Tensions have simmered in Iraqi Kurdistan since a failed referendum on the region’s independence in September. Now demonstrators have taken to the streets for a second day of violent protests.
Security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas, as three people were killed and over 80 were injured on December 19.
More than 1,000 people – mainly civil servants, teachers and students – had demonstrated in the city of Sulaimaniya. Others set fire to the offices of Kurdish political parties in the towns of Koya, Kifri and Ranya over years of austerity, unpaid public sectors and government corruption.
The independence referendum was held on September 25, despite opposition from the international community and Iraq’s central government. Turnout for the vote was close to 72 percent and nearly 93 percent voted for independence.
Yet the secession attempt has caused strife within the region since then, with protestors demanding that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should quit.
Baghdad’s central government reacted to the referendum by retaking the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields on October 16 and imposing economic sanctions.
The Iraqi government had started cutting funds to the KRG when it built its own pipeline to Turkey in 2014 a bid for economic independence.
Though the referendum vote was non-binding, it confirmed that the Kurdish people (New York Times) wanted their own state. It also gave former president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani, more leverage to negotiate relations with Baghdad.
Those who opposed the referendum, including the U.S. and UN, feared the “potentially destabilizing effect” it would have in the Middle East. Neighboring countries, notably Turkey, Iraq and Iran, vowed to curb any Kurdish attempt for autonomy.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurdish history involves grievances, betrayal, and a perennial pursuit for statehood.
After World War I, the Middle East was to be carved out from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres intended to establish a unified Kurdish state but was opposed by founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rallied for an expansion of Turkish borders.
When the new borders were finally drawn in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, it did not include a Kurdish state. Ataturk later brutally suppressed a Kurdish uprising in Dersim, where thousands of people were killed.
The Kurds are split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, where they still largely reside. Today, they are the world’s largest stateless people with between 25 and 35 million spread across those four countries.
Despite their common struggle for statehood, the Kurds are starkly divided among political parties and fighting units. Not all Kurds speak the same dialect. Nor do they have the same ways of life or worldviews.
Why now for the Kurds in Iraq?
Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq is the closest thing to a Kurdish state. It was led by President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who stepped down on November 1. The presidential position has been vacant ever since.
The region has its own foreign policy, laws, and military called the peshmerga. The Kurds gained de facto sovereignty in 1991 after an uprising against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, which goes back to late 1980s.
Hussein subscribed to a pan-Arab ideology which sought to unify Arabs from across the Middle East. Partially in service of this vision, thousands of Kurds were systematically murdered in chemical weapons attacks and campaigns of extrajudicial killings.
Iraqi Kurds’ struggle with Baghdad traces back to this painful period. But Barzani’s decision to hold a referendum now was triggered by more contemporary developments in the region.
The first cause is Baghdad’s flouting of Iraq’s Constitution of 2005, which aimed to give the KRG partial control of its own foreign relations and share some of Iraq’s oil revenues.
Secondly, the ruling parties of the Kurdistan region of Iraq remain highly corrupt, and used the referendum to gain back popularity ahead of the parliamentary elections on November 1.
Thirdly, now that the Islamic State (IS) is losing territories in Iraq, most have fallen under peshmerga control, so the Kurdish leadership sees it as a chance to maintain these areas.
What will the West do?
For the Kurds, fighting IS had always been about consolidating territorial control as well as defeating terrorism.
Peshmerga fighters are the most effective ground forces in the battle against IS and are a critical ally to the U.S. They played a pivotal role in liberating the city of Mosul, which was the Islamic State’s most significant conquest in Iraq.
U.S. support was “never structured to advance Kurdish ambitions, but rather tailored to provide enough support to defeat the Islamic State”, wrote research fellows Morgan L. Kaplan and Ramzy Mardini for the Washington Post.
Washington opposed the referendum because it didn’t want to distract peshmerga forces from fighting IS, especially now that the group is close to defeat. After a year-long agreement, the Pentagon has stopped paying peshmerga fighters’ salaries. It has no plans to renew the agreement.
French president Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that his country is “ready to contribute actively to mediation.” Prior to the referendum, France said that though it seeks a stable Iraq, it won’t prevent “democratic process.”
Why is the region so against it?
Iraq, Turkey, and Iran fear that an independent Kurdistan will further destabilize an already hostile region. After the vote, all three countries conducted military drills on the Kurdistan borders and shut down international flights to the region.
Iraq is not willing to give up its territory, notably the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is regarded by the Kurds as “the bleeding heart of Kurdistan.” Baghdad has imposed a series of sanctions in retaliation. It said it would not sell dollars to four Kurdish banks and stopped all currency transfers to the region.
Kirkuk is currently under Kurdish control after its peshmerga fighters seized the region in 2014. The city’s oil production makes up almost ten percent of total Iraqi production, which is exported through Turkey. Kurdish independence could mean that Baghdad risks losing its position as the second largest producer in OPEC to Iran.
Though Iraq can enforce financial sanctions and ban direct international flights to the region, it can’t stop the oil exports of Iraqi Kurdistan since it’s Turkey who controls the pipeline.
Will Turkey turn off its tap?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of Iraq’s fiercest defenders, calling the Kurdish referendum “null and void.” He also threatened to cut off the oil pipeline for Kurdistan’s exports.
“We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done,” said Erdogan.
According to Amjed Rasheed, a Middle East research associate at Durham University, it would be unrealistic for Turkey to “unilaterally cut” the pipeline since Turkey benefits from its tariffs.
Despite being landlocked, “the geopolitics of Kurdistan allows the KRG to seek some regional arrangement, a regional manoeuvre for its sake. Geopolitically, Iraqi Kurdistan is like a heart linking all of these things together,” Rasheed told WikiTribune.
The KRG just also signed a deal with Russian oil company, Rosneft, to provide gas to Moscow. The pipeline will be constructed in 2019 and exports will begin in 2020. These have to go through Turkey. If Ankara cuts off the pipeline, it could jeopardise ties with Moscow. So far Russia’s position on Kurdish independence has been ambiguous.
Will the Middle East be redrawn?
Masoud Barzani said that the referendum wasn’t about redrawing borders or even independence. So what was it really about, then?
Research fellow Amjed Rasheed said that Barzani wants to “restructure the relations” between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.
“Independence is on the table,” he said. “That’s a card, and [the KRG] is going to use it if they reach a deadlock when it comes to negotiations of restructuring the relations.”
When the international community decried the referendum, it only emboldened the Kurdish defiance. The more Barzani’s hand is pulled in negotiation with Baghdad, the more likely he will use the independence card.
Kirkuk is also on the table. Baghdad has repeatedly missed deadlines to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which requires a referendum on the status of Kirkuk no later than 2007. Baghdad’s failure to address the city’s status has only increased Kurdish concerns over the ownership of its natural resources and oil revenues.
The other major player in this is Iran and its growing influence in Iraq. Tehran’s backing of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) in Iraq have some Kurds worried that the PMF may clash with peshmerga forces after IS is defeated, which Barzani wants to prevent.
President Erdogan’s latest plan of action is to close Turkey’s border with northern Iraq and shut off airspace. He said that “the final decision” on whether to shut off Kurdish oil exports will be made between Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad. But with Russia’s entry into the Kurdistan oil market, Moscow is another player which cannot be disregarded in the final decision.