Middle East experts are in suspense expecting first outcomes of the Kurdish referendum.
One thing is clear. Referendum will definitely take place. At best, Erbil will announce a “start” of obtaining independence, certain transitional period perhaps until January 1, March 21 (Nowruz) or even September 25, 2018. Afterwards, Kurdistan will declare independence irrespective of the results of talks with Baghdad.
So far, they are waiting for “dust to settle,” for neighbors to make sure that Kurdistan is establishing its army, own currency and opening diplomatic representations, and the world is not going to spun off its axis from that. (Presently, Peshmerga is formally a subdivision of Iraq’s national army and has almost no heavy weaponry and aviation. Iraqi Kurdistan has 13 representations, including in Moscow, having direct contacts with foreign ministries of host countries and even issuing travel visas to Kurdistan).
The entire “civilized world” needs time to get used to the new reality. Judging from statements made at rather a high level, Kurdistan’s independence may be recognized at least by three-four European countries as early as in the transitional period.
The key obstacle to immediate independence declaration is still the unresolved issue of Iraqi Kurdistan’s border with the “rest of Iraq.” Independence declaration within disputable borders is actually declaration of war against Baghdad.
Of course, Kurds took advantage of the fight against ISIS (a terrorist group banned in Russia – EADaily’s note) to expand the Kurdish-controlled territory beyond the borders of the autonomous region determined by the Constitution of Iraq. They have expanded mostly into the territories populated by Kurds: Kirkuk, Khanaqin, east of Nineveh, Sinjar (Shingal in Kurdish).
It appears that Erbil tries to avoid clashes. Despite inflammatory statements by some commanders, Peshmerga has not entered dozens of Kurdish villages located in vicinity of Arab ones in the east of Nineveh Valley.
Another few dozens of Kurdish villages are located in Hawija, ISIS’ last enclave in central Iraq between Kurdistan and government-controlled regions. Baghdad delayed with the operation to liberate Hawija, using it as a factor of risk for Erbil. Offensive was finally launched on September 22, three days before the referendum. Kurds do not interfere so far, evidently not to clash “suddenly” with Iraqi Army, since Baghdad might use it as a reason to launch a large-scale conflict. (Besides, oil fields in Kirkuk are located in the north of Hawija and controlled by Kurds).
By the way, let's think about about energy resources and one of the consequences of potential referendum.
The West had tried to balance between Baghdad and Erbil for over three months since independence referendum of announced on June 7 and made quite contradictory statements and acts. For example, some representatives of U.S. expressed their commitment to territorial integrity of Iraq, while others invited to a negotiating table with Kurdish parties supporting the referendum another two ones opposing it: The Gorran Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal). More about this read lower in the text.
During the last 1.5 week, when voting cancellation was already out of question, U.S., France, Britain, Germany demonstrated their last symbolical support to “united Iraq” and strongly recommended postponing the referendum. Aware of that hypocrisy, Baghdad did not appreciate that gesture.
Russia did not claim the role of power broker for Iraq and the Kurdish people and refused to either support or condemn the referendum. Any questions addressed to Russian officials were answered within the context of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement made this July: “Kurds—like all other peoples in the world—have the right to express their aspirations according to the right that they have within the international law.”
Russia just seeks development of economic relations with that country, or with both the countries, depending on the result of the internal conflict’s resolution. Consequently, for the purpose of economic cooperation, Russia seeks peace in that country (countries). Everything is simple. This is business and no claims to decide the fate of Iraq and Kurdistan.
Both Baghdad and Erbil had to put up with such stance of Russia. They considered it sincerer than the stance of their Western partners. Erbil has nothing to do with the fact that Russia sells arms to Baghdad, including T-90C tanks. Baghdad takes it easy that Russia helps developing oil and gas field of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Concerned over political risks emerging from ambiguous policy of their governments and possible negative response by both Baghdad and Erbil, Western companies froze a series of investments projects in the Kurdish region. As a result, Russia has become the key investor in Iraqi Kurdistan leaving U.S. and Turkey behind, Reuters has reported recently referring to some high-ranking officials in Erbil. Rosneft company alone invested over $4 billion in the region, including in the project of gas pipeline construction for domestic consumers. The Russian company announced this in mid-September. Rosneft may become the lead exporter of energy resources of Kurdistan to European markets starting 2020.
No matter what relations Baghdad and Erbil will eventually have, enterprises, towns and villages there will still need gas. Such stance of Russia meets the interests of both the sides. This is Russia’s victory. This can be the victory of any country guided by pragmatism.
As regards other consequences of the independence referendum, let’s hope that conflicts over voting in “disputable regions” will not go beyond psychological pressure to get better positions in inevitable talks on “divorce” terms.
It appears that Shi’ite militia al-Hash al-Shaabi (People’s Mobilization Force - PMF) seeks to seize south of Shingal, including Sinjar city on the Mosul-Raqqa highway. This territory is mostly controlled by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces and Syrian Kurds conflicting with Erbil and facing attacks by Turkish air force. Erbil, in turn, seeks a full control over Tuz-Khurmatu that is wedged into the territory of Kurdistan and is partially controlled by Shaabists.
No large-scale offensive by Iraqi army is possible, since victims and destructions will just confirm Kurds’ claims for independence from the “country exterminating them for over 100 years.” This will prompt recognition of Kurdistan by European countries (Scandinavian states, Benelux and even some Eastern European countries sympathize Kurds).
During the last few years, Erbil’s loyalty to Ankara has reached the limit. To improve relations with Turkey, regional government of Kurdistan breached relations with PKK waging guerilla war in the territory of its northern neighbor. It is natural that on these crucial days, Erbil will not give Ankara a reason to attack. Besides, the West will not allow any armed interference by Iran. That country is known to shoot Kurdish smugglers importing cigarettes and satellite dishes to Iran.
At the same time, in Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran, they know about the prize for recognizing Kurdistan – bonuses and pipelines via their country. It was interesting to witness almost simultaneous discussion of mutually exclusive projects.
One can state for sure that borders of the Erbil-controlled territory will become the borders of the Kurdish state. At best, Erbil may after all join the operation to liberate Hawija and take its “Kurdish part” too.
Hopes for split of Kurds failed. The literally shameful civil war of mid 1990s had its effect. But let’s relate the facts as they actually happened.
Kurds really has fought for their independence for 100 years. That fight as national movement was impossible before 1918 when Kurdistan was part of the Ottoman and Persian empires. After the Entente invaded Arab lands in 1917 and the Ottoman Empire was divided, national states were formed: independent Turkish state and Syria and Iraq, British and French mandate territories. In 1925, the Turkic Dynasty of Qajar was overthrown and establishment of Persian (Farsi, Iranian) national state was launched (though the new Pahlavi Dynasty was Turkic as well).
Kurds proved the only large nation left without state and divided between four national states. After the WWII, the national liberation movement of Kurds has grown into nearly permanent revolt and global policy factor.
A true history of Kurdistan will not be written any time soon, but here is what happened during fifty-year history (from the middle of 1940 up to the middle of 1990s) of Kurds: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria used Kurds in the fight against each other, while Kurds used all them in their own fight.
It turns out to be like the Sudanese-Ethiopian conflict: Sudan supported Eritrean rebels for decades, while Ethiopia supported South Sudanese ones. Eventually, Ethiopia lost Eritrea and access to the sea, and Sudan lost South Sudan and its oil.
To be fair, in 1946, the Soviet Union contributed to the establishment of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad on the territory of Iran occupied by USSR and Great Britain. The republic “lived” for a year, but it was the first national Kurdish state and that fact greatly influenced public sentiments.
With Saddam Hussein’s defeat during Desert Storm operation in 1991, the greatest part of Iraqi Kurdistan actually reached independence. Then, two guerilla groups operated in the region: Democratic Party of Kurdistan led by Barzani clan and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Talabani clan.
To avoid accidental clashes with each other, the two guerilla forces divided Kurdistan into two operative zones. Democratic Party of Kurdistan operated in the north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - in the south, including Erbil. The two groups fought for resources.
In 1992, Kurdistan held the first elections. Democratic Party won with insignificant difference of votes. The two groups failed to agree of election results and something absurd happened – civil war broke out. It lasted long, as ceasefires were breached regularly. Nevertheless, there was certain “honor code” there.
A Kurdish friend told in a private talk how clashes happened. Sometimes, they just fired in the air, demonstrated their capacity and let each other leave.
However, war has its own logic. In 1996, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan asked Tehran for help, and the Democratic Party appealed to Baghdad. We’ll be silent about how Iranian and especially Iraqi troops treated the civilian population and captives. Leaderships of both the parties proved wise enough to understand that they had led the country to abyss. So, they made a ceasefire in a year and a peace treaty in another year.
However, Kurds have not fully overcome that problem. In 2015, the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan suspended its work. The reason was President Masoud Barzani’s decision to retain his post in view of “ISIS threat to the Kurdish people,” though his term was over. The second largest parliamentary party, The Gorran Movement opposed the decision. The Party separated from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 2007 and ousted the “mother party” to the third place.
Program of The Gorran Movement can be expressed in one phrase: “Stop guerilla warfare!” No more bloated government machinery and no more nepotism. The Gorran Movement protests against Barzani family that leads the government (Nechirvan Barzani) and Security Council (Masrur Barzani).
The Gorran Movement opposed Masoud Barzani’s statement on announcement of referendum, saying that only Parliament of Kurdistan is authorized to announce a referendum. Long talks resulted in a decision to hold new parliamentary elections on November 1. The parliament of the old convocation was convened a week before the referendum (with minimum quorum and without Gorran and Komal, which did not oppose convocation of the parliament and “decided to miss a meeting.”) Finally, Barzani vowed that neither he nor his relatives will run for president.
Since one of the key demands of The Gorran Movement is to shift to the parliamentary republic where president has nominal functions, refusal from presidential ambitions is not a big loss for Barzani.
A few hours before September 25, The Gorran Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group – Komal still urged their supporters to vote “Yes” at the independence referendum. The two parties understand that their disputes should not damage their common goal. The more so as, they will see parliamentary elections in a month and the idea of independence belonged to Barzani with his Democratic Party.
Here is another inevitable consequence of the Kurdish referendum for Iraq and neighbor Syria.
Without Kurds, the Shi’ite-Sunnite federation will appear to be impossible, as Shi’ite population accounts for 75%-80% of total population and Shi’ites hold most of the high positions in government taking into account the extremely tense relations of these communities and the fact that oil and gas reserves of Iraq, exclusive of Kurdistan, are in the Shi’ite-populated south.
At present, Iraqi troops are driving ISIS out of Anbar, the last (and the largest) Iraqi province populated with Sunnites. Discontent grows in the liberated part of Anbar, as Sunnite leaders threaten central government with boycott if it further blocks Anbar’s ties with the western, Sunnite part of Baghdad. Control at checkpoints was certainly reduced, but every report or rumor on arbitrary charges at checkpoints prompts a new wave of discontent.
In the west of Anbar province, Iraq, lays Syrian province Deir ez-Zor that still partially controlled by ISIS. It is easy to point at mistakes of the Syrian command sitting on a sofa, during the seventh year of war, when teens are drafted to the army. Nevertheless, there was a mistake that could cost Syria another one-fifth of its oil reserves in addition to the two-fifth part in the north of Kurdistan - oil and gas fields in Deir ez-Zor that lay along both banks of the Euphrates, and unfortunately, overwhelmingly along the left, northeastern bank.
The Syrian command’s plans to finish one operation – destroy ISIS in Akerbat – and then start a second one – offensive on Deir ez-Zor – was based on belief that statements of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on their sooner offensive on Deir ez-Zor was bluff. As a result, the Akerbat entrapment is still there. Besides, they had to deploy more troops and break into the southern, right-bank part of Deir ez-Zor when SDF forces approached the northern outskirts of the left-bank part of the city.
Formally, SDF is an Arab-Kurdish coalition. De-facto, it is combat efficient thanks to the Kurdish units of the ruling Democratic Union Party in Syrian Kurdistan (PYD). In Turkey they call it the Syrian wing of PKK and consider a terrorist organization.
PYD is a leftist, democratic party that receives weapons, trainers and support on land and in the air from U.S. and fight in a union with Communist Party/Marxist-Leninist Liberation Army of Workers and Peasants of Turkey at the same time. On August 14, 2017, one of the legendary leaders of the Communist Party of Turkey, Nubar Ozanyan, was killed. Three of his fighters: an Iranian, a Canadian and a Sardinian were wounded during the same battle (some Kurdish friends say that Corsicans – French citizens claim to be Sardinians - Italians).
It is quite possible in some operations against ISIS, Turkish Communist fighters and internationalists fought togethers with U.S. special forces. Such alliances happen as well. Americans were reluctant to make such an alliance, since they made sure that Syrian Kurds are the only force that will help them be among winners in that war and get a chance to decide Syria’s future together with other powers. Kurds believe that Americans will not surrender them to Turkey after destroying ISIS. They trust Americans. There is no help for it.
SDF Arab units prefer defensive and refuse to leave the lands of their ancestors. That is why Kurds have to attack Raqqa and other Arab towns that will not be united with Syrian Kurdistan (Rojawa) in any case. Furthermore, under pressure of U.S., Kurds had to refuse from Rojawa too: SDF-controlled territories are now called “Federal System of Northern Syria.”
Raqqa’s liberation was delayed and the Syrian command hopes that Kurds may (within their own interests, of course) avoid the offensive on the left bank of Deir ez-Zor. However, it appears that Americans made an “irresistible offer” to Kurds. They are taking one oil field after another.
The Syrian Army took two footholds on the left bank of The Euphrates with great difficulty, but SDF immediately surrounded those footholds. Russia blamed “allies” for creating obstacles to the Syrian Army, provided facts of SDF firing at Syrian units and air intelligence images of American “hummers” near ISIS stronghold.
Unfortunately, The Euphrates will eventually become a border between the territories controlled by Damascus and SDF. Two enclaves of the Syrian army far in the north of Kurds, in the area of Qamishli and Al-Hasakah towns, may be exchanged with a big Kurdish foothold on the right bank of The Euphrates near Raqqa, at best.
After separation of Iraqi Kurdistan and inevitable separation of the Sunnite state from Shi’ite Iraq, the Syrian left bank of The Euphrates, except Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, will be united with it.
Such a forecast may seem too bold, but establishment of the Kurdish State will become a shock for the Middle East and not just for it. It will be a state that emerged not within acknowledged borders of a colony or autonomy, but within the borders created after military success.
What worked in Iraq, may work in Syria too. The temporary dividing lines will become interstate borders. Recognition of Kurdistan and its borders may open Pandora’s Box. However, it may discover and legitimize new opportunities to resolve conflicts, and not only in Syria.
Albert Akopyan (Urumov)