By Arif Taj
22 June 2017
Barzani’s move fraught with danger
The rapidity and haste with which changes are taking place in the Middle East are unprecedented since the World War II and each despot, for being confronted with the question of immediate urgency in the forefront—surviving his rule as an absolute, a la the medieval ages—is re-ordering things, evolving new alliances and repositioning alignments. But the peoples’ patience in these countries—either under the reign of a monarch or run by a semblance of democracy—seems to be wearing thin with equal pace and the restive areas are waiting in their wings to break away from the central authorities, as the notion of unity in most of the Middle East has largely been a façade, an exterior, a put-on— brought about and upheld by constant quelling and suppression of the once overpowered and defeated ethno-tribal peoples immune to the 19th century concept of nation statehood.
The latest reflection of this affected and stagy unity—and a testimony of how the Middle East is shaping up anew— is the proclamation of Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), around two weeks ago, for holding a referendum in the Iraqi Kurd region on September 25 to decide the ‘long-awaited question’ of Kurd freedom. The area under the control of the KRG—home to approximately 17 percent of the population of Iraq—is a part of the compact Kurd region—called Kurdistan—reaching from Syria in the west, Iran in the east, Iraq in the south and Turkey in the north, thus, making up the whole of the Kurd territory home to over 37 million population which has been asserting freedom and unity of its people and territory, divided up into the four parts after the defeat of Ottoman Empire in the World War I.
Barzani’s fresh call for referendum—though fraught with danger of causing a new conflict in the region—is not of tactical nature like his previous statements, put as a part of political machinations to secure certain political concession, rather made after weighing up certain conditions as ripe for exploitation—that KRG is down to the short strokes of independence in the rapidly changing spectrum of the Middle East. The KRG, emboldened by its recent gains against the formidable ISIS, and the worldwide acclaim as a result, has begun asserting independence with unprecedented alacrity. The expulsion of the ISIS from major cities of Iraq, huge losses incurred therein to the ISIS and the present battle in Mosul— the last ISIS stronghold in Iraq—is largely owing to the Kurd Peshmerga forces. Having taken Kirkuk—home to Iraq’s rich oil fields—back from the ISIS forces, the KRG also has laid claim to the city as a part of Iraqi Kurd region.
For the KRG, internal conflicts, weak security system, fragile political authority and constant threats from the formidable ISIS have rendered Iraq a lame duck which needs Kurd Peshmerga troops to stave off the ISIS danger in future and the situation is an opportunity, up to snuff, that must be used to negotiate and secure independence from Iraq. Iraq is caught up in a paradox—a catch-22 situation—almost driven into a corner with two options—either to concede Iraqi Kurd’s independence or face the staggering terror threat from the ISIS on its own.
This negotiating leverage—which has provided a considerable leeway to the KRG to bargain within Iraqi—is also being used by Barzani as a tool to diminish the influence of Abdullah Ocalan—the most influential leader of the Kurd people and the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—in non-Iraqi Kurd areas.
Massoud Barzani—of Iranian Kurdish descent—also heading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—believes that post-independence Iraqi Kurd region—coupled with its oil wealth—would inspire the Kurd people to rally around him and extend his influence to the entire Kurd region. In addition, there are voices in power corridors of a few powerful Arab countries and Israel that support the KRG for being anti-ISIS and secular state with large population of Sunni faith—political credentials of becoming an ally later. Barzani’s announcement is awfully dreadful, which, provoking the neighbours, may cause another conflict of grave perils in the region already engulfed in flames.
Barzani’s view that independence of Iraqi Kurds would act as a catalyst to egg on Kurds political struggle and help forge unity is a misplaced perception. The Kurd population is deeply divided and is affiliated with a number of political parties, including militant outfits fighting along with the ISIS.
Abdullah Ocalan, an intellectual of great impact in the Kurd region, and the political party of leftist leanings he founded—is still a force in the region to be reckoned with, a power of considerable influence involved in armed struggle against Turkey. In contrast, politics of Barzani and his KDP is elitist in nature. Both the parties, for being antagonistic in political ideas, are likely to descend into armed conflict, with abetment or involvement of other actors within Kurd areas and without. Moreover, Iran and Turkey—the most powerful countries in the region—would not let Barzani and his party go scot-free, given that independent Kurd region puts the integrity of these countries in jeopardy. Iran has an immense influence in Iraq over its Shia population and militants in the region and Turkey close ties with various factions of the ISIS. Barzani’s bid for independence may turn out to be a battlefield among Kurds themselves and the neighbours— another theatre of proxy war in the Middle East after Syria.