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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Kurdish independence vote a smokescreen for Barzani's domestic political woes

Kurdish president Massoud Barzani deploys nationalist fervour to hide his mountain of problems and maintain the legitimacy of a president who has lost his legal mandate

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speaks to supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum for independence of Kurdistan on September 22, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq.Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speaks to supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum for independence of Kurdistan on September 22, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq.Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The sea of flags filling the stadiums of the major cities in Iraqi Kurdistan are an impressive - and an unusual - sight. Such mass demonstrations of popular will have not been witnessed in the autonomous region in a while, and it took the anticipation of a very special occasion to get the Kurds to gather in such numbers.

On Monday, September 25, everyone living in areas controlled by Kurdish security forces, with the exception of Arabs displaced to Kurdish territory by ISIL, will get to answer a simple question: "Do you want an independent Kurdistan?"

Few Kurds in Iraq, or indeed in Syria, Iran or Turkey, would tick the "No" option on the voting slip. Regarding themselves as the largest nation without a state, Kurds feel cheated out of their own country by devious realpolitikal machinations dating back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the carve up of the region by the British and the French.

The Kurds have suffered discrimination and worse in each of the four countries that took a chunk out of the territories they inhabit. To outside observers, it is easy to be sympathetic to their aspirations. After all, the idea of the nation state was passionately pursued by patriots in nineteenth century Europe, and in the post-war Middle East.

Unfortunately, things are rarely that straightforward, especially in Iraq.

By stirring this passion, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the political book.

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Read more:

Iraqi Kurdish referendum: Barzani says 'too late' to postpone vote

It's not just Iraqis — some Kurds oppose a risky independence referendum

Masoud Barzani the 'servant of an independent Kurdistan'

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The wily Mr Barzani, who hails from the most prominent political clan in Iraqi Kurdistan, is the architect of the referendum. He knows it will result in an overwhelming “yes”, such is the enthusiasm for independence among Kurds.

It is in fact this fervour that counts more than the referendum's outcome. As it has been throughout the ages, nationalism is being deployed as a smokescreen to hide this mountain of problems and to maintain the legitimacy of a president who has lost his legal mandate.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is facing tough times. Its economy has nosedived, ostensibly a result of the war against ISIL, but in reality because of inept decision making. A total reliance on oil exports for state revenue turned into disaster when the global oil price tumbled. Kurdish production and reserves turned out to be less than predicted and a long-standing dispute with the Iraqi government over oil receipts was not resolved.

Those waiting for real democracy and a liberalisation of society have been disappointed. Instead, Mr Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and another powerful party in the KRG, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, continue to rule with a mix of cronyism and intimidation.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Mr Barzani himself.

The president's tenure expired in 2013. He was granted a controversial extension by the Kurdish parliament, but when this expired, Mr Barzani simply ruled on, relying on his status as war time leader. With the war on ISIL as good as over, Mr Barzani needs another cause to rally the people behind him.

While most Kurds support independence with vigour, the Arabs and minorities in the so-called disputed territories are less enthusiastic. Some have decided that throwing in their lot with the Kurds offers their best hope of a secure future. Others, like the Yazidis, want nothing to do with Kurdistan. The Yazidis were abandoned by the Kurdish Peshmerga in 2014, allowing for genocide at the hands of ISIL to happen. The Yazidis have not forgotten this, and are loth to vote yes in the referendum, which equates to approval for their homelands in Sinjar falling under Kurdish control.

In Kirkuk, where the Kurdish governor Najmaldin Karim has decided the referendum will be held, the Arabs and Turkmen population is also hostile to the idea of falling to Kurdistan. Kirkuk is already under de-facto Kurdish control after the Peshmerga seized the city to prevent it from falling to ISIL in 2014.

There is concern that the vote in the disputed territories, which run from Sinjar in the west all the way to the Iranian border, will not reflect the wishes of its population of Arabs, Yazidis, Turkmen, Christians and other minorities, but that of the Kurdish security forces that control large parts of these areas.

In the end, it does not really matter. A “yes” vote does not give Mr Barzani a carte blanche to declare independence, it merely gives him a stronger hand in negotiations with the Iraqi central government on the issue.

Or so goes the theory. In practice, Baghdad and powerful militia groups aligned with the government might be a little too impressed with Mr Barzani's bravado. By making an aggressive push for sensitive areas rich in oil and claimed by both sides, the Kurdish president risks a military conflict between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces.

Coming so soon after the devastating war against ISIL, another substantial conflict would be disastrous for Iraq. But it could be even more damaging for the Kurdish region, which benefitted hugely by being a comparatively safe part of Iraq. If this image is shattered, any meaningful investment from abroad or within Iraq will remain a pipe dream for years to come.

Fighting against battle-hardened Iraqi troops and militias, and without the coalition air support they received when fighting ISIL, the Peshmerga could be in for a bloody nose.

These would be seriously troublesome developments for the Kurds, and for Mr Barzani, who has become almost synonymous with Kurdish patriotism in Iraq. What will the future hold for him if his bold move backfires?

Having sown the storm, Mr Barzani might well be reaping a whirlwind.