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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

The genie of Kurdish independence will be hard to put back in the bottle

Barzani is pushing too hard, too fast for independence – and in the process, sabotaging what it has taken the Kurds decades to build

Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani attends a rally ahead of the independence referendum. Ari Jalal / Reuters
Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani attends a rally ahead of the independence referendum. Ari Jalal / Reuters

How nice it is, the Kurds must think ruefully, to see the countries of the Middle East in agreement. As efforts are stepped up to halt next week's referendum on Kurdish independence, Turkey, Iran, the government of Iraq, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom, are all on the same side, urging Erbil to back away from the vote. Finally, something the region can agree on.

In contrast to the Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria and Iran, Iraq's Kurds enjoy the closest thing to self-rule in the region. Ironically, this push by the president of the Kurdistan region for an independence vote may actually undermine the gains made so far.

Independence votes are always a mix of ideology and politics. The majority of Kurds no doubt wish for independence. But independence someday is not the same as independence today, and it is this crucial distinction that has meant that Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish region's president, has faced unexpected opposition, both from outside the community and from within. He may just be pushing too far, too fast, to the detriment of the wider Kurdish movement.

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Mr Barzani's reasons for unleashing the genie of independence at this moment are entirely strategic. Facing serious opposition inside Kurdistan, he is, doubtless, hoping to forge a better deal with Baghdad by using the sledgehammer of a referendum. But that is a significant gamble.

For one, the coalescing of opposition to the referendum has highlighted how misaligned Erbil is from other governments in the region. That could shift the consensus in regional capitals, particularly in Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran, all of whom fear an independent Kurdistan would start to give their own Kurdish minorities ideas.

But it is also a tactical error. Because even if there were a referendum, given the fierce rivalry between Mr Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), there is no guarantee it would pass. The rivalry with the PUK is so fierce that it has dampened the excitement of the referendum to the east and south of the Kurdish areas, where PUK support is strongest. Forced to choose between a vote for independence or their preferred party, a yes vote cannot be taken for granted.

That would be worse than no referendum. A botched referendum, where the vote failed or passed with a slim majority – especially if significant numbers of Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians did not vote yes – would actually strengthen Baghdad's position, which would leap to suggest that the Kurds had no real mandate to separate. The march towards independence would be greatly weakened.

Nor, in any case, will independence be a cure for what ails Kurdistan. At the moment, the semi-autonomous government in Erbil gets to blame any problems on Baghdad. After independence, Kurds, and the other groups like Iraqi Arabs who will then be minorities within Kurdistan, will demand more accountability.

That won't be easy, because the Kurdish movement in Iraq has long been split between the KDP and the PUK, which function more like fiefdoms. Barzani is president of the Kurdish region and the head of the KDP, his nephew is prime minister and deputy of the KDP and his son is the head of Kurdistan's intelligence service. While Kurds may tolerate this monopoly situation at the moment, given the Barzani clan's centrality to the Kurdish movement, that won't last long.

Moreover, despite the vast oil wealth of the region, the Kurdistan government is billions of dollars in debt. The peshmerga, the Kurdish militias who would form the backbone of any new army, are often not paid. Civil servants have seen their salaries slashed. Kurdistan's government, creaking, corrupt, run along factional lines and with a president who is 12 years into an eight-year term does not look ready for independence. (Indeed the region, one wag noted, seems more like Lebanon without the beaches.)

Worse, Kurdish leaders have made it appear as if independence would be an easy thing. It will not. Turkey and Iran would have vastly more leverage over a small, independent Kurdistan than they do over a semi-autonomous part of Iraq. The major oil pipeline from the region goes from Kirkuk into Turkey. But Kirkuk is a mixed city and it is an open question whether it would become part of Kurdistan – the government in Baghdad might defend its current status by force.

Erbil would, after independence, face an awful choice: either entirely dependent on Turkey to sell its main source of revenue. Or, worse, if Kirkuk stays within Iraq, with the only way to export its oil now inside a foreign country. Ironically, Kirkuk gives the Kurds more leverage if it is within Iraq.

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Iran, too, would pose a thorny problem after independence. Iran shares a long border with the region and would, given its influence in Baghdad – which would increase proportionally, without the Kurds in Iraq's parliament – also have sway over Iraq's long border with a newly independent Kurdistan. Earlier this summer, Iran briefly dammed a river into the Kurdish town of Qala Diza, an event that was seen as a warning shot to Erbil.

An independent Kurdistan would rapidly find itself with Iran as its most important neighbour, able to apply significant pressure over the majority of its newly minted borders. With Syria to the west and Turkey to the north seeing it as a security imperative to limit contact between their respective Kurdish populations, an independent Kurdistan could easily become a very claustrophobic place.

And yet independence, though a bad idea at the moment, is something the Kurds strongly desire and that must be taken seriously in Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara. Mr Barzani has said that if regional countries don't want a referendum, they must offer an alternative. That is right. Mr Barzani may be moving too swiftly to go, but it is Baghdad that must give the whole region a good reason to stay.

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