that diplomatic and political reactions would last for a short period of time then would calm down. However, the practical punitive measures launched by Iraq’s prime minister, Turkey’s president and Iran’s leaders have given the Kurds in Iraq a rude awakening.
Apprehensive about Iran’s dominance in Iraq, the Kurds had been confident of US support for their vote on statehood, and were dismayed when the opposite happened.
The Kurds’ relations with Washington remain of paramount importance. The Trump administration has to stop blaming the Kurds for not postponing the referendum, and for not using it as a means to negotiate on all outstanding issues with Baghdad, with the autonomy of Kurdistan part of a nationwide Iraqi confederal arrangement instead of serving as the starting point for partitioning Iraq into three separate states. In the meantime, US diplomacy could play a role to contain Iran’s dominance of Iraq and its quest to impose religious rule, emulating its theocracy back home. This requires Washington to adopt a comprehensive, cohesive and serious strategy on Iran, which at present seems unlikely and even fanciful. If US foreign policy remains jumbled, relying on rhetoric and lip service, Iraq will face partition, not because this is what the Kurds want, but because this is exactly what Iran wants in order to impose the so-called Persian crescent extending from Tehran to Beirut via Iraqi and Syrian territory left by Washington for Iran to seize without objection.
Russia is a partner for both Iran and Turkey in Syria as guarantors for de-escalation zones there. It is keen on buffering the Kurds from the Turks, although the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are allied to the US. Some Kurds in Iraq believe the distance the US has placed between them will be an opportunity for Russia to be an alternative partner. The Kurds stress Russia should have a foothold in Iraq, bearing in mind that Iraq remains a closed space to the Russians, in contrast to its previous status as part of Russia’s sphere of influence before Bush’s invasion. According to these Kurdish voices, Russia may prefer a united Iraq, but it understands the Kurds’ national aspirations, and Moscow continues to engage Irbil on issues such as oil and gas cooperation, of which the Turks are also part.
The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the hardcore opponents of the referendum, although until recently he was less critical of it. Suddenly, he has pledged to starve Kurds in the region and to take joint military action with Baghdad if needed, and is working with Iran to contain Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Iran. He has threatened to send forces to create a buffer zone between Syria’s Kurds and Iraq’s Kurds with a Tigris Shield force akin to the Euphrates Shield force he has deployed to northern Syria.
The climate is very tense. There is a dire need for a US or UN envoy to be appointed to head off further deterioration, through creative, practical and fair proposals, mechanisms, and measures. To express regret over the referendum or to threaten to close borders and airspaces is not the way to go. Indeed, even a military option is now not farfetched, in which case catastrophe shall strike again, and the convoys of corpses will return to Iraq once more because of the accumulated mistakes of its leaders.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham