Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Kurdish Independence Vote

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 Daesh/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 Daesh/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.

Addenda, 6:39 PM, 9/30/17

1)  I suspect that part of the recent runup in world oil prices has been in anticipation of the likely Turkish cutoff of oil coming out of Iraqi Kurdistan.  Prices are at their highest in two years, with Brent crude at between $57 an $58 per barrel yesterday and between $51 and $52 for West Texas Intermediate crude.  OPEC inventories are down, presumably with KSA sticking to their quotas, but "geopolitical uncertainties" have been invoked for part of the price increase, and the Kurdish independence vote and likely Turkish response have looked like part of that.  Until recently the price had been in the 40s for many months.

2)  While many are annoyed with Barzani for doing it prior to the final defeat of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq, it may well be that this has not been achieved playing a role in the timing.  Given the important role of the Pesh Merga in battling Daesh/ISIS Barzani may feel that this need by their erstwhile allies for continued assistance against the common enemy may give him some leverage.  OTOH, it may simply lead to the campaign to finish Daesh/ISIS off falling apart at the final point.

3)  Barzani may be calculating that the Pesh Merga may be stronger than  the Iraq National Army and will be able to hold Kirkuk, and he may be right.  OTOH, the Turks may yet be tempted to intervene due to the large Turkmen population in Kirkuk.  I doubt the Pesh Merga would be able to withstand a full press attack by the Turkish military.  As it is, apparently the Iraq National Army is trying to take control of all border crossings from Iraqi Kurdistan into neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as with the rest of Iraq.

4)  I did attend the International Festival and I did get to dance with the Kurds there.  They were waving Kurdish flags vigorously and proudly and taking lots of selfies with them.  I spoke with my friend, Rashid, whom I helped keep out of jail and who is probably the main leader of the community.  He told me that two years ago "some ignorant people" had attacked them there because of their waving of Kurdish flags.  I did not express my concerns about what might come to pass in Iraqi Kurdistan.  They may have their fears, but today they were celebrating.

Barkley Rosser


Longtooth said...

My general sympathies also lie with the Kurds-- not just those in Iraq, but also those Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The Kurds in those states are clustered next to the present Kurdish controlled area's of Iraq .. in other words the long time Kurdish region of the Middle East.

When the French and British carved up the ME into independent and sovereign nation states after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, they drew lines on maps under some unknown and generally arbitrary basis in concert with local power brokers in order to obtain power support for their interim gov'ts. The Kurds got the shaft on those maps, though I have no understanding of the local power brokers influences with the British and French at the time that cut the Kurds out.

Anyway if you draw a general shape around the majority Kurd populations in adjoining provinces in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq you get a generally good understanding of why these nations are so opposed to the Iraqi Kurds gaining independence from Iraq.

From my perspective and general understanding, an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would set off a domino effect in Iran, Turkey, and Syria with the dominant majority Kurd regions demanding to become part of the adjoining northern Iraq Kurdish and thus taking a significant population and regions of each of those states with them.

Of course why would any nation, however created, willingly ceded large parts of its territory and economy to another "upstart" nation or any other nation or that matter?

The only reason they would do so is if under sufficient militarily forced duress... e.g. being utterly defeated in warfare, or after a decades long stand-off where the disputed territory was under the virtual occupation of the "upstart" nation, even if it was in a perpetual state of chaos and back and forth military lines of control.. in effect a war of attrition until one side ran of soldiers and / or resources.

Turkey isn't likely to run out of men or resources, nor is Iran. Syria is highly exposed however, unless the Russian's intervene on Syria's behalf. As you say though it's not clear that the Kurds can't hold off Iraq if the KRD decides to force militarily created independence. But that will depend on which outside nation's give the Kurds the military and resource support they need -- e.g. U.S. and Israel most likely, and the U.S. hasn't been openly supporting the Kurds militarily (covert support has been clearly provided however).

In real terms then the northern Iraqi Kurds are hopelessly outnumbered by the combined strengths and opposition from at least Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (and I'd guess the Russian's who are supporting the Syrian regime) from obtaining any militarily forced independence.

Open warfare would in the long run not be beneficial to the Kurds in any of the Kurdish regions.. imagine more genocides (or virtual "cleansing" by some means) for example, devastated infrastructure, ultimate defeat, and then political reforms with non-Kurd government control of the regions.

I think the current Kurdish leaders understand this all too well.. so what's going on is in fact political positioning... all the rest is just rhetoric. Iran sends some troops to the border...saying in effect "I dare you to try". Turkey cuts off oil revenue pipelines saying in effect "don't be foolish." Iraq starts talking about sending the Iraqi troops to Kirkuk saying in effect "we're serious about this.. don't test us."

And the Kurdish leadership got the message loud and clear. They have public support by Kurds now clearly demonstrated which is the political power the leadership wanted in the first place. They may decided to maintain Kirkuk as a strategy for later bargaining power, but otherwise there will be no war. said...

Latest developments include that so far the Iraqi Kurds have managed to resist the efforts so far by the Iraqi central government to take control of border passings.

Also, in the US while SecState Tillerson has officially declared the independence vote to be "illegitimate," Sen. Chuck Schumer has come out in support of the vote, declaring that the US should support Kurdish independence.