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Why the Kurdish Independence Referendum was a Miscalculation

The Iraqi government has banned international flights to the Kurdish capital Irbil from 6pm this Friday, isolating the Kurds in Iraq to a degree they have not experienced since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The isolation is political as well as geographical as traditional Kurdish allies, like the US, UK, France and Germany, have opposed the referendum on Kurdish independence while near neighbours in Turkey, Iran and Baghdad are moving to squeeze the Kurds into submission.

The referendum succeeded in showing that the Kurds, not just in Iraq but in Turkey, Iran and Syria, still yearn for their own state. Paradoxically, the outcome of the poll has demonstrated both the strength of their demand for self-determination and the weakness of their ability to obtain it. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is revealed as a minnow whose freedom of action – and even its survival – depends on playing off one foreign state against the other and keeping tolerable relations with all of them, even when they detested each other. In the past an American envoy would go out one door just as the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards came in the other.

The referendum has ended, perhaps only temporarily, these delicate balancing acts at which the Kurdish leadership was very skilled. In the last few weeks, the US has denounced the referendum in forthright terms, emboldening Iraq, Turkey and Iran to punish the Kurds for their undiplomatic enthusiasm to be an independent nation.

The poll was always a dangerous gamble but it is too early to say that it has entirely failed: minority communities and small nations must occasionally kick their big power allies in the teeth. Otherwise, they will become permanent proxies whose agreement with what their big power ally wants can be taken for granted. The skill for the smaller player is not to pay too high a price for going their own way. Iraq, Turkey and Iran have all made threatening statements over the last few days, some of them bombast, but they can hit the Kurds very hard if they want to.

The Kurds are in a fix and normally they would look to Washington to help them out, but under President Trump US foreign policy has become notoriously unpredictable. Worse from the Kurdish point of view, the US no longer needs the Iraqi Kurds as it did before the capture of Mosul from Isis in July. In any case, it was the Iraqi armed forces that won a great victory there, so for the first time in 14 years there is a powerful Iraqi army in the north of the country. We may not be on the verge of an Arab-Kurdish war, but the military balance of power is changing and Baghdad, not Irbil, is the gainer.

Anxious diplomats and excited journalists describe Iraq as “being on a collision course”, but the different parties will not necessarily collide. Muddling through is not only a British trait. But there is no doubt that the situation has become more dangerous, particularly in the disputed territories stretching across northern Iraq from Syria to Iran.

The referendum always had a risky ambivalence about it which helped ignite the present crisis. It all depended on what audience Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was addressing: when he spoke to Kurdish voters, it was a poll of historic significance when the Kurds would take a decisive step towards an independent state.

But addressing an international and regional audience, Barzani said he was proposing something much tamer, more like an opinion poll, in which the Iraqi Kurds were politely indicating a general preference for independence at some date in the future. Like many leaders who play the nationalist card, Barzani is finding that his rhetoric is being taken more seriously than his caveats. “Bye, Bye Iraq!” chanted crowds in Irbil on the night of the referendum.

Much of this was born of Barzani’s bid to outmanoeuvre his political rivals in Kurdistan by re-emerging as the standard bearer of Kurdish nationalism. He will benefit from his decision to defy the world and press ahead with the vote when it comes to the presidential and parliamentary elections in KRG on 1 November.

But the price of this could be high. It is not only Barzani who is facing an election in which national self-assertion is an issue in the coming months. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a parliamentary election in 2018 and does not want to be accused of being insufficiently tough on the Kurds. Banning of international flights to Irbil is far less than many Iraqi MPs say they want.

By holding a referendum in the disputed territories, Barzani promoted this issue to the top of the Iraqi political agenda. It might have been in the interests of the Kurds to let it lie since the contending claims for land are deeply felt and irreconcilable. Optimists believe that Irbil and Baghdad could never go to war because they are both too dependent militarily on foreign powers. It is true that the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga alike could not have held off and defeated Isis without close air support from the US-led coalition. But by putting the future status of the KRG and the territories in play, Barzani has presented the Iraqi government, Turkey and Iran with a threat and an opportunity.

The four countries with Kurdish minorities fear that secessionism might spread, but a further problem is that they do not believe that an Iraqi Kurdish state would be truly independent, but would shift into the orbit of another power. The Iranians are paranoid about the possibility that such a state would be an American base threatening Iran. Politicians in Baghdad say that, if the Kurds are serious about self-determination, they would cling onto the oil fields of Kirkuk and be dependent on Turkey through which to export their crude.

Once the KRG dreamed of becoming a new Dubai with gleaming malls and hotels, but since 2014 it has looked more like Pompeii. The skyline is punctured by dozens of half completed tower blocks beside rusting cranes and abandoned machinery. The boom town atmosphere disappeared in 2014 when the price of oil went down, money stopped coming from Baghdad and Isis seized Mosul two hours’ drive away. The state is impoverished and salaries paid late, if at all. This will now all get a lot worse with airports and border crossings closed and 35,000 federal employees no longer being paid.

At all events, the political landscape in Iraq and Syria is changing: we are at the beginning of a new political phase in which the battle to defeat Isis is being replaced by a power struggle between Arabs and Kurds.

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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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