Kurdish push for independence likely to unleash new cycle of violence in an already volatile region

The Iraqi Kurds will look for help to Washington, which has 5,000 troops in Iraq, but Donald Trump is an erratic president.


2017/08/06 Issue: 118 Page: 15


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



I crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan in February 2003 as the US invasion loomed against Saddam Hussein. In a hotel in Dohuk, I requested coffee in basic Arabic but the young man at reception understood not one word of what had been the official language before Kurdish de facto autonomy in 1991.

Months later, with fighting persisting in the city, I went into Mosul with Hoshyar Zebari, who pointed out where he’d been swimming in the Tigris as a boy, before his two brothers were killed by Ba’athist security and he fled Iraq on a donkey.

A generation apart, the recep­tionist and Zebari, later Iraqi foreign minister and finance minister, each had reasons not to want to be part of Iraq. Older Kurds experienced Saddam’s repression, including chemical weapons. Younger Kurds — today half of Iraqi Kurdistan’s 5.2 million people are under 20 — view Baghdad as a distant, hostile place. There is every reason, then, for the independ­ence referendum scheduled for September 25 by the Kurds’ leaders to yield an overwhelming “yes” vote.

But what do the Iraqi Kurdish leaders seek and what effect will the referendum have? The Kurds had a similar vote in 2005 and today their leaders seem set either on distracting attention from other problems or strengthening their hand in talks with Baghdad over oil revenue and control over Kirkuk.

Squabbling between the two main parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — goes back to the PUK’s birth in 1975. Promises of a unified Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and army have foundered and the Kurdish parliament in Erbil hasn’t met for two years.

Baghdad argues the referendum upends the 2005 constitution, based on Iraq’s territorial integrity with a Kurdish federal entity. The Shia-led government wants to keep Kirkuk, the oil city absorbed by the Kurds during the crisis over the Islamic State (ISIS), while Iraq’s Sunni Arabs fear a Kurd-less Iraq would be 75% Shia. Without compromise, Iraq is heading for more conflict and ethnic cleans­ing.

Baghdad is only part of the opposition to Kurdish independ­ence. Neighbours rattled by Syria’s collapse into fiefdoms are disinclined to treat the referen­dum as a tactical ploy. Turkey has called it a “grave mistake.” Ankara was alarmed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) running territory in Syria and boosting its parent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose resumed armed struggle in Turkey has led to more than 2,000 deaths since 2015.

Iran is just as riled. It was there that Kurds in 1946 established the short-lived Mahabad Republic and Iran’s 8 million Kurds are probably a majority in three provinces — Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam. Buoyed by the example of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) wants federalism and is vying for influence with the PKK-allied Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).

Nazim Dabagh, a KRG repre­sentative in Tehran, has tried to give reassurance. He recently told Agence France-Presse: “For now, we do not have the intention of separating… We don’t feel that Iraq accepts us. For this reason, we seek to use appropriate opportunities… to demand our rights.”

Zebari has been franker, warning that Tehran wants a security corridor to Syria through northern Iraq policed by Shia militias. “They are breathing down our neck all along the Kurdish front line from Sinjar to Khanaqin,” Zebari told Reuters. “So far, we have been accommo­dating, patient, coordinating to prevent skirmishes or flashes but this is building up.”

As if to confirm his claim, Ali Akbar Velayati, president of Iran’s Expediency Council and close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani, spoke of a “resistance highway” from Tehran through Mosul to Beirut. This precludes an independent Kurdistan. After meeting with senior PUK official Kosrat Rasul Ali, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani called the referendum a plot by “colonialising” powers.

The Iraqi Kurds will look for help to Washington, which has 5,000 troops in Iraq, but Donald Trump is an erratic president and US plans for a post-Saddam federal Iraq, not to mention $60 billion in reconstruction, have gone up in smoke. It is hard to see how a Kurdish push for independ­ence will not unleash a further cycle of violence.


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


As Printed
MENA Now
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar

Correspondents

Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi

Designers

Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

www.alarab.co.uk

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved