By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai
The decision of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani to hold a referendum for Kurdistan independence will define the future of the Kurds in north-east Syria. The international community (headed by the US with numerous military bases in Syria) is directly concerned with the reactions, verbal threats, and measures announced by the countries with a Kurdish majority and bordering Iraqi Kurdistan, i.e. Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
So far Tehran, Ankara and Baghdad have reacted harshly to the Iraqi Kurds’ unilateral wish to divide the country, but Iraq and Iran took the first measure by closing their air space to all flights from and to Erbil. Iraq asked all airlines to stop flying over the country and to cease using Erbil airport. Lebanon abided by the Iraqi central government request and halted all flights in and out of Erbil (flights scheduled daily in the normal situation). Egypt and the Emirtes followed Lebanon’s step. Turkey is increasing its threats (“the Kurds will go hungry”) but did not take any practical steps: scheduled flights from Turkey to Erbil are landing and taking off despite what Turkish officials otherwise declared, but above all, its trucks are still travelling backward and forward into the Kurdish territory.
Baghdad went a lot further when its Prime Minister Haidar Abadi was given full power by the government and the Parliament to take “all necessary measures”, including the use of military force, to ensure the unity of the country. This is what encouraged Haidar Abadi to give an ultimatum to Erbil to deliver the control of all airports and border crossings to the Federal Police, as stated by the constitution. This means that the central government is expected to increase sanctions against Kurdistan by this coming Friday and may use military force to impose control over all contested areas in the north, north-west and east of the country. Any such a move will inevitably spark violence in the country and an immediate revelation of the International community’s real intention towards Erbil and Baghdad. The US and Europe have large business, oil, and military intelligence bases in Kurdistan and would be directly concerned.
A delegation from Kurdistan visited Baghdad a few days before the announcement of the referendum. Iraqi Sources in Baghdad who participated in the meeting reveal to me “the Kurds came with three clear intentions: 1. To show the world the Kurds are trying to find a way out before the referendum. 2. It is important to continue the dialogue and avoid any repressive measures after the referendum.” 3. And most importantly, “the delegation was trying to find out what would be the measures Baghdad may adopt as retaliation for the referendum”. The source believes “there was no attempt to postpone or renounce the call for the referendum: Barzani has decided and is confident of his step”.
So the decision has been made and Barzani was aware of the consequences: personal representatives of the Kurdish leader visited various capitals (Beirut, Tehran, Ankara, Tel Aviv, Baghdad…) to understand what would be the reaction. Kurdish representatives I met were particularly concerned about the position of Hashd al-Sha’bi (the Popular Mobilisation Units – PMU) and their possible intervention. It seems the PMU are the main source of concern because of their reputation (track record) and because they include the battalions of Nineveh (who are involved in the referendum but who reject it).
The following step Baghdad is planning is to ask Erbil to present all its accounts in all official matters and expenses related to Oil Revenue (900.000 barrels per day pumped under KRG of which 600.000 b/d exported via Turkey) and also with reference to Communication Revenue (Erbil’s established Communication Company is under investigation and international arbitration for refusing to pay the Iraqi Ministry of Communication billions of dollars due for 3 years). Baghdad will certainly send forces to all disputed areas to protect these cities and prevent Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) from imposing their control over contested cities. In this state of insecurity for Erbil, the Peshmerga will be on continuous alert on all borders with the rest of Iraq, exhausting Erbil’s already strenuous and indebted finance.
Abadi won’t attack the city of Erbil but will limit the Kurds to a confined territory and will ask the international community to fulfil its commitment to reject the independence of Kurdistan, halting all economic cooperation.
Barzani masked the deterioration of his popularity and the critical financial situation of Kurdistan (due to the corruption of its leaders) and replaced it with a controversial referendum: he managed to brush away from Baghdad the oil and all other revenues already disposed of, and brought most of the Kurds under his umbrella by tickling their dream of an independent state, boosting again his popularity. But the price seems very high.
The Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) will stand beside Erbil and will open their “borders” with Iraq: this in turn will violate the sovereignty of Damascus. But how this would help Erbil or “Rojava”, the “Kurdistan Syria”? Already the Syrian Kurds, in their situation, occupy an embattled position due to their accepting the position of US proxies. And they can’t open sea or air access to Erbil to boost Kurdistan’s economy, let alone compete with what the central government in Baghdad can offer.
The Syrian Kurds are waiting to see how the world will react to Iraqi Kurdistan to draw conclusions about their own next move. The US will have to think carefully what to do with Iraqi Kurdistan before taking any irrevocable step, since all decisions will have repercussions on its tenure in Syria and the occupation of north-east Bilad al-Sham.
Barzani’s only solution – if Turkey abides by its threat and the international community retreats from its previous position in favour of the central government in Baghdad – is to enjoy the referendum and its result: and do nothing at all. However if the Kurdish leader has received enough promises of protection from the international community and Turkey he, in this case, only needs to wait for few more weeks before making a final decision.