Buried on the back pages of this busy week has been the news that in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday there was a referendum on independence reportedly supported by 92% of the voters. I imagine that is not inaccurate, and that there was strong support for this referendum, even as Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani says that it is only advisory and a prelude to negotiations with the central Iraqi government. As it is, this vote is not being treated as such, and there has been a tremendous negative reaction not only from the Iraqi central government but from all of the neighbors of the KRG, with even their usual ally, the US, not supporting the vote (if not threatening hostile actions against it), with only Israel openly supporting it. The hostile reactions of neighbors and especially the central Iraqi government may well lead to war, even as ISIS remains not quite completely defeated within Iraqi territory, with up until now the Kurdish Pesh Merga having been working with the Iraq National Army as well as various Iranian Shia militias against ISIS.
Let me be clear that I have enormous sympathy with the aspirations of the Kurdish people for having their own nation. The 35 million Kurds have long been described as “the largest ethnic group without a nation” (although technically some larger ones merely have a state in India). They were promised a nation at the Versailles conference back in 1919, but the machinations of the British, French, Turks, and Persians (now Iranians) led to that promise not being fulfilled, and the Kurds being spread among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran today, and a history over the last century of being crushed and abandoned and lied to by many nations. They speak an Indo-European language related to Farsi/Persian, and are mostly Sunni Muslim although with a Shia minority. However, they are largely not as religiously fanatical as most people around them, and the parties representing them in Turkey tend to be secular and leftist.
The three provinces with a Kurdish majority in northeastern Iraq began achieving a de facto autonomy during the first Gulf war, after Saddam Hussein had used gas against them during the 1980s, leading to some of them fleeing to the US, including some to my city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, where they have a large community. The US supported this autonomous government with a no-fly zone over it, and it achieved a more official autonomy, although not independence from Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. During the US invasion, the Kurds were the strongest allies of the US, and their Pesh Merga has been the strong arm of the anti-ISIS military movement in both Iraq and Syria, working especially closely with the US in that.
As part of their autonomy they began developing their oil industry and making deals with international oil companies separate from the Iraq central government, with their exports reaching about 600,000 barrels per day now, not enormous, but also not trivial in a world of about 85 million barrels per day. They are supposed to share oil revenues with the Iraqi central government, but there has been ongoing disagreement about this as well as other fiscal matters, with these festering disagreements having worsened over time. In any case, the KRG has made its deals and exported its oil against the wishes of the Iraqi central government, largely through the Ceyhan pipeline going through Turkey.
Another important development, arising from during the overthrow of the Saddam regime, is that the Pesh Merga took control of certain areas outside the three provinces directly ruled by the KRG. The most important of these has been the city of Kirkuk, near another center of oil production and which has long had a highly mixed population of Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, and some others. The Kurds claim that Kirkuk is a historic cultural center of theirs, and the Kurdish population there has increased while other groups have left. But it remains a highly mixed population, and is not officially part of the KRG area.
In general, especially compared to the rest of Iraq, the KRG has largely appeared to do a good job of governing, despite some longstanding internal conflicts between families and factions. There has not been outright warfare and democratic voting and a reasonably functioning economy, fed especially by their oil exports. However, this has been deteriorating for some time. Current President Barzani’s term was supposed to end in 2015, but he has extended it by emergency rule. Also, low world oil prices have led to a slowdown of the economy and increased grumbling. Also, ambitions for independence have increased as Kurds have achieved military victories in Syria and elsewhere. All of this has led Barzani to pursue this referendum at this time, which undoubtedly will strengthen his internal political hand, even as the KRG faces a fierce external backlash that could lead to war.
The backlash includes Iraq demanding that all foreign airlines stop flying to airports in the KRG region. It appears that those airlines are obeying this demand, and Kurdistan appears to be about to become completely isolated in terms of commercial air transport. While it is not clear that they have done it yet and could still back down, Turkey has declared that it will shut off the flow of oil exports through its pipeline from Kurdistan. If they follow through on that, it will plunge the KRG economy into deep recession. Iran has declared its opposition and refuses to allow goods to pass through it to the rest of the world and has sent troops to the KRG/Iran border. Finally, the Iraq central government is demanding that the Kurdish Pesh Merga withdraw from Kirkuk and turn it over to the Iraq central government. Reportedly the Iraq army is on its way to Kirkuk, and this is where war could break out. Frankly, while I am sympathetic, I have to say that I think this is a terrible time to be making this referendum happen, although clearly President Barzani sees at least short term gains for himself, even if this ends up bringing about serious suffering on the part of his people.
I note as an aside to all this, and perhaps why I am especially concerned, that I have been a friend to people in the Harrisnburg Kurdish community. Back in 2006 I helped save some of them from an FBI effort to jail them for trying to send money home to relatives in Iraqi Kurdistan. This was my most proud post on the old Maxspeak, still behind fire walls, as it helped lead to all the local Kurdish men charged getting off. An op ed about all that was put up by me on Juan Cole’ site.
Tomorrow (later today technically, Yom Kippur actually) is International Day here in Harrisonburg, when local ethnic groups show up at Hillandale Park to show off crafts and items and information and sell ethnic food and even play music and dance. A regular highlight each year at 5 PM is when the Kurds dance, and I have joined them in the past in doing so, knowing some of them quite well. I hope to tomorrow as well and expect them to be especially joyous given this vote. However, while I am sympathetic and hope for the best, I am afraid that I fear the worst.