As discussed here on FreshAIR a few weeks ago, despite significant opposition, Iraq’s Kurds proceeded on 25 September with an independence referendum resulting in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote of 93%. The referendum was opposed with near-unanimity from multiple countries, including most prominently, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Now these countries are threatening retaliation.
Turkey, Iraq, and Iran respond
Turkish forces have been conducting joint military exercises with the Iraqi military on the Turkish-Kurdistan border and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened Kurdistan with military intervention. Erdogan also threatened to cut off the oil pipelines though which Kurdistan exports an average of 600,000 barrels of oil each day. In addition, local media reported that Turkey blocked access to Kurdistan via the Habur border crossing.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to “impose Iraq’s rule” in all of Kurdistan. Al-Abadi told the Iraqi Parliament that he would “never have a dialogue about the referendum” with Kurdish officials until they “cancel the referendum and its outcome”. The Iraqi Prime Minister has also demanded control of Kurdistan’s Irbil and Sulaimaniya airports, and has threatened to prevent control of direct international flights to Kurdistan if this demand is not met. The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority has since told international flight operators that all flights to and from these airports will be suspended from 6 pm Friday 6 October.
In addition, Iraq’s Parliament has authorised Abadi to order Iraq’s army to the disputed city of Kirkuk, which has been controlled by the Kurds since 2014, and Iraqi officials have hinted at taking oil revenue from Kurdistan.
Iran has also joined the fray, sending dozens of tanks supported by artillery to its border with Kurdistan. Iran has also ceased all flights between Iran and the two Kurdish airports and has shut down the local bureau of the Kurdistan 24 TV station in Teheran.
The US position
For its part, the US was also opposed to the referendum, even reportedly offering Kurdistan large financial incentives in return for postponement. This was partially motivated by the belief that the referendum would destabilise the region and distract from the fight against Islamic State. Now that the referendum has occurred, US officials are seeking to calm tensions, but have only offered passive support for the Kurds.
Yet, while the Kurds may have acted in defiance of the US, several commentators have pointed out the significant US interest in supporting the Kurds. As John Hannah writes in Foreign Policy:
“[T]hey need to get over it – and fast. Difficult as it may be, the United States needs to quickly pivot from warning that disaster could strike to making sure that it doesn’t. Yes, the KRG leadership, in direct disregard of US concerns, has set off a crisis that now threatens important US interests. But further escalation would only guarantee that the damage will be amplified manyfold, with potentially catastrophic results.
A crucial intelligence and security partner, fresh from its costly battles in defense of civilization against the barbarian hordes of the Islamic State and fiercely pro-American in disposition, Iraqi Kurdistan could be dramatically weakened and destabilized, largely at the hands of forces far less sympathetic to US purposes in the world.
Iran and its Shiite militias, leading the charge to defend Iraqi unity against what they allege are US – and Israeli -backed Kurdish secessionists, would be super-charged at the expense of more moderate political forces still seeking to carve out space for a more inclusive, cross-sectarian, and independent Iraq.”
Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor has also pointed out that if the US provides strong leadership and accepts Kurdistan’s referendum, then “the pragmatic Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates could follow suit, on the grounds that Kurdistan could serve as a bulwark against Iran and the Islamic State.”
Israel and the referendum
Israel has been one of the most vocal supporters of Kurdistan throughout this time. Aside from Turkish President Erdogan’s recent actions against Kurdistan, Erdogan also stated that Israeli flags seen at a Kurdish celebration proved that the Kurdish government had “a history with Mossad (Israel’s intelligence service), [and] they are hand-in-hand together.” This led to a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated: “I understand why [the referendum] is uncomfortable for those who support Hamas and want to see the Mossad everywhere, but Israel had no part in the Kurdish referendum – apart from the deep, natural sympathy that the people of Israel have had for many years for the Kurdish people and their aspirations.”
Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz also argues that there appears to be a double standard emerging which rejects Kurdish independence while demanding Palestinian independence, notwithstanding the relative strength of the former’s claim:
“In contrast to the Palestinian people who adhere to the same traditions and practices as their Arab neighbours, and speak the same language, Kurds have their own language (although different groups speak different dialects) and subscribe to their own culture, dress code and holidays. While the history and genealogy of Palestinians is intertwined with that of their Arab neighbours (Jordan’s population is approximately 50% Palestinian), the Kurds have largely kept separate from their host-states, constantly aspiring for political and national autonomy…
[P]erhaps no group has had it worse than the Kurds of Iraq, who now total 5 million – approximately 10-15% of Iraq’s total population. Under the Baathist regime in the 1970s, the Kurds were subject to ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Under the rule of Saddam Hussein they were sent to concentration camps, exposed to chemical weapons and many were summarily executed. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Kurds were killed at the hands of the Baath regime. So “restitution” is an entirely appropriate factor to consider – though certainly not the only one – in supporting the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
In contrast, the Palestinians have suffered far fewer deaths at the hands of Israel (and Jordan) yet many within the international community cite Palestinian deaths as a justification for Palestinian statehood. Why the double standard?”
As Dershowitz argues, both cases are underpinned by deep political motivations which obscure any moral compass.
For now, it seems that Kurdistan is holding tight to its position. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, now 71, made it clear he has no regrets despite the threats and counter-measures coming from Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Explaining the referendum as something he felt he had to do while he was still able to, Barzani recently said to French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy:
“Someone told me that one of your statesmen said on the evening following France’s victory over Germany in 1918, ‘Now I can die.’ That’s how I feel this morning… You have to understand. My preoccupation for weeks, as I have been pressed from all sides to back away from the referendum, was to be able, when my time comes, to look the people who elected me directly in the eye. And I’m not talking only of the living, but also of those who gave their lives to defend the Kurdish cause.”
Accordingly, Barzani remained defiant about the pressure likely to come in coming months:
“…if they were really to try to smother us, to close our airports or cut our trade links, then I’ll tell you: We’ve seen others like them. We’ve been tortured, gunned down, displaced… Believe me, no hostile measure, no collective punishment, could be harsher than what we’ve already endured.
And another thing… Burned into the memory of every one of us is first-hand knowledge of the worst that man can do to man. We are all well aware of that. And that time is over. Never again we will allow ourselves to be treated thus. No longer will anyone attack our dignity with impunity. And as for the international community…
Suppose our neighbours follow through with their unreasonable plans. Will the international community stand by and watch us be strangled?”
Image source: Kurdistan24