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Kurdish referendum set to plunge Iraq into existential crisis

September 18, 2017 at 7:05 pm

As the Iraqi Kurdish administration continues to defy international opinion by pressing ahead with its plans to hold an advisory independence referendum next Monday, Iraq’s two most powerful neighbouring countries have stepped up rhetorical opposition to the move.

At the weekend Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, made clear Iran’s fundamental opposition to the referendum and warned that the Islamic Republic only recognises a united Iraq.    

Meanwhile Turkey has gone a step further by holding military drills on sensitive points on the Turkish-Iraqi border, presumably to intimidate Iraqi Kurdish leaders. This follows a warning by Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildrim, that Ankara may impose sanctions on the regional Kurdish administration following the referendum.

These unequivocal positions by two powerful states make clear the unassailable strategic barrier to Kurdish statehood, at least for the foreseeable future. Iraqi Kurdish leaders may be bold enough to ignore these warnings by holding the referendum next week but they are unlikely to undertake concrete secessionist actions for fear of drawing a military response.

But rather than planning to intervene directly to scupper Kurdish plans, both Iran and Turkey hope that their robust posturing will bolster the morale and resolve of Iraqi political actors to counter Kurdish moves in the critical weeks, months and years ahead. However, whether the divided Iraqi political landscape will rise to the challenge is a different matter altogether.

Strategic barrier   

In respect of the forthcoming advisory Kurdish independence referendum it is important to point out that under Article 1 of the United Nations charter the Kurdish people have a right to self-determination. Therefore, opposition in principle to the very notion of Kurdish statehood is neither morally nor legally sustainable.

Read: We will close borders with Iraq if Kurds secede

The most credible opposition to these plans rest on the argument that Iraqi Kurdish leaders need to assess the viability and desirability of statehood, both in respect of the internal Iraqi context and the expected regional and international reaction to Kurdish independence.

Within Iraq, and of course outside of the core Kurdish region (i.e. excluding “disputed areas”), there is strong opposition to the advisory independence referendum. This national will is reflected in the Iraqi Supreme Court’s order today to suspend the referendum on the grounds that it may be unconstitutional. However, this decision will likely be ignored by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The decision by Iraq’s top court comes on the heels of a stern warning by Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, that Iraq will use force in the event of the Kurdish referendum turning violent. Whilst Al-Abadi hinted at the potential aggressive reaction by Iraq’s neighbours to Kurdish plans, he is likely more worried by the potential for conflict between the Kurds and the Shia militias, particularly over the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

But Al-Abadi is right to worry aloud about potential Turkish and Iranian reactions, which may include long-term military interventions. In Turkey’s case, a Kurdish state on its southern border, abutting Kurdish-majority regions inside Turkey, is simply intolerable as that scenario will inevitably embolden secessionist Turkish Kurds. The Turkish state is terrified of disintegration and has both the will and the means to intervene decisively in northern Iraq, as it has done repeatedly since the early 1990s.

In Iran’s case, the response will likely be more nuanced as, unlike Turkey, Tehran doesn’t have a major internal Kurdish insurgency to contend with. Moreover, unlike Turkey, Iran doesn’t have a history of militarily intervening in Kurdish-majority areas of Iraq, intermittent border shelling notwithstanding.

Read more: Israeli support for Kurdish statehood is a poisoned chalice

However, Iran is extremely sensitive to the Kurdish issue in so far as the Iranians view the Kurds as a natural extension of the greater Iranian nation on account of ethnic, cultural and linguistic affinity. Furthermore, hardline ideologues in Tehran are already seeking to influence policy by painting Iraqi Kurdish leaders as the “seventh victim” of the Israeli Zionist project to block the “Islamic Revolution” and its regional allies (i.e. the Iran-led “axis of resistance”) from landing a decisive blow on the Jewish state.

Resurgent Iraq?

Unequivocal Iranian and Turkish opposition to Kurdish independence effectively renders Kurdish statehood unsustainable, if not impossible, as this putative land-locked state will be immediately faced with intolerable political, military and economic pressures.

This bitter reality is not lost on Iraqi Kurdish leaders, notably KRG President Massoud Barzani, who is widely regarded as a wily and shrewd politician. From the outset, there was speculation that Barzani was using the stick of a referendum to exact political and financial concessions from Baghdad. The same logic applies to post-referendum posturing; Barzani may use the result (which is likely to be overwhelmingly in favour of independence) to strengthen his hand in negotiations.

However, once the referendum has taken place, and the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, this will make the case for secession much stronger in the very long term. Beyond Iraq, it is precisely based on this fear that the Spanish state is doing all it can to scupper plans for an independence referendum in the Catalonia region.

To deal effectively with post-referendum fallout with a view to a clear-eyed containment of Kurdish ambitions, Iraq has two main priorities. Foremost, it needs to demonstrate political unity and strategic resolve in the face of a determined centrifugal threat. This task is made easier by the fact that barring Israel, and possibly Saudi Arabia, every major regional and international actor is opposed to Kurdish plans.

Second, the Iraqi government needs to prevent an armed conflict between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shia militias in Kirkuk and Saladin provinces as well as the northern extremity of Diyala province. This can only be achieved by demonstrating unity of command and purpose at the military and security levels. This calls for greater alignment between Iraq’s pro-American army and the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Units.

We are about to find out if Iraq has both the will and the skills to fight for its very survival.   

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.