By Ghassan Charbel
5 September 2017
On the way from Erbil to Kirkuk, strange feelings haunted me. For the first time in my life, I wish I were a foreign correspondent, who writes with neutrality and sangfroid and looks for a stark title for his article. When he leaves the country, he turns the page and searches for another sick country to write an interesting report.
But I am an Arab journalist.
It is not simple, dear reader, to be an Arab journalist who is tasked with pursuing these successive collapses in the region, and counting the results of mud and blood hurricanes. It is not simple to have known these capitals; to have stayed in them in different eras; and to have listened to their decision-makers only to discover that the sole constant in their stories is the tendency towards downfall.
I am an Arab; I love Iraq, and this has nothing to do with the identity of its ruler. As many people, I thought that this country, where various kinds of wealth are gathered, would be the lever in the way towards the Arab future. I was almost certain a decade ago that the fall of the tyrant would lead to the emergence of a civil democratic state that would serve as a model for a successful coexistence between Arabs and Kurds on one hand and Sunnis and Shi’ites on the other. I was hoping to write an optimistic article, even once, about an open window and a promising future. I was not lucky.
I love Baghdad. I went there during the rule of the “Glorious Leader”. Later, I went to the Green Zone and Nuri al-Maliki told me: “The Sunnis are our partners and we will give them what reassures them.” Then, I met Haidar al-Abadi and found him interested in mending fences between the Iraqi components; however, ISIS was overshadowing Mosul, the country and the people. I also met President Jalal Talbani, who was trying to convince me that the conditions of civil war were not available in Iraq.
A bleeding map
I have regularly met with Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, to measure the degree of tension of the Kurdish partner in this marriage undermined by doubts and bitterness.
All this talk is from the past; the Iraqi map is bleeding.
After being preoccupied with the Iraqi story for two decades, here I am on the road to Kirkuk, feeling the smell of the Iraqi Autumn, while the summer flame is still burning.
The winds of autumn blew early in the air. Since the announcement of the date of the independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdistan, scheduled for the 25th of this month, Iraq seemed to be rushing towards the hour of truth and it will probably be the hour of divorce between Baghdad and Erbil.
I do not want to go far in my feelings as if I write that the Arabic year consisted originally of a single season that is autumn. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the Iraqi map is now in the throes of its fall; as if divorce was the inevitable end of the failed marriage concluded by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The Arab-Kurdish tango on the Iraqi map was rickety and bloody, and now the Kurds are preparing to announce the end of the costly dance.
A short dream caught me in the way. I dreamt that Haider al-Abadi would go to the leaders of the “Shi’ite House” and tell them that time was running out; and that saving the map of Iraq needed a historic pause… Tell them that avoiding divorce required a bold historic decision that would give the Kurds full rights and tranquility in exchange for keeping the map without official and public divisions… Such as a definite agreement on a confederate regime that enables the Kurds to exercise the right to self-determination… along with an agreement on the fate of the disputed areas, including Kirkuk, for which a temporary solution is reached to maintain relations with Erbil and Baghdad, so that its residents will later decide in a calm atmosphere, on their future and destiny.
I also dreamt that those present would agree on a real solution that Abadi would bring to Erbil and then Barzani would not have the choice but to adopt it.
I soon woke up from this dream. The atmosphere in Baghdad is not favorable for compromises of this magnitude. The hawks insist on policies that have brought this fall. The Kurds, for their part, have despaired of staying in the current map and consider that the cost of divorce today is lower than that in the future.
Neither Baghdad nor neighboring counties accept the independence of the Kurds, especially those states where “Kurdish bombs” sleep within their territories, including Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Arabs tend to reject any change in the map of an Arab country. Washington, for its part, advises to postpone the referendum to maintain focus on the fight against ISIS.
But what if the Kurds said they wanted independence? Are neighboring countries entitled to close their borders to suffocate them? Are the “Popular Mobilization Forces” entitled to punish them? Does the region tolerate the outbreak of a Shi’ite-Kurdish conflict in addition to the current Shi’ite-Sunni conflict?
A journalist should not be satisfied with what he hears from the sources of decision-makers. So I went to talk with Kurds in the streets, cafes, cars and hotels. They are unanimous in supporting the independence even if some of them fear the consequences.
A number of them said they did not want to stay in Iraq, whose prime minister can “cut the salaries of the people of the province and the milk of its children”, in reference to what Nuri al-Maliki did.
Many noted that the agreement on the establishment of a civil state after the ousting of Saddam has perished, and that Baghdad was moving towards a religious and sectarian state, in which Kurds have no room.
They have also noticed that the PMF were not subjected to the authority of the prime minister, but to “an authority outside the Constitution and the borders of Iraq”, in reference to Iran.
The Kurdish situation is unique in each of the four countries in which Kurds are distributed. Kurds originally suffer from bitter divisions among their ranks. What Iraq’s Kurds consider as a solution to their situation cannot be generalized.
Seeing Iraq’s Kurds opt for independence would be a resounding event. Change is very dangerous in a region with fragile maps. Coexistence in the terrible Middle East is not in its best days. Velvet divorce similar to that of Czechoslovakia is not an option. Our culture does not produce velvet. The picture is really vague. But it is certain that the autumn has invaded the Iraqi map, and the country will not be the same after this fall season.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.