Considering that 78 per cent of the 5.2 million voted in the referendum for independence in Iraq’s Kurdistan, it is, of course, an anti-climax that the vote is “non binding” for legal reasons. But it will simmer in Kurdish hearts. And that, I dare say, is its purpose. Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, was in something of a bind: some analysts expected him to back down from the referendum on September 25 seeking independence, others thought a great deal of embarrassment would be heaped upon him if he appeared to backtracking. There was another argument. Would he be able to withstand pressure from powerful neighbours like Turkey, Iran, Iraq? He demonstrably did withstand that pressure. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s enthusiastic support for the referendum must have provided moral support. It is part of the theatre of international affairs that Israel appears to perform a solo act but, in reality, the US stands four square behind it.
Information coming out of Turkey suggests that the US has flown 112 plane loads of arms for Syria’s Kurdish enclave to keep the pressure on Syrian government forces. In fact, Gen. Konashenkov, the Russian commander in Syria, has accused the US of only “pretending” to be fighting the IS. It is, in fact, clandestinely helping the anti-Assad, Syrian Democratic Forces, a move which endangers Russian soldiers too. Why am I digressing when the current focus is specifically on Iraqi Kurds? Because a sliver of Syrian Kurdistan is where the US bases are located. A spark for independence in the contiguous Iraqi Kurdistan opens up the field for similar movements in all four states where Kurds live — Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Tehran was loud and clear: it would seal its Kurdish borders after the referendum. The implication is that necessities of daily life, which came from Iran will no longer be available to Iraqi Kurdistan. For a landlocked enclave, this is severe punishment.
For Iran, any suggestion of eventual independence for any of the Kurdish enclaves is anathema. For the US, the timing of the referendum was inconvenient. The grave concern is that the referendum might weaken Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. His fortunes would be affected for the April 2018 general elections. Any reversal for Mr Abadi, a loyal US nominee, will be a gain for Iran. This is a disturbing prospect for the trio: Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Donald Trump. New Delhi knows better than anyone else that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan has been US’ pet project ever since its forces entered Iraq, first during operation Desert Storm in February 1992 and finally during the invasion of the country in March-April 2003. The “no fly zone” imposed on the Kurdish north in 1992 created an autonomous region. This was not without an eye on the future.
It was in 2003-2004 when, President George W. Bush was drooling all over New Delhi, he invited India to take charge of the Kurdish north. Military officials of all ranks, were asked to be ready, to set sail in the largest ships available with the Indian Navy. Yes, New Delhi came very close to playing an imperial role in West Asia as America’s sidekick. It was Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who saw the US not as a great power but a dangerous one for its adventures in West Asia. He scuttled the deal. Sushma Swaraj, it might be added for the record, also argued against the deal. Regional circumstances changed but the original blueprint for Iraq’s Kurdish north remained dear to the hearts of US policymakers. The timing for the referendum was wrong because the US would like to be seen in the lead, fighting the IS, at least on the face of it.
Iranians see the referendum in two ways: should it become a stepping stone for independence, they will choke Barzani’s enclave by sealing its borders. Iranians derive comfort from another detail. The Kurdish north constitutes 20 per cent of Iraq. If it separates Shias, who are an overwhelming majority already, will become 85 per cent of Iraq’s population. It will only consolidate the “Shia crescent”. Iranians are also not afflicted by fear of their Kurds, barely four per cent of the total population, tearing away from the main nation. There is an ethnic, religious and linguistic homogeneity with the rest of Iran. Iranian Kurds, like the rest of Iran are Aryans, a sizeable number being Shia. Their language, Pahlavi, is close to Persian. For Turkey, an Iraqi Kurd enclave is a life and death issue. There is oil in Diyarbakir, the principal Kurd city in Turkey; 15 of their power stations are on rivers flowing through the region. But these are not the reasons why Turkish tanks and troops have been amassed on the border with Iraq. The official Kurdish explanation makes sense: the military presence on the border is designed to block a flow of refugees from the Iraqi side should the situation in the province take a violent turn.
Turkey does have a very real fear of refugees because it is already struggling to assimilate over three million refugees from Syria. The no-fly zone made Kurdish-Iraq into a self-governing enclave except for defence and foreign affairs, which were left to Baghdad. But the fate of important cities like Kirkuk, one of the world’s great oil bearing areas, would be decided later. Article 140 of Iraq’s Constitution, written by the Americans, left the fate of cities like Kirkuk to a referendum by “the people of Iraq” not later than 2007. This did not take place. Obviously Americans, when they invaded the country, imagined they would control Iraq to their advantage by virtue of their military might. But this is not the way events turned out. Eventually, in December 2011, the last US soldier left. President Obama failed to extract from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki an honourable status-of-forces agreement. That is why it became unstated US policy to have Maliki replaced by a more “pliable” candidate —Abadi, for example.
When New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman asked Mr Obama in the course of an interview in 2015, “Why did the President not order air-strikes against the IS as soon as it reared its head?” Mr Obama’s response was startling: “air strikes against IS at a stage when it was advancing towards Baghdad, would have relieved pressure on Maliki”. In other words, the IS, at that stage, was an asset for destabilising Maliki. Meanwhile, there is total chaos in the north’s financial dealings with Baghdad. Barzani thought of getting out of this chaos by announcing a referendum. In his framework, the timing seemed auspicious because the Iraq Army would be less energetic in retaliating since it is tired from the recent wars in the north with the IS.