This columnist had the opportunity to speak with Masoud Barzani on Monday regarding the September 25, 2017 referendum on Kurdistani independence. Mr. Barzani, of course, served as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government from 2005 until 2017 and was one of the leading forces for the referendum on independence. He currently serves as the president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Some of President Barzani’s views on the referendum should already be familiar to many. He said that the referendum decision came from the fact that “this is a national right of a nation. We have experience with other available solutions – autonomy, federalism and so forth. But the very first principle of Iraq’s establishment was violated – there was no partnership. I went to Baghdad many times for meetings and attempts at partnership. Yet whenever Baghdad felt stronger, they have been violating the rights of Kurds. So if we can’t be good partners, perhaps we could be good neighbors.”
President Barzani added that “…many said the Kurds are not united in asking for self-determination. But this was a decision of all parties to let everyone decide on Kurdistan’s future. It was not the unilateral decision of one leader. When we made the decision to hold the referendum, in the first two months that followed no one took it seriously because they thought we were not united. We also said repeatedly that the referendum does not mean a declaration of independent statehood the next day. It could be four, six, eight or ten years later, no problem. It would happen once we had negotiated an arrangement with Baghdad on the issue.”
The bitterness in Mr. Barzani’s voice was unmistakable; however, when he went on to explain how the American position – or lack thereof – then led to the events following the referendum. American diplomats, while still opposing the referendum, could have limited themselves to saying the “timing was bad.” It was unacceptable, however, for them to say “holding the referendum is not legitimate.” President Barzani stressed that “We take legitimacy from our people.” The United States could have also declared that military moves by either Baghdad or the Kurds would not be acceptable, but instead of taking such logical steps, they said nothing. As a result, “…because of the weak, wavering and unclear position of the U.S., others took their cue to act against us.”
Director of CRIS at the University of Kurdistan-Hewler Hemin Mirkhan, Professor David Romano from Missouri State David Romano, and KDP President Masoud Barzani meet in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, on January 7, 2019. Photo: Romano FB
What many do not know, however, is that President Barzani almost accepted then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s request to postpone the referendum – as little as two days before the vote was scheduled to take place. As with past promises on the issue, Tillerson’s letter outlined a process of U.S. and U.N. supported mediation of all outstanding issues between Erbil and Baghdad, to last no longer than a year this time. The letter stated, “At the end of this process, of course, should the talks not reach a mutually acceptable conclusion or fail on account of lack of good faith on the part of Baghdad we would recognize the need for a referendum.” President Barzani called Tillerson’s letter a “a nicely written composition,” and said “I asked him to change only one word in the letter – instead of ‘recognize’ I asked that he write ‘support.’ When the Americans said ‘no’, we knew that things would be costly for us either way.”
Those familiar with the events that followed know that two weeks following the referendum (in which some 93% of voters chose “yes” for Kurdistani independence), Baghdad took advantage of a de facto American green light and moved the Iraqi army and Hashd al-Shaabi militias into position around the Peshmerga in Kirkuk. Some Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leaders apparently buckled under the pressure and threats from Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and ordered their Peshmerga to abandon their positions around Kirkuk, after which the KDP Peshmerga had to follow suit lest they be surrounded.
Regarding this calamity, Mr. Barzani said: “After the October 16 events in Kirkuk, on October 18 the U.S. ambassador called me and he said ‘Today is not like yesterday – you need to adjust your policies.’ Then the Iraqi Army and Hashd al-Shaabi continued to advance on us [after Kirkuk], in Pirde and other areas, and we destroyed them, destroyed their M1A Abrams tanks – tanks that were supposed to be used against ISIS but were sent against us instead. After Pirde, after we destroyed their tanks and stopped their advance, on October 20 we called the American ambassador back and told him, ‘Yesterday is not like today or tomorrow.’ War was not a choice for us, but Baghdad and the Hashd al-Shaabi discovered on those days that it is not a choice for them either.”
In all of this, perhaps there was a lesson for everyone involved. The KDP today, after my conversations with several leaders and strategists in the last few days, seems more acutely aware than ever of the need for more unity and better governance in Iraqi Kurdistan. This includes the need to unify the Peshmerga. At the same time, both parties in Kurdistan and the new prime minister in Baghdad (Adil Abdul-Mahdi) seem to have found some renewed will to try and cooperate rather than let things escalate again so badly.
Finally, U.S. diplomats and policy makers, although still reeling from President Trump’s impulsive announcement of a withdrawal from Syria, seem intent on avoiding past mistakes. This may be what led Mr. Trump to backpedal his announcement this week, while National Security Advisor John Bolton seemed to suddenly condition the U.S. withdrawal from Syria on both the complete defeat of ISIS remnants and Turkish assurances not to target Kurdish fighters allied with the United States. Such assurances from Turkey will not be forthcoming of course, but the publicly stated U.S. position against the targeting of Kurdish allies represents a welcome change.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.