The fiery reaction to the Kurdistani referendum exposes the cruel dilemma of international relations that I call the Hotel California doctrine: 'you can check out but you can never leave' from the Eagles song. Breaking up is hard to do in practice but peoples can go their own way in theory. Squaring the circle is the most difficult political quandary for landlocked countries such as Kurdistan.
There is a strong moral and political case for the Kurds having the right to secede from what the Iraqi constitution says is a voluntary union, which it clearly isn't, and whose provisions have been increasingly flouted by Baghdad.
Study the agreements between Shia and Kurdistani parties hammered out in 2002 at meetings of the Iraqi National Congress in London and you will find that federalism was only accepted as a temporary necessity by Shia leaders who now seem to have decided they wish Iraq to be post-federal.
The Kurds made it absolutely clear that federalism was the condition of their exercise of self-determination in 2003 when they decided to rejoin Iraq, despite having created the basis of a new state after Iraq quit Kurdistan, or much of it, in 1991. The Kurds became 'The Other Iraq' but the impetus to independence was boosted by Baghdad cutting budget transfers entirely in 2014 and then losing a third of the country to Daesh (ISIS).
In the fraught circumstances, the UK, the US, and the UN sought, honourably, to find an alternative path to a new settlement and urged the Kurdistani leaders to delay their referendum in return for guarantees of dialogue and progress if that failed. Details are sketchy but in some form could yet be a credible way out of the impasse, as tempers cool and posturing and positioning conclude as time passes.
The UK’s APPG never urged a Yes vote or a No vote but MPs generally supported the right to self-determination and Erbil negotiating an amicable divorce. We included the former UK security envoy to the KRG, General Sir Simon Mayall who is an old friend of the Kurds but also a critic of the referendum on our recent delegation. He brought a useful creative tension into our discussions with Kurdistani leaders.
Just two days before the scheduled referendum, I was with Simon and British MPs in Sami Abdul Rahman Park in Erbil to pay our respects to the martyrs murdered in February 2004, when a tweet announced that the vote had been postponed. It was a false alarm but my instinctive reaction was one of relief because I assumed that the referendum was being delayed on the basis of firm guarantees and that the decision to hold one had been a successful gambit but one to be held in reserve.
The mandate given to Kurdistani leaders by such a large margin on such a high turnout could yet result in full independence by agreement from Baghdad. Or it could lead to some form of confederation, which French President Macron seems focused on. That could be two or possibly three sovereign countries with a shared but weaker central authority and in the current borders of Iraq. Or it could, in theory, result in a reliable and renewed Iraqi federalism.
What cannot be allowed is a slow strangulation of the Kurds and their forcible subordination to Baghdad and others that would prove that the Kurds are seen as mere pawns in the common battle against extremism in which their bravery and sacrifice against the odds has been vital.
The reaction of Baghdad proves this and some say Iraq is actually leaving Kurdistan. It is a great shame that politicians, poets, writers, and civil society were unable or unwilling to muster a movement in Iraq to show tender loving care to what is commonly referred to as 'the beloved north.' The Kurds' record as the more dynamic, democratic, pluralist, and moderate part of Iraq for many decades deserves better than this.
There is a strong moral case for transcending the bitter disputes in Iraq and accepting a new Kurdistani Republic, which would mean that Iraq no longer has a Kurdish problem, as Kurdistan's security chief, Masrour Barzani told us.
But exhausted Western diplomats struggling to preserve order in a chaotic world need realpolitik too. The Kurds can make a very strong case for statehood to sustain much-needed economic and political reform. They can argue that a new order could increase stability by helping to undermine the root cause of the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh, and any new form of this fascist virus. This was over-centralisation in Baghdad which alienated the Kurds and drove many Sunnis to the conclusion that Daesh was less bad than Baghdad. Putting Kurdistani aspirations and requirements on the table was the right thing to do at a time of maximum leverage for the Kurds.
But let's not forget that the referendum was a day of enthusiasm and exuberance. I saw this for myself as an observer in Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaimani where Kurds joyously and colourfully celebrated their right to determine their future. The opposition of Baghdad and others clearly boosted the turnout and the Yes vote, and fashioned a new Kurdistani unity. Significantly, the new Gorran party leader Omar Said Ali told us his party did not want to be separate from that national consensus. Keeping that sense of purpose and building resilience is urgent.
Referenda are often blunt instruments, although the Kurds made it plain they would not declare UDI and would negotiate disputed borders. In an ideal world, however, the referendum would have been based on a pan-Iraqi consensus rather than being seen as an abrupt rupture with insufficient planning and too many moving parts that could collide. Forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections offer the chance of a new Kurdistani leadership able to reset relations.
But we are where we are. The Washington Post recently rebuked the 'reckless' decision to go ahead with the referendum and essentially argued that the US was content to let the Kurds stew in their own juices to hammer home the lesson. But it also wisely argued that 'robust U.S. intervention is now necessary to broker truces between Kurdistan and Baghdad, as well as Ankara.'
Peace is a revolutionary demand. I am glad that the US has urged Baghdad to avoid even the allusion to force while on referendum day UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rightly tweeted: 'Kurdish referendum: I urge all parties to remain calm & work together to defeat Daesh. Iraq’s future lies in dialogue. UK ready to help.'
These are dark days for the Kurds as Baghdad and their neighbours make life difficult for the Kurds - already a 175 room hotel in Erbil has reportedly only two guests. Blockading Hotel Kurdistania is not only morally wrong but entirely counter-productive to global security and prosperity. The world needs the Kurds to be safe and careful diplomacy is essential.
Gary Kent is the director of All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.