On Monday, Kurdish voters headed to the polls to participate in the historic Kurdish referendum for independence. The outcome landed heavily in favor of independence, with 93 percent voting in favor. We spoke with Amberin Zaman, a columnist for the independent Turkish online news portal Diken as well as for Al Monitor, about why it’s important and what it means for the region.
Foreign Policy Interrupted: What is the context for this referendum?
Amberin Zaman: The referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence is the culmination of more than two decades of self-rule in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Some 40 million Kurds scattered across Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria have long yearned, and struggled in various degrees, for a state of their own after being denied one by the Allies as they redrew the map of the Middle East when the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I. The Iraqi Kurds have come the closest among their cousins to claim a state of their own through a mix of wiles, determination and lots of serendipity. The 1991 Gulf War, when the allies declared a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, freed the Kurds to lay the ground of their fledgling state. Turkey’s albeit reluctant cooperation, allowing and benefitting from a lucrative illicit trade in diesel, via its borders, and hosting coalition jets protecting the Kurds, played a critical role. The 2003 invasion of Iraq gave the Kurds the biggest boost of all.
FPI: What role does oil play in the referendum?
AZ: Under Iraq’s new constitution, Kurds enjoyed sweeping new rights and a share of revenues from Iraq’s oil wealth. But the central government in Baghdad repeatedly reneged on its obligations and since 2014 has denied the Kurd their share of revenues. The Kurds have in turn begun to export their own oil independently of Iraq, via a pipeline running to Turkey.
The continued flow of oil and their vast and untapped reserves of natural gas is critical to the Kurds plans for a sustainable independent state.
That is now in jeopardy as Turkey threatens to cut off the flow.
FPI: How could Kurdistan’s gaining independence impact the fight against ISIS? How could it impact the future of Iraq?
AZ: The timing of referendum is hardly accidental. Wracked by sectarian conflict, impoverished by the fall in oil prices and mauled by the Islamic state, the central government in Baghdad has never looked weaker. The retreat of Iraqi forces from the so-called disputed areas, including from much of the oil rich province of Kirkuk in the face of the June 2014 IS onslaught, allowed the Kurds to take these without firing a single bullet.
Additionally, for the first time, at least until the referendum was held, the Iraqi Kurds had a firm ally in Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A 50-year energy agreement sealed between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2011 underpinned the increasingly close ties between Ankara and Erbil. Erdogan’s alliance with the Iraqi Kurds allowed him to tell Kurds back home that he is not anti-Kurdish. Rather Turkey’s brutal crackdown on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates is solely about terrorism. It’s an argument he will likely use to woo conservative Kurdish voters during three critical sets of elections, municipal, parliamentary and presidential all to be held in 2019. Thus, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will have reckoned that Erdogan would not make much of a fuss about the referendum.
His main rival Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi president and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is incapacitated by illness, leaving his party rudderless, divided and weak. Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of the other main opposition group, Gorran passed away, this year leaving his party similarly shaky. This too makes it easier for Barzani to forge ahead with this independence plans without encountering much resistance from his domestic opponents prompting critics to label him a dictator.
Barzani shrugs off the claims that he is bent on cementing his “Barzanistan.” The 71-year-old leader feels it is his historic responsibility to deliver independence to his people who have been gassed, annihilated en masse and long denied their rights by successive Iraqi governments. His father, the legendary Mullah Mustafa Barzani, ignited their struggle for freedom. He wants to complete it.
FPI: Do you feel US’s lack of support for an independent Kurdistan is a missed opportunity?
AZ: One of the main reasons the United States said it was opposed to the referendum was the fact that this would disrupt the fight against IS. The worry is that Iraqi security forces and Shiite-dominated militias whose next target is the IS held city of Hawija would train their energy on seeking for instance to dislodge the peshmerga from Kirkuk. Moreover, the peshmerga remain critical to the fight against IS. If they end up fighting the Iraqi army and its allies ISIS would swiftly regroup in the ensuing vacuum. The other main worry is the political future of Iraqi Prime Minister Heidar al Abadi. He is viewed as a moderate who can help curb Iranian influence. The referendum held in defiance of his warnings makes him look weak and allows his Tehran backed opponents to cast him as ineffectual.
Yet, the Kurds have repeatedly said they remain committed to helping Iraq combat ISIS and that the referendum will change nothing in this respect. And they cannot allow themselves to remain hostage to Abadi’s career plans.
The Kurds want out as amply demonstrated in the referendum result.
The volume and tone of the United States’ opposition to the referendum have emboldened Turkey, Iran and Baghdad to react far more fiercely than they were initially planning but failed to sway Barzani. Worse the United States obviously had no plan for the day after and is no scrambling to defuse a crisis it helped ignite with its belligerent noises about the referendum.
FPI: How do you think an independent Kurdistan would influence stability in the Middle East?
AZ: The notion that the Kurds’ have to somehow prove that their independence is useful to the rest of region before being allowed to enjoy it misses the point. It is the brutal suppression of their most fundamental rights that remain a source of instability in all four countries that are home to large ethnic Kurdish populations. The lesson of Iraq is that if you leave it for too late there is simply no way back. The Iraqi Kurds have zero desire to remain part of a country they feel no connection too. Turkey, Iran and Syria should act swiftly to give their Kurds a better deal before they end up facing the same result.