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Post-Referendum Strategies

By DAVID ROMANO 7/10/2017
Post-Referendum Strategies
People in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, Syria, celebrate the Kurdish independence referendum held in the Kurdistan Region. File photo: AFP
Iran, Turkey and Baghdad’s response to the Kurds’ September 25th referendum could well backfire. The military threats, the flight ban, the talk of economic embargo and rhetoric ranging from patronizing to racist might be just the thing to unite the various Kurdish groups in all the Kurdistans. While the Kurdistan Regional Government calmly keeps repeating that all they did was hold a referendum, which is not forbidden by Iraq’s constitution, their opponents demonstrate their true nature with every harsh attempt to punish the Kurds.

Turkey stands to lose the most in this matter. President Erdogan seems busily intent on wrecking his last positive relationship with a neighbor. Some ten billion dollars of trade with South Kurdistan is at risk, and Turkey’s business community appears more than a little worried about it. South Kurdistan is Turkey’s third largest trading partner, after all, and the Turkish economy has enough other problems to occupy it at the moment.

The lucrative oil and gas deals that Ankara set up with Erbil also hang in the balance. Although Mr. Erdogan is quite right that Turkey controls the valve for Kurdistan’s petroleum exports and can shut it off at any moment, doing so entails a very heavy cost for Ankara. Especially with Russia’s recent multi-billion dollar investments in Kurdistan oil and gas industry, one could also foresee a Russian strategy to cut Turkey out completely. The Russians could explore the possibility of building pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syria and its Mediterranean coast. Although such a project would not begin before the civil war in Syria ends, that end appears in sight now. With the Assad regime already considering Kurdish autonomy in Syria and badly in need of revenues, Damascus might find such a proposal quite attractive.

Such a scenario would prove a nightmare for Turkey. A PKK affiliate would gain a permanent foothold just south of the border.  At the same time, if Ankara carries through on its threats against Erbil, it will force the Barzanis to try and mend relations with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and even the PKK. There’s nothing like an uncompromising outside enemy to foster Kurdish unity, making Turkey and Iran’s fears of pan-Kurdish irredentism a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Iran and Baghdad likewise stand to lose from their harsh approach towards the Iraqi Kurds. If authorities in Tehran are currently unhappy with the instability in Iranian Kurdistan, they should know that things can get much worse if they inflame popular passions there by trying to destroy Kurdish achievements in Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government has also been carefully improving its relations with Sunni Arab groups in Iraq since at least 2011, when their leaders such as Tariq al Hashimi, Rafi al Issawi and others had to flee to Kurdistan to escape Nuri al Maliki’s Sunni hunt in Baghdad.  If stiff-necked Shiite parties in Baghdad today wish to risk everything they achieved in Iraq, they need only push the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs into the same camp against them – at which point the government in Baghdad itself might become imperiled. 

How much better would things be if Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi and other Shiite leaders had taken a very different approach than trying to box the Kurds into a corner. They could have said “We are very disappointed that this referendum was held, and that the results seem to indicate the wish of so many to leave Iraq. This must be seen at least in part as our own failure. But these are not ordinary times, with the war against the Islamic State and other problems. Let us begin anew, iron out our constitutional differences and renegotiate the Iraqi union.  If after ten years the situation remains unsatisfactory, you can hold another referendum.” 

Instead Baghdad, Turkey and Iran talk as if the referendum results can be cancelled, apparently believing that the whole suppressive status quo against their Kurdish populations can go on forever. This is the real recipe for instability in the long term, and much more dangerous than South Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq.

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.
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