Iraq’s Kurds to Hold Referendum – But Delay Independence
The Kurdish leaders of northern Iraq (KRG) are determined willy-nilly to hold their independence referendum on Sept. 25 despite universal opposition. They have decided to defy the vociferous objections voiced not only by Baghdad, but also by the US, Europe, Turkey and Iran, lest Irbil throw another destabilizing element into the Middle East stewpot.
But as voting day nears, DEBKA Weekly’s sources note something odd is happening. The clamor against the referendum is fading – even from Baghdad and Ankara, its most vigorous opponents – although no one doubts that 100pc of the six million eligible voters will cast a resounding yes vote for the semiautonomous Kurdish Republic’s separation from the state of Iraq.
At the same time, reports reaching Washington, Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad from KRG President Masoud Barzani’s inner circle in Irbil indicate that he has decided to be satisfied with the referendum and its outcome, while holding back indefinitely from the drama of an actual declaration of independence.
As a result, the referendum may be somewhat of an anticlimax.
The Kurdish leader prefers to retain it as a useful lever to wave over the heads of the United States, Europe, Iran or Turkey, for getting what he wants. They may think twice before spurning a Kurdish request, knowing he may retaliate with a declaration of independent Kurdish statehood in northern Iraq, with untoward repercussions among Kurdish minorities of Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Brandishing that threat would also deter the KRG’s enemies, be they Iraq’s national army, or Tehran’s Iraqi pawns, the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Badr Brigades.
Barzani and his faction opted for holding the referendum without acting on it out of a number of rational motives:
1. They discovered that just by announcing a referendum, they had substantially enhanced their political standing both in Iraq and the international arena. All of a sudden, everyone, including Washington, was sitting up and taking an interest in the Kurdish question and treating the Irbil government with respect.
2. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who now sees the end of the six-year civil war against him, agreed to sit down with the KRG and the Syrian Kurdish leaders of Qamishli and discuss recognition of the Kurdish cantons of northern Syria as a semiautonomous republic on the Iraqi model. The YPG militia would be granted the same status as the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Syrian Kurds would be eligible to vote in Syrian elections and their parties run for parliament in Damascus.
Having achieved all this, Barzani prefers not to rock the boat by driving all the way to Kurdish independence in Iraq, lest Assad use it as a pretext for cutting off these promising negotiations.
3. Kurdish leaders, after studying Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s furious words and deeds under a microscope, concluded that his bark is worse than his bite. Their most extreme foe, aside from Iraq’s Haydar al Abadi, has not so far made good on his constant threats of military action against the Syrian Kurds. Neither is there any sign of the joint Turkish-Iranian action threatened to cut the Kurdish separatists down to size.
It may be that the Turkish president has decided to swallow moderate Kurdish steps towards semiautonomous status in Syria.
4. Tehran too is no longer up in arms against the Kurdish referendum, lest millions of Iranian Kurds rise up and confront the regime. The Iranians no longer lead the chorus berating the Iraqi Kurds and are leaving the shouting to Ankara.
5. The successful offensives waged by the Iraqi Peshmerga and the Syrian PG against ISIS in both their countries have elevated them to top ranking as the most powerful and effective military force in the Tigris- Euphrates River valley and the Iraqi-Syrian border region which it straddles.
With ISIS beginning to fall back as a land-based military force in the two countries they occupied in 2014, Kurdish military might can focus on their ancient national aspirations.
But, for now, so long as ISIS is not completely finished, the Kurds judge a declaration of independence to be premature and counterproductive.
Barzani is known as a cautious politician. In this case too, he is typically looking hard before he leaps.