Overplaying Their Hand: The Kurds’ Referendum Debacle

The Iraqi Kurds have just announced that they're freezing the results of their independence referendum, which is bureaucratese for saying that they don't intend to act on it. Which, in turn, is another way of offering a ceasefire to the government troops that have displaced them from Kirkuk and environs. The Kurds gambled and lost. It seems they'd hoped that their western allies would come to their aid, but none did. This, despite loud protestations by sympathetic commentators in the West that the Kurds' loss was a victory for Iranian hegemony over Iraq—in particular, a victory for Iran's IRGC commander in the region, Qasim Suleimani. And even though the State Department denied any Iranian participation, it's unlikely that without Tehran's concrete intervention the Iraqis had the capability to overcome the Peshmerga so swiftly. As an example, this report entitled “How Iran helped Baghdad seize back Kirkuk” that ran in the Middle Eastern news website Al-Monitor portrays Tehran as the main driver of Baghdad's success, along with other factors such as Kurds' disunity and their shortages of ammunition. Others suggested that the Iraqi army (illegally) used their US-supplied Abrams tanks in the demarche which, if true, would have compelled the US to punish Baghdad in some way, perhaps even to defend the Kurds actively. Washington chose to look the other way.

Analysts quick to detect Iran's hand tend to avoid addressing the most crucial storyline: how the referendum led to the Kirkuk debacle, not least by reopening old divisions between the Erbil and Sulaymaniya Kurds. The Al-Monitor article even cites Kurdish sources blaming Massoud Barzani for going ahead with the ballot. Unlike their cheerleaders in the West, many of the Kurds themselves realize that Erbil's bid for secession couldn't and didn't happen in a vacuum—it served as an excuse for more powerful neighbors to pursue their own ends. The specter of a maximalist future Kurdish state sooner or later taking away chunks of land from other countries was perhaps the only issue that could unite the region's capitals. It did just that and Tehran took advantage.

Those in the West, and they are numerous, who frame the picture as yet another tragic betrayal of legitimate Kurdish aspirations should pause and consider the oft-overlooked context. I was in and around Erbil and Sulaimania before and during the US invasion in 2003. It was the Kurds who first marched into Kirkuk by force as Saddam's regime fell. They imposed martial law and proceeded to burn buildings that housed property records thereby expunging the history of land ownership in the city. Historically, from the Ottoman era into the Baathist decades, the Turkmen had regarded Kirkuk as their regional capital—which is why Mustafa Kemal refused to sign a treaty ceding it to the British after World War 1 (ever since, rather hopelessly, the Turks have considered it a kind of temporary lost limb). Kurds have convinced one and all that the city was always their Jerusalem.

Along with Kirkuk, the Kurds entered Mosul and tried to rule it for some months but the Sunni-Arab resistance proved too stiff and they were expelled. Mosulites never recouped their faith in an integrated Iraq—eventually ISIS moved in. We should all remember, as we bemoan the expansion of Iranian power over Iraqi terrain, that it was the Kurds who first triggered the chaotic fragmentation of the country after Saddam's ouster with their widespread looting to the very suburbs of Baghdad. They also forcibly took possession of Saddam's northern Tenth Army's heavy weapons and vehicles as it melted away. At a critical time when US forces struggled to gain the country's trust as competent administrators, their Kurdish comrades in arms had already undermined the coalition's credibility.

It's no accident that Kurds moved quickly on Kirkuk and Mosul at the time; as strategic oil cities they offered economic leverage for their rulers. Nor is it surprising that the early looting even targeted oil and electrical installations in those localities (and beyond). The destruction sent an eloquent message to Baghdad that the Kurds needed extra special attention, or they could turn off the lights and the oil revenues, most especially to the areas they ruled. Now this may seem irrational, even self-defeating. They blamed the looting on freelance armed elements running riot. So, either the looting was deliberate and strategic (bad enough) or it was haphazardly perpetrated by rogue elements (even worse). The latter implied that the Kurds themselves were internally fissured, as indeed they were and are, though their apologists in the West don't like to dwell on it. Not seven years before the 2003 allied invasion, they'd fought a full-on civil war with Saddam and Tehran backing the rival factions.

Just before the coalition incursion got going I wrote a dispatch to the Wall Street Journal editorial page alerting readers to the problem of Kurdish disunity and citing a very recent firefight during which Barzani had purged an entire mini-tribe of fellow Kurds from his region, driving them up toward Suleimania. Every civilian in Erbil knew about it. None of the world's press seemed interested, not least because they all had Kurdish handlers. That fissiparousness has now come home to roost at a crucial moment of opportunity which the Kurds have managed to turn into disaster as Baghdad takes back their territorial gains since the allied invasion.

Having said all that, one must also say that the Kurds are yet the nicest of the unpleasant regimes in the neighborhood. Even the Turkmen in Erbil ultimately found them reasonably complaisant in power as they told me last year during discussions in Turkey. And yes, it IS a tragedy that the Kurds should bow to the dictates of a rogue's gallery of blood-drenched powermongers roundabout. But it is partly a tragedy of their own making, and partly an insuperable strategic fact of the geography they inhabit. It would be a mistake to romanticize their cause. Nobody in today's Middle East acts purely for the general good, not even in extirpating ISIS. When in 2014, the largely Shiite Iraqi army of Mosul evaporated before an ISIS force a seventh of its size, it was a foregone conclusion that Baghdad would ultimately retake the city and thin out its Sunni population decisively. When ISIS threatened the Yazidis with genocide, the nearby Peshmerga consistently told them to stay and then very deliberately abandoned them. At every stage, the region's players used ISIS and its atrocities to plan for their own strategic counter-gains, knowing that ultimately the Sunnis would fragment under extremist rule (as they'd done during the 'Surge' in 2008).

None of the regional players have had the solo clout to change the overall power balance which is why ISIS proved so useful. It gave the Russians an excuse to intervene for Bashar Al-Assad. And it lured in the United States to help the Kurds and Shiites gain land. Ultimately there had to be a showdown between the latter two groups as I explained in World Affairs when the battle for Mosul raged. An exclusive focus on expunging ISIS was always going to leave the regional tensions unresolved. The Kurds fatally failed to notice, partly blinded by their apologists, that the US got out of the business of strategic overstretch under Barack Obama and little has changed under the new administration. After all, President Trump has specifically disparaged US involvement in Iraq. Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas came and went unopposed. You'd think that the Kurds would have noticed.



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