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The Kurdish Referendum Imbroglio | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Kurdish people attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq September 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

What is the first thing you should do when you have dug yourself into a hole?
The obvious answer is: stop digging. This is the advice that those involved in the imbroglio over the so-called independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, due to be held next Monday. But still in the suspense of writing this column, would do well to heed.

The idea of holding a referendum on so contentious an issue at this time is bizarre, to say the least. There was no popular demand for it. Nor could those who proposed it show which one of Iraq’s problems such a move might solve at this moment. In other words, the move was unnecessary, in the sense that Talleyrand meant when he said that, in politics, doing what is not necessary is worse than making a mistake.

If by independence one means the paraphernalia of statehood, the three provinces that form the Iraqi Kurdistan lack nothing: They have their president, prime minister, Cabinet, parliament, army, police, and, even, virtual embassies in key foreign capitals. They are also well furnished with symbols of statehood including a flag and national anthem.

Having said all that, one could hardly deny the Kurds a desire for independence.

In a sense, some Kurds have dreamt of an independent state for over 2000 years when the Greek historian Xenophon ran into them in the mountains of Western Asia. (See his account in his masterpiece Anabasis).

Right now, however, all indications are that any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence by the Kurds could trigger a tsunami of conflicts that the region, already mired in crisis, might not be able to handle. In other words, the hole dug by Erbil may become an ever-deepening black hole sucking a bigger chunk of the Middle East into the unknown; hence the need to stop digging.

Yet, almost everyone is doing the opposite.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous government has lashed out against Turkey and Iran while threatening military action to seize disputed areas in Iraq. Barzani’s tough talk may please his base but could strengthen chauvinist elements in Bagdad, Ankara and Tehran who have always regarded Kurds as the enemy.

For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has come close to threatening the use of force to stop a process that remains unclear.

Threats have also come from Tehran, where National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani says the Islamic Republic would cancel all security accords concerning the Kurdish region and might intervene there militarily to deal with anti-Iran groups.

For its part, Ankara has branded the referendum a “red line”, using a discredited term made fashionable by former US President Barack Obama in 2014 over Syria.

Just days before the referendum, the Turkish army staged a highly publicized military demonstration on the border with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, presumably as a warning to Erbil.

As for Russia, the sotto voce support given to the referendum is more motivated by hopes of juicy oil contracts than sober geostrategic considerations. Such a stance might win President Vladimir Putin more support from the oligarchs but risks dragging Russia into a risky process over which it won’t have any control.

Washington’s mealy-mouthed comments on the issue are equally problematic.

Iraqi Kurds have been the United States’ best allies in dismantling the Saddamite system in post-liberation Iraq and the current fight against ISIS. The US would gain nothing by casting itself as an opponent of Kurdish self-determination.

Tackling the problem from a legal angle, Iraq’s Supreme Court has declared the proposed referendum in violation of the Iraqi Constitution. For its part the National Parliament has invited the Erbil leadership to postpone the referendum, echoing a message from the United States and the European Union.

It is not clear where all this talk of canceling the referendum at the 11th hour may lead. However, I think cancellation at this time could do more harm than good.

First, it could discredit the Erbil leadership at a time it needs to prop up its authority, indeed its legitimacy. Whether one likes the Erbil leadership or not, sapping its authority is neither in the interest of Iraqi Kurds nor, indeed, of Iraq as a whole. Encouraging splits in the Kurdish ranks and promoting a political vacuum in the autonomous region is the last thing Iraq needs.

Secondly, last minute cancellation could strengthen elements who still believe that force and threat of force are the most efficient means of dealing with political problems. Almost 14 years after the demise of Saddam Hussein, Iraq isn’t yet free of past demons who dream of a monochrome Iraq dominated by a clique.

Thirdly, a last-minute cancellation could be seen as a legitimization of the right of Ankara and Tehran to intervene in Iraqi domestic affairs through a mixture of military pressure and thinly disguised blackmail.

So, what is the best way to stop deepening the hole?

A possible answer may be built around the position taken by Iraqi President Fouad Maasoum, himself an ethnic Kurd but, apparently at least, genuinely committed to building a pluralist system in Iraq. Maasoum has not offered an elaborate scheme. But his suggestion that the imbroglio be tackled through talks between Baghdad and Erbil could be used as the basis for a compromise.

In such a compromise the referendum would go ahead unhindered while it is made clear that its outcome would in no way be legally binding on anyone. In other words, the referendum, whatever its result, would be accepted as a political fact that could and should be taken into consideration in designing the road-map Iraq would need once it has wiped out ISIS.

Iraqi Kurds cannot impose their wishes by force, especially when they are far from united over national strategy. On the other hand, Iraq cannot revert to methods of dealing with its “Kurdish problem” that led to so many tragedies for the Kurds and derailed Iraqi national life for decades.

Next Monday’s referendum was unnecessary. The best one could do at the 11th hour is to help morph it into a mistake. Politics cannot deal with the unnecessary, but it can deal with mistakes.