September 20, 2017

Kurds: from Autonomy to an Independent State



Vadym Volokhov

Today, the Middle East is really on the verge of a new split and an emergence of another hotbed of conflict. This was caused by the fact that after prolonged and, as it turned out, fruitless consultations and negotiations between the Iraqi authorities and the Kurdish autonomy, on 15 September, 2017, Kurdistan's parliament decided on September 25, 2017 to hold a referendum on independence, and in another month and a half — elections to the parliament, which could proclaim national independence and, thereby, create the first Kurdish state in the Middle East.

The referendum on separation from Iraq is planned to be held in the three governorates that are part of the Kurdish Region and in areas that are disputed by the Kurdish and Iraqi governments, but are currently under Kurdish military control. The disputed areas include the key oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

The League of Arab States, the United States and Great Britain immediately made statements against the September 25 plebiscite on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now only some force majeure can hinder the referendum. No one doubts the results of the referendum, and therefore discussed are only possible scenarios of reaction, since independent Kurdistan “can provoke a new war and plunge the region's countries into long-standing and bloody chaos”.


Let us briefly analyze the alignment of forces and possible reactions of the countries of the region to a new threat.

Political analysts consider the military scenario of the development of events unlikely, although they do not completely exclude it. Most likely, at the first stages the main struggle will revolve around the issue of recognition, and much will depend on the position of Washington, which so far shies away from sharp and categorical judgments, proposing “to postpone” the holding of this referendum and recognizing it is now “inexpedient”. At this, we should not forget that Masoud Barzani and his supporters listen attentively to the voice of the White House.

Washington has never concealed its plans to create an independent Kurdish state to exert pressure on Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. At the same time, the White House understands that now is not the best time for this, when military conflicts continue in Syria and Iraq, and international forces are fighting against terrorist groups that have created an “Islamic Caliphate” on part of their territories. And Washington does not want to offend such an extremely important NATO ally as Ankara. Besides, the United States understands that the American military machine simply will not survive another conflict in the region due to the independence of Kurdistan, since Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and all Arab countries will act against the Kurds in this case. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Egypt, or other Arab countries need an independent Kurdistan in that highlystrung place of the Arab world.

But it will be useful to assume that Washington will certainly return to this topic in the foreseeable future. First of all, in order to set a precedent for the disintegration of Iran and Syria under the slogan “democratization of the Middle East and peoples' right to self-determination”, having split the Kurdish regions from them as a first step.


The Iraqi government, realizing that the Kurds will under no circumstances give up the idea of a referendum, actively tried to at least postpone the date of its holding.

Thus, on September 12, without waiting for the outcome of the expected consultations in Baghdad between the central government and the leadership of the Kurdish autonomy, the Iraqi Parliament voted against holding a referendum on Kurdish independence and ordered the Prime Minister of the country Haider al-Abadi to take all possible measures to preserve Iraq's unity and begin a serious dialogue to resolve outstanding differences. H. al-Abadi, in turn, urged the Kurds to begin direct negotiations on the way out of the crisis. Kurds in response said that the decision of the Iraqi Parliament is not mandatory for execution.

On 14 September, in Erbil, M. Barzani met with representatives of the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany and the United Nations. During the meeting, the USA and Western countries proposed M. Barzani to postpone the referendum on independence for two years, but the Kurdish leader refused.

On the same day, on 14 September 2017, the Iraqi Parliament voted for the dismissal of the governor of the province of Kirkuk, N. Karim, who supports Kurdish independence, and on September 16 announced the dismissal of the Iraqi President, Kurd Fuad Masum, accusing him of “violating the oath and supporting referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan”. The Prime Minister of Iraq H. al-Abadi on September 16 declared readiness for military intervention if the referendum on Kurdish independence leads to an escalation of violence, but at the same time stressed that “negotiations are always possible”.

The Kurdish side recognized the decisions of the Iraqi Parliament as unconstitutional. For his part, the leader of the Kurdish autonomy M. Barzani also promised to use force in case of attempts to disrupt the holding of a referendum on the independence of the region.

Iraq's Federal Court banned holding on 25 September a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Formally, a referendum is considered illegal and its results are not subject to recognition and consideration. Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely that the Kurds will obey this decision, and this will mean a significant tightening of the situation.

Now the question is whether Baghdad will decide on a military option against the Kurds. The Iraqi army got significantly weakened in the war with ISIS when it lost about 90,000 servicemen in killed and wounded.

Baghdad still has in reserve armed radical Shiite groups that could oppose the Kurds. But will it want to involve them and what will the Iraqi government have to pay for it? Moreover, in case of a war with the Kurds, Baghdad will not be able to lead it on two fronts and will have to cease hostilities against ISIS. This option is also unacceptable for Iraq.

The problem is that, if Iraq does not react to the referendum, Kurdistan will create its own independent state and then to react to it will be absolutely impossible. In fact, it is a dead end that M. Barzani used very skillfully, scheduling the referendum for the time of the worst opportunities for Baghdad.

Some politicians in Iraq say that Baghdad can legitimately consider the matter in the UN Security Council to sue the Kurdistan. But what can it change?

In Baghdad, it is well understood that, following Kurdistan's separation from the Iraqi state, the country will further break up with the creation of independent Arab states with conventional names “Shiastan” and “Sunnistan”. Besides, Iraq may well lose part of its territories in the north and north-east, which Kurds claim, including Kirkuk and the largest there oil field, which produces almost 40 % of all oil in Iraq.

At this, it should be noted that against this background, not everything is smooth inside the Kurdish autonomy itself. In Erbil, difficult negotiations are still going on between the delegations of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the “Gorran” movement, which continues to boycott the Kurdish Parliament in reaching an agreement to support the very idea of the referendum by these three main Kurdish parties through the convening of the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan. The lack of approval at the legislative level of its results simply disavows the idea of holding it.

Among the unresolved issues still remain the coordination of the presidential elections law and new models for the distribution of revenues from hydrocarbon exports.


It can be assumed that the most determining will be Ankara's position, which can simply block Iraqi Kurds from entering the outside world bypassing Baghdad.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the referendum a mistake and a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq.

This is quite understandable, since the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will push Turkish Kurds, who make up almost a third of the country's population, to a similar step.

Thus, armed clashes between the army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party)'s militants will flare up with renewed vigor, as well as the terrorist attacks in South-Eastern Anatolia, and possibly in large cities of Turkey. In this situation, the invasion of the Turkish army in the North of Iraq is possible. It is absolutely clear that Ankara will do everything possible to prevent the provinces that were inhabited by Kurds from leaving the Turkish Republic.


In the meantime, according to some sources, in the nearest future in Erbil there will be Chief of the Turkish special service MIT Hakan Fidan and Commander of the special “Quds Force” of the IRGC IRI, Major General Qasem Soleimani's meeting with Masoud Barzani, whom they want to persuade to compromise with Baghdad.


Qasem Soleimani (nickname “Shadow”) was born on 11 March 1957 in Rabor, Kerman, Iran. A military leader, Major General, since 2000 has been the Commander of the special “Quds Force” in the IRGC, primarily responsible for military and covert operations outside of Iran.

“Quds”, led by Q. Soleimani, provides military support to the Hamas and Hezbollah factions in Palestine and Lebanon, and also played an important role in shaping the political situation in Iraq after the American troop' withdrawal from there. Since 2012, Q. Soleimani allegedly has helped the government of B. Assad to reverse the course of the civil war in Syria and to recapture strategic cities and territories from insurgent groups. Q. Soleimani also participates in helping the Iraqi government fight against terrorists of the “Islamic state”.

Inside of Iran, Q. Soleimani is considered a national hero, about whom documentaries and feature films are being made, songs are being written and to whom achievements are being dedicated. Among politicians, he is considered an outstanding strategist and organizer of special operations, as well as the creator of a broad network of agents in the Middle East, based on Shiite communities. He is the most influential and powerful figure in the Middle East, despite the fact that “no one has heard anything about him”.


Besides, Hakan Fidan intends to discuss with the head of the Kurds special services Masrour Barzani his meeting with the leader of the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Cemil Bayik who recently visited Erbil in order to hold consultations with the Chief of the Iraqi Kurdistan special services.


Hakan Fidan was born in Ankara in 1968. Diplomat, since May 2010 the Chief of the National Intelligence Organization of Turkey (MIT).

Having graduated with the Master's Degree in Management and Political Science from the University of Maryland (UMUC), he received his doctorate from the Bilkent University (Ankara). From 1986 to 2001 he served as a non-commissioned officer in the Turkish army. From 2003 to 2007, he led the organization to assist developing countries. In November 2007, H. Fidan was appointed Deputy Undersecretary in the Prime Ministry. Since May 2010 — the Chief of the Turkish Security Service (MIT). On 7 February 2015, he left office to run for election to the Turkish Parliament from the Justice and Development Party.

March 9, 2015, he withdrew his candidacy and returned to his previous position. In 2009, he participated in secret peace negotiations with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in Oslo, and also talked with Abdullah Ocalan.

Ankara not without reason suspects that an alliance is obviously outlined between the two forces, which becomes more evident within the framework of the referendum, or rather Barzani's clan's extreme interest in supporting this idea by the PKK and its affiliates like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) first of all in Syria.

This means that a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan will automatically lead to holding similar plebiscites already in Syria and to the clearly outlined prospect of the formation there first of a quasi-state autonomy with the subsequent joining the independent Kurdish state. And this is a threat to Turkey's national security and territorial integrity. It is appropriate to recall that Washington has already established its military presence in the Kurdish areas in the north and northeast of Syria.


Damascus, weakened by the 6-year war with the armed opposition and ISIS terrorists, does not want to irritate Syrian Kurds by a sharp attitude to the referendum, while they are fighting against a common enemy. But the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic understands perfectly well that the Kurdish groups not only became strong during the confrontation with the ISIS and the Jabhat al-Nusra, but also de facto created their autonomy in the northeastern parts of the SAR that border on Iraqi Kurdistan. Therefore, if Kurdistan's independence is declared, the Syrian Kurdish autonomy will certainly want to join the new state.


Along with Ankara, Tehran will have a final word. Indeed, at one time it was the IRI that saved thousands of Kurds from Saddam Hussein's persecution, including prominent members of the family of Barzani himself and the current Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani.

The Chief Military Adviser of the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, General Yahya Rahim Safavi, several days ago, in an interview with the Iranian ISNA news agency, expressed the consolidated opinion of the top Iranian leadership and the Iranian military-political elite, saying that the referendum could provoke “war and long-term instability” in the whole Middle East region. “The results of the referendum will be used by the enemies of Muslims, moreover, the idea of partitioning not only Iraq, but also Syria, is fraught with the most serious consequences”, Y. Safavi stressed.


Yahya Rahim Safavi, an Azerbaijani by birth, was born in the Isfahan on 2 January 1958. From 1981 to 1988 he fought on the Iran-Iraqi front, has government awards. Until September 2007 (for 10 years) he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Currently, he holds the post of the Chief Military Adviser to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is considered one of the closest confidents of the Supreme Leader and directly reports to him. According to Resolution 1737 adopted by the UN Security Council in 2006, he is subject to sanctions as “a persons involved in both the nuclear and ballistic missile programmes”. On 1 September 2007, Ayatollah A. Khamenei removed Y. Safavi from the post of the Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC without explanation of the reason, but it is believed that his resignation followed Y. Safavi's speech in which he implicitly warned the mullahs that the Armed Forces of Iran are not ready for war against much stronger enemies.

The new appointment, according to experts, isolates the General from active social life, puts an end to his military career and removes him from participating in a high political game. In 2010, Y. Safavi issued a statement on the unlikeness of the United States and Israel's military attack on Iran, and the readiness of the IRGC and the Iranian Army to repel possible attacks. In his speech, he stressed that “both regimes are capable of attacking Iran, but do not have a political decision for this case. In case of an attack by America and the Israeli regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran will create big problems for them”.


The Senior Political Adviser to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati, in his speech at the Tehran “Azad” University said that Iran does not support the idea of a Kurdish referendum, since its position derives from the principle of protecting the territorial integrity of the countries of the Middle East region. At this, the Iranian Kurds, unlike the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish ones, do not seek independence and do not oppose the central government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has recently spent huge amounts of money to develop the economy and infrastructure of the Kurdish regions of the country.


Ali Akbar Velayati was born on 24 June 1945 in Rostamabad of Shemiran District. Senior Advisor for Foreign Affairs to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A doctor by education, he later engaged in politics and very successfully. Was Minister of Foreign Affairs of Presidents Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Twice he put forward his candidacy for the presidential elections, but did not pass.


Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran Ali Shamkhani said on September 17 that the IRI authorities will close all border crossings with the Iraqi Kurdistan in case of a referendum on September 25. According to him, the existing border agreements were concluded between Iran and the Kurdish region as part of an integrated Iraq, warning that the Kurdish separation from Iraq would lead to the closure of all border crossings of Iran with this region, Tasnim News reports. “Iran definitely recognizes only the united, integrated and federal government of Iraq”, A. Shamkhani stressed.

He also threatened that the separation of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan would mark the end of all military agreements and security treaties between Tehran and Erbil, saying that Iran would subsequently adopt a new policy in the sphere of security of adjacent borders.

If Iraqi Kurdistan is separated from Iraq, Iran will have to reconsider its policy towards the Kurds and take completely different approaches to fighting the anti-Iranian groups that are present and operating inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

Thus, Iran is convinced that Iraq should not be divided. If it breaks up into several parts, then Syria and Turkey will share the same fate.


Today there is only one country that unequivocally and resolutely stands for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state — Israel.

It is advantageous for the Jewish state to create a powerful hotbed of tension in the Middle East away from its borders, which will distract the attention and resources of Israel's main opponents.

But in this case, little depends on Tel Aviv, because it is not a party to the whole process.





So, if there are no absolutely unpredictable events, the distance between the referendum and its recognition can take years, and even decades. And even if the referendum is held, it will certainly remain largely on paper and some more propaganda phenomenon due to mere non-recognition by the international community. At this, blocking hydrocarbon exports by Baghdad alone can cause a complete economic collapse in Kurdish autonomy, not to mention the transportation isolation from Turkey and Iran.