Polls, referendums and declarations of independence have become a 21st century fashion, but none can claim much success. South Sudan has been a hotbed of civil strife ever since it broke away from Sudan in 2011. When the prospect of Scottish independence was put to the people in a constitutional referendum in 2014, it failed to gain a majority. Catalonia’s bid for independence in an unconstitutional poll on October 1, 2017 is collapsing before the Spanish government’s determination to uphold the constitution. And the referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September, despite achieving over 90 percent approval from voters, has backfired spectacularly. Instead of paving the way to statehood, or boosting the Kurds’ bargaining power in negotiations, it has triggered a humiliating reversal of fortunes for Iraq’s Kurds.
Denounced as illegal by Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, the Kurdish referendum was – for various reasons, not all of them consistent – viewed as “untimely” by the US and much of the Middle East. As far as the US was concerned, the referendum came at a peculiarly inappropriate moment. President Donald Trump’s administration has committed itself to the delicate process of tying Saudi Arabia into the anti-Islamic State (IS), anti-Assad, coalition in Syria, of creating a Saudi-Iraqi alliance, and thence possibly of binding Saudi into a broader initiative aimed at addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy, has played a key role. When Iraqi prime minister al-Abadi (a Shia Muslim) met King Salman of Saudi Arabia (leader of the Sunni Muslim world) on October 22. 2017, McGurk was present, together with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. This wooing of Saudi Arabia – which may have started in earnest in May 2017, with Trump’s visit to Riyadh – was carried a stage further in late October when Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, undertook a secret mission there, his third in 2017.
It was into the midst of this flurry of diplomatic activity that the Kurdish referendum and its aftermath intruded. It was an unwelcome distraction from what the Trump administration undoubtedly regarded as matters of greater moment. The trouble is that in Iraq Trump, perhaps unwittingly, has been pursuing a policy – including his attitude to Kurdish independence – ultimately destined to empower the very player he least wishes to: Iran.
Iran’s influence within Iraq is formidable and growing. In 2014 when IS, having seized Mosul, advanced south towards Baghdad, the first power to respond was Iran. It rapidly dispatched weapons and military advisers to support Iraq’s struggling army. Since then Iranian-backed Shia militias have formed part of Baghdad’s efforts to defeat IS.
The weak and ineffective Iraqi military of the early 2000s, transformed by US training and equipment into a highly effective fighting force, is now largely run by Iran which vastly increased its influence during the Obama years. Iran also controls a significant part of Iraq’s political apparatus. The Shi’ite Supreme Islamic Council parliamentary bloc, under Iranian guidance, introduced laws on October 31 making it illegal to demonstrate support for Israel, for example by raising the Israeli flag in public.
Behind this new anti-Israel legislation lies the long-standing warm relationship between the Kurds and Israel. Media images during the independence campaign showed the Israeli flag in rally after rally being waved alongside that of the Kurds. This counted for nothing with Washington as far as the independence referendum was concerned. “The vote and the results lack legitimacy,” declared Tillerson, “and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”
But the Trump administration seems to have turned a Nelsonian blind eye to the true state of affairs in Iraq. In pursuit of prime minister al-Abadi and a possible Iraqi-Saudi coalition, they chose to sacrifice the freedom-seeking Kurds on the altar of a so-called democratic Iraq that is already under the thumb of the President’s main bête noir – Iran.
It was always most unlikely that any Saudi-Iraqi agreement would stick, but the firing of an Iranian missile on November 4, 2017 by the Iranian-controlled Houthis in Yemen aimed at Riyadh, almost certainly scuppers the idea before it was launched. Fortunately the Saudis intercepted and destroyed it in mid-flight, but the moving spirit behind the operation could scarcely be in doubt.
Meanwhile al-Abadi, backed by the US and also the Iranian power brokers in Iraq, has moved decisively against the disheartened Kurds. He tried to assure them that they are not the enemy, even as Iraqi forces backed by Shi’ite militias moved into areas of the north previously held by the KRG.
Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, who announced on 29 October that he was resigning, blamed the loss of Kirkuk on a deal cut by a wing of Kurdistan’s other main party to allow Iraqi troops to enter. As a result the KRG’s international airspace has been closed, and the Kurds have lost nearly half of the territory they have controlled since the war against IS began. Neighboring Turkey and Iran have closed their borders to the land-locked area.
Some newspaper reports allege that the Trump administration attempted to broker a delay in the Kurdish independence referendum. In return for a postponement, it is suggested, the Kurds were offered letters from the United States and Britain promising to facilitate and support the Kurds’ negotiations with Baghdad, and if, after two years, negotiations had not progressed, the US would support a referendum.
Saadi Pira, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main opposition to Barzani, said members of his party told Barzani that they supported the US initiative. But, said Pira, nothing would dissuade Barzani from conducting the referendum. Two US officials did not deny to the Washington Post that a draft letter had been written, but said Tillerson never sent it to Barzani.
Barzani blames elements in “another party” for the loss of Kirkuk, but the PUK maintains that a deal was necessary to avoid bloodshed, and that economic pressures could bring Kurdistan, already struggling to pay salaries, to its knees.
As Iraqi forces entered Kirkuk, the Peshmerga were ordered to stand down in line with the deal.
“We have betrayed Kirkuk,” said Lt. Burhan Rashid, a Peshmerga fighter. “We have betrayed Kurdistan.”