As rightly foreseen and warned about by prominent Middle Eastern politics experts, not to mention the humble author of this column, the recent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) referendum in northern Iraq has indeed opened up a Pandora’s Box of instability in the region. In retrospect, KRG leader Masoud Barzani and his administration greatly overestimated their power potential and tried to create a fait accompli by giving in to the pressure of domestic politics and the attraction of ethnic heroism. Despite repeated warnings from Turkey and major regional players, Barzani was supposedly prepared to spearhead the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and take his place in history as a grandiose nation-builder. Instead, the ill prepared, poorly thought out process leading to the KRG referendum created a mess both for his political career and image and future prospects of stability in Iraq and the Middle East.
The unjustified push for independence that tried to incorporate disputed territories with massive mineral resources, such as Kirkuk, which is home to major Arab and Turkmen populations, into a prospective Kurdish state destroyed the shaky consensus among different ethnic and sectarian groups. Barzani’s miscalculated push even broke the alliance between groups following his KRG and the late Talabani; thus, domestically dividing northern Iraqi Kurds on the issue of independence as well. All the efforts supported by the U.S. and Western actors aimed at creating a semblance of national unity among northern Iraqi Kurds went down the drain, as the military operation led by the Iraqi federal government toward Kirkuk was implicitly supported by pro-Talabani forces.
Having received generous support from Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary groups and Iranian revolutionary guards, it took the Iraqi government merely hours to reclaim control of the strategically important town of Kirkuk. Thus, the power politics of Barzani based on holding a controversial independence referendum not only in Kurdish-dominated cities such as Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, but also multiethnic-multicultural cities such as Kirkuk badly backfired, even eroding the political alliance between Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. The misery of peshmerga forces that had not received their salaries for months due to financial difficulties became embarrassing with their instant withdrawal before the Iraqi army. For a brief interlude, terrorist groups affiliated with the PKK tried to steal the show by posing on top of Hummer Jeeps left by the peshmerga, but they soon left the stage as these groups did not stand a chance of controlling the city.
As far as the current state of affairs is concerned, the consensus between Iran, the Iraqi federal government and Turkey on the protection of Iraq’s territorial integrity seems to have worked out effectively. Barzani’s uncalculated adventure toward premature nation-building and ethnically motivated heroism ended up in abysmal failure. Although the Turkish state and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan provided substantial political, economic and moral support to Barzani and the KRG up until the independence conundrum, Turkey’s national interest definition has completely shifted in recent weeks. The KRG referendum issue forced Ankara to forge a close alliance with Iran and the Iraqi federal administration on this issue, and this alliance is set to remain robust in the medium term unless fundamental crises are experienced on the ground.
But whatever happens, both the Barzani family and northern Iraqi Kurds must face some enduring consequences from the recent crisis. Wealth created by smooth energy transport to world markets might not be taken for granted by the KRG for some time, as refineries in Kirkuk were taken over by the Iraqi federal government. Economic sanctions and restrictions on flights and imports are bound to create negative welfare effects on the civilian population. As things stand, the most important priority shall be to minimize the difficulties faced by the civilian population in northern Iraq and swiftly fix the damage caused by this episode with regard to regional stability.
The neo-medieval order in the Middle East creates brand new challenges for policy makers as national, sub-national and trans-national actors are involved in some of the most sophisticated conflicts simultaneously. The reclamation of Kirkuk by the Iraqi federal administration with comprehensive support from Hashd al-Shaabi forces and advisory guidance by the Iranian revolutionary guard might increase the regional influence of particular regional players. But any movement for a radical restructuring of political and economic power balances in Iraq and the region might trigger brand new turf wars. This is exactly the kind of development that we need to avoid to at least partially restore regional stability.
[Daily Sabah, October 20, 2017]