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Why the Kurds Remain Vulnerable

Photo by Kurdishstruggle | CC BY 2.0

The overwhelming vote for Kurdish independence in the referendum in northern Iraq is re-energising Kurdish nationalism and the demand for a separate Kurdish state.

“Bye bye, Iraq! Bye bye, Iraq!”, chanted demonstrators in Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), as they danced in the streets after the polls closed.

The impact of the referendum is not confined to Iraq, but is producing outbursts of nationalist enthusiasm in Iran, where thousands of Iranian Kurds marched through the streets of their cities to show their support for the vote. Many wore masks to hide their faces from the Iranian security forces observing the demonstrations.

The angry and threatening response to the referendum by government leaders in states surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan underlines how difficult it will be for any of the 30 million Kurds in the region to win independence. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that he can close the oil pipeline carrying crude from the KRG to the Mediterranean, demanding that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership “abandons this adventure with a dark ending”. The Defence Ministry in Baghdad has announced wide-scale joint military manoeuvres with the Turkish army.

These menaces need not be taken too seriously for the moment. Mr Erdogan often issues apocalyptic warnings directed against his enemies, but is usually more cautious in acting against them, The Iraqi armed forces won a big victory by capturing Mosul from Isis in July this year, but they were able to call in the massive fire power of the US-led coalition. Baghdad would not have the same advantage if it came to war with the Kurds.

But the condemnation of the Kurdish referendum by everybody from Washington to Tehran does show the degree to which the Kurds in Iraq are isolated and without allies, if they do opt for independence. Only Israel has given them full support, something that will hardly win them friends in the region. Critics in Baghdad often accuse the Kurds of wishing to establish “a second Israel” in the Arab world.

In reality, the balance of power between the Iraqi Kurds and their many enemies has not changed much in the long term and remains heavily weighted against them. The balance did swung in their direction in 2014 when Isis defeated the Iraqi army in Mosul and the US stepped in to give air support the Kurdish peshmerga when they in turn were attacked by Isis.

Three years later Isis is close to final defeat and its self-proclaimed caliphate has been battered to pieces. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria, who supplied most of the ground forces to battle Isis, are no longer needed by the international community. Ominously, the Iraqi and Syrian governments have both won military victories against Isis and may now turn their attention to combating  the Kurds.

This is a serious point of vulnerability for the Iraqi Kurds. They took advantage of the Iraqi armed forces’ defeat by Isis in 2014 to expand their own territory. By one count they increased the area they controlled by 40 per cent, much of it in zones where Arabs, Kurdish and minority populations mingle. Once Isis is eliminated “the disputed territories” are bound to provoke friction and possible armed conflict.

An all-out war between the central government in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurds does not look likely because both sides have foreign allies who would probably prevent the fighting getting out of hand.

Did President Masoud Barzani make a mistake in holding the referendum, as so many foreign powers now contend? The answer to this depends on whether any of the threats now being made against the Kurds turn out to be more than words. If they remain rhetorical, however belligerent in tone, Mr Barzani can claim that he has successfully put the national aspirations of the Kurds back on the international agenda, even if Kurdish statehood remains a long way off.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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