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How the Kurds’ referendum blunder has rippled through the Middle East

The once wildly popular German author Karl May, a favorite of Einstein and Hitler, wrote stories of the Old American West — which he had never visited. In the 1880s he also wrote a series of tales of the Middle East, including one — Through Wild Kurdistan — which told a tale of Kurds, Yazidis and Turks, blood feuds and hunts in a romantically remote and mountainous landscape.  At one point the Yazidis are sneakily attacked by a force from Mosul. For someone who had never been anywhere near Iraq, Persia or Turkey, it is an amazing feat of the imagination, not least because its themes echo down the years.  I too have been hunting in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Yazidis are still called “devil worshippers” by their enemies, and attacked unawares. Kurds still fall out among themselves.  And they are still surrounded by enemies. 
The big news last month was the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. The outcome was an overwhelming victory for those who wanted independence.  The aftermath was a disaster, and has thrown the Kurds back on the mercy of their enemies — and their friends. The Iraqi security forces, supported by the Iranian-backed militias of the Hashd Al-Shaabi, pushed into many of the areas the Kurds had held since beating back the Daesh assaults of 2014 and sometimes beyond, particularly around Kirkuk but also further to the west of Erbil, and simply expelled the Peshmerga. There was more fighting than some of the Kurds’ international partners admitted at the time. But without any unified political leadership, the Kurds could not withstand the military assault. Relations between — and maybe even more so within — the three leading Kurdish political parties, the KDP, the PUK and Gorran, already difficult after the presidential and parliamentary crisis of 2015, have been seriously embittered. Many in the PUK and Gorran, particularly the younger generation, blame the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani for overreaching.  The KDP and even some older cadres in Sulaymaniyah blame the PUK and Gorran leaderships for selling out to Iran and Baghdad.    
Many of the accusations the different sides trade ring true. Barzani did overreach. He was warned that he would not have international support if he went ahead.  Equally it is also true that both Baghdad and more importantly Iran, through Qassem Soleimani and his lieutenants, exerted huge pressure on the leaders of the PUK and Gorran to abandon Irbil and by extension the KDP, surrender Kirkuk and withdraw their forces from other disputed areas. 
In a sense this is history repeating itself. The Kurds have a collective memory of betrayal, in the 1920s by the British and French, who had promised a Kurdish state at Sevres only to reverse their promise (under huge Turkish pressure) at Lausanne; in the 1940s by the Soviet Union, which had encouraged them to carve out a state — the Mahabad Republic — only to leave them to their fate when a deal with Tehran became more important; in the 1970s by the US and Iran, who had supported a Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi state only to ditch them when Iran and Iraq patched up their differences in the Algiers Accord. They also betray each other; the Kurdish civil war of the 1990s was only the last in a series.
The problem is that this time the results of the Kurdish tendency to feud, their instrumentalization by neighbors and other international actors and their inability to overcome their geo-strategic constraints, caught between Turkey, Iran and the Arabs, with no access to the sea and — as they themselves say — no friend but the mountains, are far more consequential. This is not simply about the KRG; it is about the Middle East as a whole. The failure of the Kurdish referendum project has given Iran in particular an opportunity to weaken the one part of Iraq that has consistently been pro-Western and open for business.  It has given them the ability to shape Kurdish politics not just inside Iraq but also in Syria — where the Syrian Democratic Forces will have drawn profound lessons from Barzani’s apparent abandonment by the US and the UK — and inside Iran itself. Links they have carefully cultivated with the PKK give the Iranians leverage inside Turkey. Iran has strengthened some of the key sectarian militias inside Iraq, including Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq — a terrorist organization miraculously rehabilitated by Daesh — and Badr, who were quick to claim credit for securing Kirkuk and continue to consolidate around Tel A’far and south along the Syrian border towards Al-Qaim. It has shown Turkey that the US in particular will not stand with the Kurds if they have bigger interests at stake, a lesson they will apply in northwestern Syria, where they are seeking to make an extension of Kurdish control impossible.

Instead of leaving Masoud Barzani to his fate, we should have found a way to prevent Iran’s inevitable attempt to capitalize on his mistake.

Sir John Jenkins

Press attention has shifted elsewhere in the past two weeks because of developments in Lebanon and Riyadh. But this means we risk losing sight of what is really important. In the past week we have seen pro-Assad forces take full control of Deir Ezzor city and multinational Shiite militias greeting each other joyfully on the Syria-Iraq borders. We have heard Ali Akbar Velayati, main foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,  proclaiming in Aleppo: “The resistance line starts from Tehran and passes through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut to reach Palestine.” We have read threats in Al Kayhan newspaper that it is “the Yemeni revolutionaries who decide the next target for long-range ballistic missiles. Riyadh, Jeddah, Taif and ARAMCO may be targeted, but Ansarullah may also turn the tip of the missile toward the fancy glass harbor of Dubai!” and “firing of a missile against Riyadh International Airport can change the Saudi calculations… the Saudis may increase their attacks against cities in Yemen, but they will certainly change their adventurism when they discover people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones.”  And it may be no coincidence that the leader of the dissident Ahwaz movement has reportedly just been assassinated in The Hague. This stirs unhappy memories of the last time Iran felt its behavior unconstrained.
Masoud Barzani’s decision to call a referendum against the advice of his friends was undoubtedly reckless. It was also the result of a generational struggle for independence led for decades by his father. Barzani could see what was happening elsewhere in the region, notably the rise of Iran, the satrapization of Iraq and Syria and the rapid ebbing of US and European interest. This was his last throw of the dice. It was quixotic and it was wrong. He should have resolved his domestic political problems first, and then struck a deal. But once he decided to go ahead, we should collectively have found a way to respond to the inevitable Iranian push to seize the initiative and capitalize on the mistakes of others. Instead, we simply stood back.     
When Karl May wrote his stories of Kurdistan, the region was wild, beautiful, violent, dangerous, isolated and romantic. It is still beautiful and dangerous. But the violence tends to come from outside. The power games of others have destroyed much of the romance.  And it is no longer isolated; what happens in Kurdistan echoes throughout the region. 
• Sir John Jenkins is corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Manama, Bahrain. He is also a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Until January 2015, he was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia.