The Kurdish Referendum for Independence in Northern Iraq

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The Kurdish Referendum for Independence in Northern Iraq
Air Cdre (Ret) Andrew Lambert
Director, ERPIC Security Program

Before we start, let’s just remind ourselves some of the history, because of the context in which this was established, that actually dictates the way in which the future is likely to unfold. Of course, we should remember that the Sykes-Picot agreement at the end of World War I envisaged a separate entity for the Kurdish nation. If a plebiscite was agreed, than according to the Treaty of Sevres the Kurds would have the area to the east of the Euphrates river, across almost to the boundary of Mosul, but not including Mosul itself, while Armenia would have the area from Trabzon in the north, almost up to the edge of the area by the Kurds, and Turkey would have the remaining part of western Anatolia.

As I’m sure listeners will recall, the early 1920s the group of Turkish officers under Ataturk carried out several attacks that began a Turkish war of independence in order to regain all the annexed territories. Most importantly, they were concerned about the territories to the west, around Izmir and Constantinople, and the area to the east was always something additional, but not necessarily essential. However, as a result of their success in their war of independence, the Treaty of Sevres, which was the original treaty granted to the Kurds, was negated, and the Treaty of Lausanne was instituted in its place. This gave the whole of Anatolia to the Turkish Republic, and negated the Turkish promises that were offered under the Treaty of Sèvres.

Of course, since then, the Kurdish territories had been divided up between, as I said earlier, the Turkish areas to the east and part of Anatolia, the northern part of Iraq, and the western part of Iran. And the Kurds in all three of those areas have effectively been second-class citizens. They’ve been taking the lowliest jobs, and suffering considerable discrimination. And nowhere was this more stark, than of course during the 1980s, when under Saddam Hussein’s regime the Iraqis conducted the Al-Anfal Campaign, which  climaxed with the weapons of mass destruction, specifically the use of chemicals against Halabja in 1988, when probably something like 7000 civilians – women and children – were killed as a result of the chemical attack. In fact, I spoke to some of the Kurdish survivors, and they said, surprisingly after the attack, or what surprised them after the attack, was the fact that nothing moved. Not only were all the women and children dead, but all the animals were dead, the birds were dead, everything in that area, apart from cockroaches, had been killed. Now that was ethnic cleansing on a grand scale by the Saddam Hussein regime. It was a form of attempted genocide, and this has now, as I am sure your listeners will know, been recognized by Iraq’s Supreme Court.

So the Kurds have long sought to have a proper homeland, to live in peace. They are a relatively modern grouping, relatively liberal, and very much Western-orientated regime. Now the Kurdish area, certainly in the northern part of Iraq, is an island of stability in what is essentially a sea of chaos. To the west we see the chaos in Turkey, to the east we see the problems in Iran, the problems with weapons of mass destruction, and the aspirations there, and of course in Iraq itself we see an ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict. Saddam, at the end of Gulf War I, attempted to reassert his authority, and the UK government, as Saddam attempted to move to the Kurdish areas, decided they would attempt to prevent the humanitarian excesses that were taking place. And what then happened was that many of the Kurdish villages were just left like the Mary Celeste. The Kurds departed, moved up in to the hills in order to escape the Saddam regime. Approximately 500 to a 1000 women and children were dying every single day up in the hills, because there was no water, no food, and no shelter. And in order to prevent this humanitarian outrage, the UK government, alongside the Americans, decided to set up what eventually became the no-fly zones in northern Iraq, and indeed, subsequently in southern Iraq also.

In 1999 I was commanding the British forces in the northern area of Iraq, and we were imposing a no-fly zone on Iraq north of the 36th parallel. My task was to ensure that Saddam Hussain did not move forces into the area, and start to threaten the Kurds, and cause the mass evacuation of villages again. So we end up in a situation that having established now since the fall of Saddam, following the 2003 Gulf War, the Kurds do have a considerable regional autonomy, and indeed a Kurdistan Regional Government has been set up. They enjoy that autonomy, but they nevertheless, certainly in the northern part of Iraq, are under control of the Iraqi regime. For those Kurdish assets, or those Kurdish peoples in the eastern side of Turkey, of course there is not such government, nor indeed is there any such form of autonomy for the Kurds in the western part of Iran.

So the question is, why is it that right now the Kurds have decided to set up a referendum to decide whether or not to have an autonomy? And that autonomy, of course, or the question on the ballot paper is: “Do you wish to have autonomy for the Kurdish Regional Government, i.e. the Kurdish grouping in northern Iraq? It has no effective mandate in either eastern Turkey, or western Iran. But why now? Why did they decide to do it now? I think that the answer to that really comes in two parts.

The first is that, of course, the Kurds have been fighting essentially as the West’s surrogate ground forces in the fight against ISIS, and they’ve done exceptionally well.  Obviously they’ve been supported by a massive Western air power, by the real hard fighting has largely been done by the Peshmerga of the KDP forces, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. And they have been very successful indeed. As a result of that, not two things have really happened for the Kurds. First of all, they’ve built up a considerate Kurdish pride in the strength and capabilities of their own armed forces.  But equally importantly, there is probably a sense of indebtedness: the West owes them for the forces they have committed, for the losses that they have incurred, and for the successes they’ve clearly had, against ISIS. Not only in taking places like Mosul, but also for the Syrian Kurds, in starting and continuing the battles in Raqqa. So of course the West does owe the Kurds something.

Secondly, 90% of the revenues that the Kurds enjoy come from oil. And this, of course, has been very much subject to the reductions in the price of oil that has occurred in the last three or four years. This has caused considerable difficulties for the Kurdistan Regional Government. A lot of salaries have not been paid. And of course, by having a plebiscite right now, it does rather focus the attention somewhere else, and makes it seem as though that is the problem, and the salaries are less important than anything else. Now we come to the reactions by the countries that have direct interest in this area. The US has actually condemned a referendum, and the diplomats have gone out of their way to say, of course we should realize that support for the Kurds, and there has been a considerable support for the Kurds, does not equal support for independence. So the US, of course, is somewhat equivocal on this: it does not want the independence referendum to cause any form of difficulty in the area, but at the same time it wants to try and support the Kurds where possible.

For the other three nations that are directly involved, both, or three of them have considerably overreacted. The one nation that has probably reacted least is Iran, although there have been reports of missiles being fired in the area from Iran into some of the Kurdish areas. Whether it is true or not is difficult to know. But they have shut off all air links between Teheran and the Kurdish Regional Government. To the west, of course, there is Turkey, and Turkey probably has a population of some 20 million Kurds in the eastern part of Anatolia. And they see a grave danger, that if the Treaty of Sèvres, or some surrogate of the Treaty of Sèvres were to be implemented, it would essentially mean the partition of the eastern part of Turkey. And they are considerably worried that unless they do something to stop the Kurdish referendum migrating, or evolving, into a form of a proper independence, they would then find themselves with half of their country disappearing. But what it has done, of course, is it’s probably encouraged the PKK under Abdullah Öcalan who, we should recall, was imprisoned, was captured in Kenya, was imprisoned by the Turks, was sentenced to death, although his sentence to death has now been revoked, and substituted by a life of hard labor. But Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK are continuing to carry out their terrorist attacks in the eastern parts of Turkey against the Turkish regime. And there are some concerns that of course this referendum will cause the PKK to fight with renewed vigor. But there is a great danger, of course, from that, that if Turkey then does what it says it is going to do, which is to close the borders and shut off the oil, when you recall that 90% of the revenue for Kurdistan comes from oil, if Turkey shuts off the oil, then of course there will be essentially no money to support the Kurdistan Regional Government. The danger of that will of course be that it will convince all the other countries that have pipelines through the area that Turkey is not a reliable partner, and whenever some difficulty arises, Turkey can begin to turn off the oil, or turn off the oil pipeline.

But it’s really in Iraq that one sees as the most vehement form of reaction. And the problem with Iraq’s reaction, which is to close the borders and stop any movements in the air space, is that it will force the Kurdistan Regional Government to look elsewhere for its friends. And the danger already is that with Iran already heavily involved in Syria, and with the Russians, already heavily involved in Syria, I would be very surprised indeed, if the Russians did not use the opportunity to start improving links with the Kurdistan Regional Government. So it really comes down to America realizing where it’s best interests lie, because if it doesn’t manage to resolve this little impasse, then I would be surprised if the Russians did not start to move into supporting the Kurds in their aspirations.

Known of course also is the other element in this, and that is China. China, as we know, under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is already trying to reestablish the Silk Road, which, no doubt, will pass, in some way or form, across the territories of northern Iraq, and may involve also the Chinese becoming involved. I would find it very difficult for the Kurds if they did not start to look towards China and Russia to see if they would be prepared to support their best interests. 

It would be a great shame, given all that, if the West were to allow the Kurdistan aspirations just to be left on one side and to become stillborn. And it seems to me that it’s in the best interest of the West, best interest of Turkey in particular, and certainly of the Iraqi government, to try and look at the Kurdish aspirations in the historical context, and say to them, “We recognize what you wish, and we will work towards it, but we won’t carry out some form of draconian operations against you. Because to do that, we’ll create exactly the sort of situation, that we do not want to happen, which will be instability, and growing involvement by Russia and China in the region.”

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