The crisis into which Barzani has plunged his people was both predictable and avoidable
By Abdel Bari Atwan
The president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, may have saved his leadership from collapse by insisting on proceeding with the referendum on independence, which has greatly increased his popularity. But he has also placed the Kurds in a difficult predicament, aggravating their regional and international isolation and uniting their enemies.
Anyone watching the joint press conference held by the presidents of Turkey and Iran after they met to discuss the situation last week will have been left in no doubt that tough times lie ahead for Iraqi Kurdistan. The relative prosperity and security enjoyed by the region for the past 14 years are about to evaporate, and the threat is growing of more wars that could drive people once again into the mountains and ravines.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rohani both stressed that their countries would never agree to the region’s fragmentation and insisted on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria as a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East. They also took some important decisions to strengthen bilateral economic relations.
Erdogan went further, warning that northern Iraq would face isolation in the wake of the illegal referendum, and vowing to break of all contacts with the regional authorities and talk only to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. ‘What sort of referendum is this ’ he mocked, ‘when neither it nor its results are recognized by anyone except a single state (Israel) and it is managed by the Mossad?’
The Kurds, and Barzani in particular, had been wagering on the weakness of the Turkish link in the chain. They were also confident that their Israeli allies, given their influence within the US administration and Congress, would manage to shift American opposition to the referendum and to the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan. These expectations were spelled this out by Barzani in closed-door gatherings. He said he anticipated there would be hostile reactions to the referendum, and that a blockade would be imposed on the region, but was also sure that the situation would change with the passage of time, that the world would not accept a blockade imposed on the Kurds, and that with a little patience, victory could be achieved.
But this prediction may have been hasty, revealing a measure of naivety and/or incomprehension of the seriousness and bad timing of Barzani’s move.
The wily Iranians know that the Turkish economy is Erdogan’s big weakness, so opted to compensate him for the loss of $10 billion in trade with Iraqi Kurdistan by opening three new overland crossings between Iran and Turkey, signing deals in the two countries’ local currencies in order to encourage bilateral trade, opening a pipeline that delivers oil directly to Turkish ports without having to pass through Irbil, and trebling bilateral trade to $30 billion in just a few years.
Barzani may have foreseen this too. But with his obstinacy and refusal to listen to the entreaties of his allies to postpone the referendum, there were two major developments that he was not expecting; or may have predicted without appreciating their full significance:
First, units of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, having overrun the last Islamic State (IS) stronghold at al-Haweija, are now using it as a launching-pad for the recapture of Kurdish-held Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields. They could conceivably proceed from there to advance on the Kurdistan region proper and its capital Irbil. The Kurdish peshmerga would be unable to hold back a concerted assault along the entirety of the region’s long and winding borders.
Secondly, rifts have grown on the Kurdish domestic front, with opposition growing against Barzani’s leadership, especially in Suleimaniya, capital of the Kurdish region’s eastern district and stronghold of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), historic rival of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), whose leadership is closer to Tehran. Last week, Talabani’s widow and PUK politburo member Hero Ibrahim launched a ferocious attack on Barzani. She rejected his move to establish a political council to follow up on the referendum’s outcome, and accused him of recklessly alienating neighbouring countries as well as Russia, China, the US and European countries by refusing to heed their appeals not to hold the referendum. She warned that the region’s inhabitants were being made to pay the price for Barzani’s actions and came out openly against him remaining president of the region.
Turkey holds the key to the success or failure of any independent Kurdish state. If it unites with Iran against such a state, neither Israel nor the US will be of any use to it. And in the meantime, Barzani has driven Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi reluctantly into Iran’s arms.
True, there are those in northern Iraq who argue that the Kurds have experienced hunger and deprivation before, that they became accustomed to such tribulations over the decades when they lived as fighters in the mountains – their only true friends and protectors — and that they are prepared to return to that life if necessary. But why should they have to face all these dangers and all this suffering? The younger generation has not shared its forebears’ experiences. It has grown accustomed to prosperity and has different aspirations. It does not have to bear the consequences of decisions taken by a leadership that thinks only of maintaining its grip on power and places this above the interests of the Kurdish people.
Erdogan, Rohani, and Abadi are united against the Kurds and their referendum and in demanding its nullification before any dialogue over ending the blockade can begin. Turkey, Iraq and Iraq fear for their territorial integrity and national unity, and along with Syria, are capable of suffocating and paralyzing the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
There is a theory that the biggest mistake made by IS and its leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi was to move on Irbil after capturing Mosul in 2014. His forces were only 40 kilometres away from the city when the Americans and Iranians intervened to halt their advance. Had IS headed to Baghdad instead it might have captured the capital, since the Iraqi army was in a state of complete disarray at the time — and Irbil mattered more to the US and Europe than Baghdad did.
Ironically, Iran played a major part in halting the IS offensive on the ground, while the American role was confined to aerial bombardment. The peshmerga were supplied with Iranian weapons and equipment after retreating before advancing IS forces. It is debateable whether Iran would have adopted the same position had it known of these secession plans.
Barzani could have wielded power in Baghdad by democratic means or become kingmaker there had he joined up with the other forces opposed to the previous Iraqi government and its corruption and sectarianism. But, just like that government, he adopted a sectarian, ethnocentric and separatist approach. Now, he may end up losing both Baghdad and Irbil.
We do not know how things will develop in the coming weeks or months, but two things should be noted: First, Kurdistan is not Barzani, and Barzani is not Kurdistan. Secondly, if Irbil was saved from being invaded by IS in 2014, it may not be so fortunate if it is subjected to a blockade and a joint offensive by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and Iranian al-Qods Brigade, as some have predicted, suggested or threatened.
The Kurds need to understand that Israel and the Arab regimes that are tacitly allied with it only want to use them to weaken, destabilize and disrupt their neighbours. The motives of these supposed friends should be examined, and their power should not be overestimated. Those who were unable to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza will not be able to defeat Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria combined.