In the run up to the vote, Baghdad rejected the KRG’s proposal to delay it in return for concessions. After the referendum, the Kurds offered to delay implementing the result; again the central government stood firm. Until last week, the KRG’s position was that independence was a matter of when, not if, but its acceptance of the court decision represents the official burial of Iraqi-Kurdish statehood.
This is a stunning reversal from the Kurdish fanfare that preceded and followed the referendum, and is a stark indication of how limited the KRG’s room for manoeuver has been since the vote. It may have been counting on regional divisions hampering a united front against Kurdish independence, but the referendum created that very unity, particularly among its neighbors.
Iraq, Iran and Turkey coordinated their responses closely, implementing military, economic and political measures that were tantamount to a siege of the Kurdish region. This resulted in the KRG’s swift loss of swaths of disputed territory — most importantly oil-rich Kirkuk — and subsequent Kurdish political infighting.
The absence of regional or international recognition of Kurdish statehood elicited a deep sense of betrayal among Kurds, particularly toward the US and Russia, which were clearly unwilling to jeopardize important relations with regional allies despite Moscow’s and Washington’s close ties with the KRG.
Emboldened by the Kurds’ geographic, economic, military and diplomatic isolation, Iraq, Turkey and Iran threatened further coordinated action. Given all this, the KRG had little choice but to cave to Baghdad’s central and consistent demand that negotiations be based on accepting the ruling of the court, whose decisions cannot be appealed against.
The central government’s strident, decisive, maximalist approach has paid off handsomely, with the KRG basically accepting defeat and relinquishing its people’s national aspirations. However, this should be met not by further hard-headedness and heavy-handedness by an emboldened Baghdad, but by a willingness to negotiate with the Kurds in good faith over remaining issues of contention, and to show flexibility and pragmatism in the process.
Having achieved its aim of ending Kurdish secession aspirations, the Iraqi government should now put away its iron fist and extend the hand of friendship.
So far, however, Baghdad’s response to the Kurds’ momentous climbdown has been muted, save for the prime minister welcoming a ruling this week by the Supreme Court that the referendum was unconstitutional. The central government should seize this opportunity rather than spurn or ignore it.
Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran have forced the Kurds to remain part of Iraq, but a lack of incentives to do so will only ensure the continuation of an unhappy marriage, which is untenable in the long run and benefits neither Iraq as a whole nor its constituent communities. After all, Kurdish secessionist sentiment in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran has been spurred by grievances of discrimination, inequality and disenfranchisement.
If Kurds are punished and threatened into submission, rather than being made to feel genuinely a part of these countries, separatist sentiment among the Kurdish public will only grow, regardless of what their leaderships do or say.
Indeed, the KRG may have accepted the banning of secession, but Iraqi Kurdistan is a democracy, and its people could easily elect leaders who will not be so accepting if they see that their compromises are not being sufficiently reciprocated. As such, Baghdad — having largely achieved its objectives — should now extend a hand to the Kurds, not a fist.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.