Analysis: Kurds taking baby steps toward independence

While the constellation of events on the ground appears to work to the Kurds’ advantage, internal divisions, opposition from regional states and geography continue to impede rapid progress.

February 4, 2016 07:05
2 minute read.
Iraqi kurdish Pashmarga

Iraqi kurdish Pashmarga. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The announcement by Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani this week calling, again, for a referendum on creating an independent state, demonstrates how slow things are moving.

Like previous announcements, no date was given for the referendum.

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While the constellation of events on the ground appears to work to the Kurds’ advantage, internal divisions, opposition from regional states and geography continue to impede rapid progress.

The Kurd forces in Iraq and Syria are increasingly coordinating their attacks against Islamic State with US-led forces and Russia. But for now, although there are some voices of support, most world powers, Turkey, Iran and Arab states oppose a Kurdish state.

The fact that talks to end the Syrian conflict currently taking place in Geneva left out Syrian Kurds is but one example.

Interestingly, some analysts see Barzani himself as an obstacle.

“Call me dubious. Nationalist sentiment may be high in Iraqi Kurdistan, but Barzani is a cynic, not a nationalist,” Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, told The Jerusalem Post.

“He has run the economy into the ground, and like Palestinian [Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas, he has overstayed his elected term in office and cares more about bank accounts than statecraft,” argued Rubin.

“This is an excuse to wrap Kurds around the flag and distract them.”

If Barzani was truly serious about Kurdish freedom, he would not have invited former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards into Erbil just eight years after his regime committed the Anfal genocide in the late 1980s. Furthermore, Barzani has had many opportunities in the past to declare independence, but did not, he added.

Rubin concluded that this is because the Kurdish leader cares “more about the money derived from being part of Iraq than Kurdish aspirations.” While Barzani indeed complains that Baghdad does not distribute owed funds, his uncle Hoshyar Zebari is the finance minister of Iraq and says otherwise, explained Rubin.

Also, he continued, “Barzani knows that Iran – fearing the precedent among Iranian Kurds – would kill him before he makes any serious moves toward independence.”

“Israeli advocates of the Kurds shouldn’t confuse advocacy with reality. Maybe there will be some moves to a referendum, but independence? Not while Barzani is in power,” said Rubin.

Prof. Ofra Bengio, editor of the book Kurdish Awakening: Nation-Building in a Fragmented Homeland, also told the Post that Barzani has various motives for pushing for the referendum now.

“First, he genuinely believes that this is the best window of opportunity for such a move, since the international community needs the Kurds for fighting Islamic State and will therefore turn a blind eye on the referendum,” said Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Second, he needs to show the Kurdish people that he is serious about the project of a Kurdish state, since they have become very skeptical about his intentions.”

No less important is that Barzani wants independence or at least wants the referendum to be associated with him, she said, adding it “is a show of force against the Kurdish opposition parties at home.”

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