Kurdish Bid for Greater Sovereignty Sparks Backlash From Baghdad

After overwhelming “yes” vote on independence, Kurds remain defiant in the face of threats to close borders and choke exports.

iraqi kurds

ERBIL, Iraq — This week’s historic vote in Iraqi Kurdistan was meant to advance the Kurdish bid for independence. Instead, the contentious referendum is threatening to erode what autonomy Iraqi Kurds have.

Just a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Kurds to hand over control of airports and borders by Friday, the Iraqi parliament on Wednesday passed a 13-point resolution further chipping away at the Kurdistan Regional Government’s autonomy. It gives Abadi a mandate to deploy Iraqi troops in disputed territories, some of which have been held for years after Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took them from the Islamic State. It also threatens to take Kurdish officials involved in the referendum to an Iraqi court and instructs foreign countries to shutter their consulates in Erbil.

“In parliament today I affirmed that federal authority in the Kurdish region will be restored through the constitution and law,” Abadi tweeted.

The Kurdish foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, said his government doesn’t regret holding the referendum, despite the mounting consequences, but wants a negotiated solution to disagreements with Baghdad. Instead, he said, the federal government has decided to punish the Kurds rather than seek dialogue.

“There is always the carrot and the stick. But they have forgotten about the carrot. They know only the stick,” Bakir told Foreign Policy.

Monday’s historic referendum — which saw reported voter turnout of about 72 percent, with over 92 percent support for Kurdish independence — was meant to bolster Erbil’s ability to bargain with Baghdad. Instead it seems to have backfired, hardening resistance among Iraq’s neighbors to any drive for greater Kurdish sovereignty.

“In absolute terms, it is extraordinarily hard to have successful independence when none of your neighbors favor it,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And it raises the question of what role the United States will play in resolving the standoff. Before the vote, Washington warned Erbil it wouldn’t support negotiations if it went ahead and conducted the referendum. But now, conscious of the need to maintain Iraq’s fragile unity to finish the fight against the Islamic State, the Trump administration may have to take a more hands-on approach. But that will require navigating a maze of potentially conflicting interests in Iraq, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

“The U.S. has interest in the success of Iraq, it has interest in the security of its NATO ally Turkey, and it has an interest in its historic ally, the Kurds,” Alterman said.

The State Department Wednesday reiterated its “disappointment” with the referendum and repeated its hopes for a “united, federal, democratic, and prosperous” Iraq.

Erbil and Baghdad have been at loggerheads on power-sharing for years, especially over how to divvy up national oil income. And the vote, in many ways the culmination of KRG president Masoud Barzani’s nearly 50-year career as a leading Kurdish nationalist, spurred plenty of popular enthusiasm, even in Kurdish towns across the border in Iran.

But that may have been part of the problem. More even than the rest of the world, Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors were dead set against the nonbinding referendum, fearing it could kindle greater aspirations for autonomy or even independence among Kurds in Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Even the United States, long a supporter of Iraqi Kurds, used uncharacteristically strong language to urge Erbil not to hold the referendum.

Turkey’s about-face has been particularly sharp. Historically a foe of the Kurds — Ankara has spent decades battling its own Kurdish separatist movement — Turkey in recent years became a major economic partner for the KRG. Most importantly, Turkey made possible an oil pipeline snaking from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean Sea, giving the landlocked region a way to export crude.

Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is warning he’ll close the border and telling Iraqi Kurds they will “go hungry.”

“All options are on the table, from economic sanctions to military choices,” Erdogan said.

Despite the increasing pressure — and some international airlines have already cancelled their flights to and from Erbil — for the most part Kurds are maintaining their bravado and brushing off the threats.

“We are used to being oppressed and going hungry,” said Dler Attar as he arrived at the international airport in Erbil, one of two controlled by the KRG. “No problem. We’ll manage.”

Bravado aside, the threats are not idle. Erbil’s shops are stocked with Turkish goods. Turkish trade and Turkish businesses, especially in construction, underpin the local economy.

Oil exports through Turkey are particularly important: The region exports more than 500,000 barrels a day, bringing in more than $600 million a month. That makes threats by Turkey to cut the export route and by Baghdad to reassert federal control over oil sales especially worrisome.

“The reality is Iraqi Kurdistan is a landlocked region that needs terrestrial access to export its major commodity,” Alterman said.

But most Kurds play down the possible impact of the threats from Baghdad and their neighbors; the lure of sovereignty for a region that has long labored under what it sees as subjugation by the Iraqi central government is too strong.

At his hardware store here in Erbil, Sanaan Mohammed happily watched the official results of the referendum being announced on television on Wednesday, and he took note of the threats of boycotts and border closures. It’s not an academic debate: Half of what he sells comes from Turkey, and the other half from China, imported across the Turkish border. But he is undaunted.

“If I get a sovereign state, I don’t care if I have to close this shop for one whole year,” Mohammed said. “The only mistake we did is we did this too late.”

Photo credit: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin

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