Saturday, September 23, 2017

The KRG Independence Referendum: A Path to Self-Determination or Greater Authoritarian Rule and Regional Instability?

Iraqi Kurds celebrate the coming referendum for an independent Kurdish state
This coming September 25th, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum asking Iraq’s Kurds whether they want to leave the Republic of Iraq and form an independent nation-state. If successful, and the KRG secedes from Iraq, will the referendum serve Kurdish desires for national self-determination? Will it give Iraq’s Kurds greater control over their political, cultural and economic destiny?

Or would secession from Iraq instead solidify authoritarian rule in the KRG and harm the Kurds' economic and strategic interests? These questions require careful analysis given the referendum’s implications, not only for Iraq’s Kurds, but for the stability of Iraq and the eastern MENA region.
Distribution of Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
As they rightly argue, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world which lacks its own nation-state.  Beginning with Declaration of Independence by the United States in 1776, and further elaborated as the 19th century progressed, the concept of national self-determination became a cardinal principle of international law, to be later embodied in the 1945 United Nations Charter.

Ballot urging a "Yes" vote on the
the September 25 referendum
Kurds argue that having a nation-state does not reflect an abstract desire, but represents a question of self-preservation. The historical record clearly demonstrates that the Kurds have been treated in a despicable manner in all 4 countries of the MENA region in which they live.  

Saddam Husayn’s notorious ANFAL campaign, including the dropping of chemical weapons on Kurdish residents of the city of Halabja in March 1988, led to the destruction of hundreds of Kurdish towns and villages, the elimination of Kurdish agriculture, and the deaths of thousands of men, between the ages of 15 and 55, not to speak of the inhabitants of Halabja.
Image from the town of Halabja after it was bombed at Saddam Husayn's
orders with chemical weapons in March 1988
The Turkish government has also suppressed Kurdish rights, including prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language, referring to Kurds as “mountain Turks,” and refusing to invest in Kurdish populated areas in eastern Turkey. The refusal to invest state funds in Kurdish areas has deprived Turkey’s Kurdish minority of economic development, schools and employment opportunities.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad
Syria’s frequent seizure of Kurdish lands in the country’s northeast was often accompanied by the withdrawal of Syrian citizenship, and the arrest and torture of Kurds who protested the policies of the Bacthist regime in Damascus. Syria’s Kurds were deprived of government services and, like Kurds in neighboring Turkey, prevented from engaging in cultural expression. In effect, they were not recognized as Syrian citizens. (See my earlier post: "The Rojava Kurds: A Model for the Contemporary Middle East?

Iran's so-called Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, with the late Ayatollah Khomeini
Iran’s suppression of Kurdish rights began with the destruction of the only Kurdish nation-state, the short-lived Mahabad Republic (Kurdish: کۆماری مەھاباد‎ Komara MehabadêPersianجمهوری مهاباد‎‎) of May-June 1947.  The leader of the fledgling state, Gazi Muhammad, a respected member of a local clerical family, was arrested, tried and hung.

The continued jailing and killing of Kurdish activists, both under the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic, and the refusal to invest state funds in Kurdish areas of the north-west, constitute a record of Iranian state’s authoritarianism, economic and cultural marginalization, and physical elimination towards its Kurdish citizens.  Given this history, why wouldn’t Kurds want their own nation-state? 

However, will the September 25 referendum give Kurds the right to self-determination?  Will it offer them a better life?  The answer is most likely not.  First and foremost, Kurds and the international community should be asking, why is the referendum being held at this point in time?  Did the KRG leadership schedule it to help Iraq’s Kurds or are there other motivations at work?  Unfortunately, if the referendum is successful and the KRG withdraws from Iraq, we can expect political and economic conditions to worsen in the new Kurdish nation-state.

Democracy and political development Would an independent Kurdish state create a more democratic political system for Iraq’s Kurds?  Unfortunately, the answer is no. KRG President Masoud Barzani fits the all too prevalent model of political rule in the MENA region: authoritarianism mixed with rampant corruption and nepotism.

KRG President Masoud Barzani
standing next to Iraq & KRG flags
An independent Kurdish state in Iraq would only strengthen Barzani’s rule in the KRG Parliament and he has already flouted KRG laws by remaining as president, despite his term having expired 2 years ago. The Referendum will do nothing to address the demands of young Kurds, expressed for example in the formation of the Gorran (Change) Party, which demand that the KRG become more transparent in its political and economic decision-making.

Relations between the KDP and PUK As is already clear, the declaration of an independent Kurdish state will not solve the ongoing tension between the two dominant political parties in the KRG, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), controlled by the Barzani family and its extended clan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) controlled by the Talabani family.  Both parties still have separate militias (Pesh Merga units) and control their own economic and legal institutions.
Because an independent Kurdistan would create new power vacuums, there is a high probability that a successful referendum would foster internal Kurdish divisions, as well as conflict with ethnic groups living under Kurdish rule. As an example, the governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, who is nominally a member of the PUK, is supporting the referendum which will be of greater benefit to Masoud Barzani and the KDP than the PDK.  After having initially promoted reconciliation between Kirkuk’s multiple ethnic groups – Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, Karim has ruling in an increasingly sectarian, asserting the rights of the city’s Kurdish population over other ethnic groups.

Domestic political and economic impact One of the most important consequences of the KRG referendum if it leads to an independent state has received little attention.  The current president of the Republic of Iraq is a Kurd, Fuad Masum, who was overwhelming elected by the Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) in 2014 to succeed Iraq’s previous president, Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd.
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister
Hoshyar Zebari
Kurds have consistently occupied positions of power in the Federal Government in Baghdad since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn and the Bacth Party regime in 2003.  Other Kurds, such as Hoshayr Zebari, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Barham Salih who served as a Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning, have wielded significant influence in the Federal Government in Baghdad.
Former Iraq Deputy Prime Minister &
 KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih
A Kurd, General Babakir Shawkat Zebari, was appointed Chief of Staff of Iraq’s Armed Forces, serving in that position from 2003-2015.  Many Kurdish delegates serve in the Chamber of Deputies (national parliament) and Federal Government Ministries.
Iraq's Chief-of-Staff, Babakir Zebari ,meets General Maritn Dempsey
Declaring independence will rupture these positions of influence in Baghdad and weaken lines of communications between the central government and Arbil.  The new Kurdish state would be unable to benefit from oil revenues generated throughout Iraq, only in the more limited areas under its control.  Because it is highly doubtful that it could forcibly integrate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into the new state, it would lose those oil revenues as well.  Further, it would face problems transporting oil through pipelines which crossed the territory of Iraq.

With the serious economic problems which continue to face the KRG, most importantly the decline in global oil prices and extensive political corruption, the new Kurdish state would have less access to international; lenders and credit markets than if it remained within the Federal Republic of Iraq.  With no appreciable agrarian sector, a result of Saddam’s genocidal ANFAL campaign, the new Kurdish state will be very much dependent on food imports.

Human resources With Arab Iraq, Turkey and Iran having made clear their strong opposition to the upcoming independence referendum, the new Kurdish state will not only be landlocked, but it’s likely that its neighbors would prevent their citizens from accepting employment there. This would present a special problem in light of the KRG’s need for a wide variety professional expertise, ranging from civil engineers, and computer scientists, to economists and management specialists, to oil industry professionals. 

The KRG’s universities, which all too frequently give preference to applicants with ties to the KDP and PUK rather than students with strong academic records, are not producing the level of professional and technical expertise which is needed to develop the Kurdish economy, infrastructure, government institutions, and generate meaningful economic growth. While Western personnel might fill (at a much higher cost) this deficiency, the new Kurdish state would be cutting itself off from access to critically needed human resources.

Regional opposition The strident rhetoric emanating from Turkey and Iran do not bode well for the Iraqi Kurds declaring an independent state.  Both Turkey and Iran fear the “halo effect” of the Kurds in Iraq declaring an independent state. Kurds in both Turkey and Iran are restive in the face of central governments who have done nothing to offer them a place in Turkish or Iranian political life and society.
Tanks of the Turkish Army on manuevers along Iraq-KRG border this past week
Indeed, this past week, Turkey has been conducting extensive military maneuvers along the Turkish-KRG (Iraq) border.  Meanwhile, clashes between PKK militants along the Turkish KRG border, and those between PJAK forces and the Iranian Army along the KRG-Iran border, could escalate if the declaration of independence moves forward.

International opposition  Certainly, the KRG should be concerned that its main allies, the United States and the European Union, have both come out against the referendum.  Long time US diplomat in Iraq and Trump administration point man on  Iraq, Brett McGurk, called the referendum, “a very risky process,” with, “no prospect for international legitimacy,” . United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, likewise opposes the referendum, saying that it will undermine the joint effort to defeat the so-called Islamic State.

Out-migration of the Kurdish educated classes While supportive of the idea of a Kurdish nation-state, large numbers of educated Kurds argue that the KRG has yet to develop the democratic infrastructure which would allow the referendum to be a meaningful exercise.
This point assumes greater salience if we consider the expectations which the referendum has raised among many Kurds, especially those who are educated. If corruption is not addressed and the economy doesn’t improve (and I know university faculty who haven’t received their salaries for going on 2 years), highly educated and skilled Kurdish youth will leave the new state for other parts of the MENA region, Europe, North America, Australia and East Asia.  As of now, there is no reason to believe that an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would become truly democratic or offer meaningful economic opportunities.

Fighting the Dacish  There is every reason to believe that the referendum will undermine the struggle against terrorism, particularly the Dacish or so-called Islamic State.  The suspicion which already exists between KRG Pesh Merga and the Iraqi Army will be amplified and cooperation in the struggle to defeat the Dacish will be compromised. 
KRG Pesh Merga fighters advance against Dacish forces in northern Iraq
Possible solutions  I have no doubt that there will be a Kurdish state in the future. And it is highly probable that it will stretch across an area larger than the current KRG.  If establishing a Kurdish state in Iraq is not a wise idea at the moment, are there alternative solutions to the current situation, even if temporary?

I would suggest that Kurds might begin by looking at the reconciliation which was achieved between French and English speaking Canadians.  Ever since the defeat of the French in North America during the French and Indian War (1754-63), tensions have existed between the two communities. Concentrated in the east-central province of Quebec, the Quebecois have bristled at what they consider English speaking Canada’s cultural condescension and failure to assist them in benefiting from the country’s economic progress. 

The Parti Québécois has advocated for an independent Quebec for many years and referenda were held in 1980 and 1985.  Each was defeated, although the 1985 referendum only by a narrow margin.  In 2006, the Canadian parliament - 265 to 16 - declared that the Québécois were “a nation within a united Canada.” Today, the province’s official language is French.

"Made in Quybec"
Unlike the Kurdish economy, Quebec’s economy is highly diversified. Economic reasons were one reason the Québécois chose not to secede from Canada as many saw secession as delivering a serious blow to the province’s economy. Quebec’s economy has thrived through remaining part of the Canadian Federation.

At the same time, the Federal Government in Ottawa has taken Quebec’s culture seriously. Considerable funds are spent protecting and preserving its French heritage.  All official signs throughout Canada, and not just in French speaking areas, are in English and French. French speaking university students, who study outside Quebec, can submit examinations and research papers to be evaluated in French.
If the Federal Government in Iraq would demonstrate the same type of respect for Kurdish culture, would that be sufficient to begin a dialogue, one which, after 2003, has yet to begin?  Could a cultural dialogue which would involve a serious effort at national reconciliation? As an example, most Kurds speak Arabic and many can read and write the language.  However, few Arab Iraqis have studied and learned Kurdish, even though both are designated as official languages in the Republic of Iraq.

There are many other examples of efforts by conflicting groups finding solutions to the problems divide them.  Should the Iraqi Kurds “bet the farm” on Masoud Barzani and the corrupt political elite which continues to exploit the KRG’s oil wealth? Does the Barzani clan deserve their support?

Or should they attempt to work with progressive Iraqis in the Federal Government in Baghdad like Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi (a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Manchester in the UK), highly respected Iraqi technocrats, and the members of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s office in al-Najaf to find economic, political and cultural paths to national reconciliation?  I would suggest the latter course which would create more synergy and bring greater benefits to all concerned parties than the forthcoming referendum.