What Next for the Iraqi Kurds?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

November 5, 2017

The Kurds of Iraq are in a decidedly worse position weeks after voting in a referendum to declare independence from Baghdad. The Iraqi government has taken control of various areas previously controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga, including the important city of Kirkuk, and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, has announced his resignation. Some in the Kurdish press have expressed profound disappointment at the lack of support from the West, warning that the United States and Europe will come to regret their decision to back Baghdad rather than Erbil. Others in the region have opined on the implications of the failure of the bid for independence for the region and what it means in the context of the greater sectarian rivalries of the Gulf.

Writing for the Saudi daily, Arab News, Raghida Dergham says that the KRG and its supporters miscalculated the level of support they had, leaving many Kurds sorely disappointed and concerned about the future: “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 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.”

In an op-ed for Rudaw, a Kurdish online newspaper, Ako Mohammed warns that ‘the world will realize its mistake of abandoning Kurdistan,’ adding that Baghdad should avoid overreaching: “Kurdistan Region and its government are enshrined in the Iraqi constitution which makes the elimination of the three autonomous provinces illegal…. The Kurdistan Region was the only hope to correct Iraq from being unconstitutional and going down the wrong path, but now and especially after the recent military incursions things are going to become more complicated. What is being done to the people of Kurdistan will lead to the complete breakup of Iraq…. The world will realize its grave strategic mistake once they see in a near future that Iraq is completely under the Hashd al-Shaabi and a place modeled after Iran. They will also see that allowing Kurdistan Region to be attacked before their own eyes was the main cause for such an Iraq to come into being.”

The Arab Times editorial staff issues a similar caution towards the Iraqi central government, suggesting that an all-out conflict would not be in the interest of anyone: “Undoubtedly, avoiding war in the oil regions of Kirkuk is a good step towards reducing tensions that emitted from the recent secession referendum in Kurdistan. However, this would not be enough unless Iraqis are wary about falling into the trap of civil war. Iraqis have had enough with the wars and adventures that their country has been through since 1958…. No one in the Arab world wants Iraq to divide; however, the quest of Arabs to prevent the division will not bring about the desired outcome as long as Iraqis still fail to realize themselves that the only way out of the internal conflicts or the ongoing conflicts with its neighbors, which have continued for the past six decades, is to preserve the unity of the land and its people. This is the only way Iraq can remain united as a nation without any creedal and sectarian groupings or even the ethnic kind that is knocking on the doors.”

Reflecting on the legacy of KRG leader Masoud Barzani, who was the driving force behind the independence referendum, Daily Sabah’s Merve Çalhan considers whether the Kurdish leader should be considered “the Kurds’ national hero or an impenitent loser?… To speak frankly, the date to hold the referendum was ill-timed in terms of widespread instability and political turmoil both in the Kurdistan region and Middle East as a whole for one…. However, this did not pan out and Barzani lost his opportunity on his way to an independent Kurdistan. He closed dialogue channels with Kurdish factions and Baghdad…. According to the referendum results, Barzani is about to turn into a so-called Kurdish hero, with approximately a 72 percent turnout, 93 percent voted in favor of independence, but he also turned into an impenitent loser and is finished in the eyes of the international community, losing all the socio-economic achievements gained between his neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iran.

As for Turkey, Yasar Yakis, in an op-ed for Arab News, argues that while the initial reaction coming out of Ankara following Kurdish losses at the hands of Iraqi forces was one of relief, Turkish leaders know that the Kurdish question is unlikely to go away: “Turkey welcomed almost with celebrations the debacle that the peshmerga suffered at the hands of the Iraqi government forces. Nonetheless, it now has to handle the Kurdish issue all the more cautiously…. Oil-related deals between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) may become a complicating factor in Turkey’s relations with both Baghdad and Irbil, with Bagdad pressing for the revocation of these deals and Irbil for adherence its obligations…. With the Syrian Kurds, how exactly the failure of the referendum will affect them depends on the attitude of Syria, the US and Russia. If Damascus agrees to meet the Syrian Kurds’ main expectations, such as the declaration of cantons, this chapter of the crisis may be closed without further complications…. If the Syrian Kurds obtain from Damascus less than what they expected, American and Russian attitudes will become important.”

Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman takes a more prescriptive approach in his op-ed, calling for a more robust support for the KRG on the part of Israel and its allies: “Israel has a chance to robustly encourage friends in the U.S. administration that the timetable for pushing forward the new policy regarding Tehran must be sped up in light of Iran’s attempts to destabilize the Kurdistan region. That means encouraging Washington to act decisively and swiftly to make it clear to Baghdad that any further moves against the Kurdistan region are unacceptable…. Now that the damage has been done to the KRG and it clearly understands the reaction to its independence drive, the goal must be to reaffirm the importance of the KRG in a stable Iraq emerging from years of war against ISIS. Israel has a role to play because Israel shares a common enemy in Iran and common allies and interests. Quiet and firm diplomacy can have the desired result.”

Recommending a decidedly more conciliatory approach, Jordan Times’s Walid Sadi urges Baghdad and Erbil to take into account the interests and will of the people by holding another constitutionally mandated plebiscite: “Neither side is reckoning with the uncontested fact that the referendum did indeed take place and neither side can dispose of it as it pleases. And neither side offers a viable way out. The referendum is now a historical fact that can be neither declared null nor put in deep freeze except by the Kurdish people who took part in it…. The only sensible thing for the two sides to do is to hold another plebiscite, on the basis of the Iraqi constitution and on a platform that calls for the unity of a federated state of Iraq. Only a follow up referendum can override the one of September 25. It can take place after a cooling period and the restoration of normal relations between two camps, perhaps to the level of the status quo ante.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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