Translated by Jason Rogers
Whether they like it or not, the Kurdish people are submerged in the realignments and uncertainties that affect the whole of the Middle East, at the bottom of the international system's impotence to promote new stability in the region. Let us recall that Kurdistan is the largest stateless nation in the world, comprising some 30 to 40 million people spread out among four Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria), not counting the diaspora. Orphaned by the treaties of Sevres and Lausanne in 1920 and 1923, today the Kurds must assert their nationalism and hold their own in a game of four weighty dynamics: the Syrian civil war, the Iraqi collapse after the war of choice in 2003, the imperial hardening of Turkey, and the regional expansion of Iran.
In Syria, the Syrian Kurdish troops, supported by both Russia and the United States, demonstrated that in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), its best army was in Rojava. In Iraq, the outcome of the referendum in September 2017 showed quite a few flaws in terms of military, strategy, and politics. Here we briefly revisit the consequences of the referendum in September 2017 from the testimonies of Gérard Chaliand (returning very recently from a mission to Iraqi Kurdistan) and Hamit Bozarslan (researcher at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, EHESS).
Organized on 25 September 2017 by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the Kurdish referendum on independence was in reality an impossible project, something which the Kurdish people were in fact conscious of. Thanks to the success of the vote, Masoud Barzani wanted to renew its mandate, which it hadn't had for three years. In a second phase, the KRG wanted to negotiate with Baghdad in order to secure the control of the city of Kirkuk, rich in oil and considered as the true capital of Kurdistan. The city found itself militarily occupied by the Kurds, of which the bulk of the forces belonged to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani who had passed away in October 2017. On the eve of the referendum, the governor of the city, a member of the PUK, had just made allegiance to Masoud Barzani.
All the parties involved in the Iraq conflict, near and far, were unfavorable towards the referendum, including the United States, which has been an ally of the Iraqi Kurds since 1991. Let us recall that the Kurds have no power over the regime in place in Baghdad. The referendum was held within two entities: Iraqi Kurdistan (within the borders of 1991 - 2014) and the adjacent territories belonging to the Iraqi State (Baghdad) up until 2014, where between 2014 and 2017 ISIS established itself under the Khalif Al-Baghdadi. Baghdad's troops succeeded in surrounding the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and the Kurdish forces pushed the ISIS troops back to stronghold of Mosul. The referendum concerned not only the territory of Iraqi Kurds proper, but also the formerly Iraqi territory that Kurdish forces came to invest.
From Baghdad's perspective, it was inconceivable that the referendum could include a territory legally part of the Iraqi state. From the beginning, the result of the referendum would be considered obsolete. In reality, no one supported the Kurdish initiative. The referendum, undertaken with the enthusiasm of a rate of 72%, resulted in a public opinion of 92% favorable towards independence and appeared in the eyes of Kurds as a triumph. But this proved to be short lived.
The Iraqi army, restructured in practice by the Iranian Shiite militias, surrounded all the areas taken by the Kurds, with the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, and targeted the city of Kirkuk. The PUK fighters as well as the Kurdish forces of Masoud Barzani retreated, in practical terms, and more or less without combat. More than 150,000 Kurds fled the city of Kirkuk during the panic, with Iraqi troops controlling all the border posts. No one intervened in the affair. The Kurds of the KRG (Barzani) in a few days lost the major part of that which had constituted the success of the previous fifteen years.
The oil company Exxon exited Kurdistan, whereas the Russian company Rosneft just signed new agreements with the Iraqi Kurds in November 2017, confirming Russia’s support (as well as for Turkish Kurdistan). There was nothing left to communicate with the outside except a possible exit which is easily threatened by Turkey. All of the Kurdish political class who had supported the referendum, with the exception of the Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, found themselves in a difficult situation militarily, politically, and economically (the majority of the salaries have been cut in half for two years).
The failure was allegedly due to the "treason” of the PUK forces, dependent upon Mrs. Hero Talabani, widow of the recently deceased leader Jalal Talabani. However, everyone knew that she was hostile to the Barzanis and furthermore was dependent on Iran. In other words, the general situation ends in favor of the government of Baghdad and Iran. For the Kurds in the KRG, this is a historical disaster hearkening back to the decision of the Constitutional Council of Iraq, which states that any secession of Iraqi territory is illegal.
This situation leaves the Kurdish population in profound disarray. And yet, were not the consequences of the referendum partly predictable? Was it really necessary to build upon the weakening of Baghdad and the erasure of the Syrian-Iraqi border to hold a vote for independence without having the military and institutional wherewithal, or without in some respects an internal political consensus? Here as elsewhere, the actors subject to the agenda of the powers that be have even fewer margins of error and temporal guarantees for their gains. If the Kurdish cause remains no less legitimate, its political elites are all the more constrained to an intelligent reading of the balance of power; that they have neither a state nor a system of alliances able to go beyond the necessarily narrow and evolving interests in the sub-region.