The much anticipated Iraqi Kurdish referendum on September 25th 2017 passed with a whimper, not a bang. The results were overwhelmingly for “yes”, with 93% voting for independence. Some minor Assyrian and Turkmen parties voted against it. But it passed largely quietly. Why?
Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey were clearly against holding the referendum. But surprisingly so was the UK, US and France. Even Saudi Arabia. Israel was the only official Western nation to support the idea now. Why did so many countries align on the same stance? Countries, who are in conflict with each other in various ways in neighbouring Syria and beyond. There are different interests at play here. The referendum, called by Iraqi Kurdish clan leader Barzani, threw in a complicated spanner in the works for almost everybody, and this was the common ground uniting almost everyone on the same stance. For the US-led Western bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, the referendum was opposed due to distracting their Kurdish proxies from “the fight against ISIS”, which of course means the fight against Syrian forces too. Brett McGurk (US) and Frank Baker (UK) were the foremost Anglo-American diplomats in dialogue with the Kurds over the issue.
US interests in Iraqi Kurdistan
If we remember back in 2014 when ISIS was expanding the Caliphate in northern Iraq at lightning speed, the US only intervened once its forces, and Kurdish oil fields, came under threat. It had very little to do with humanitarian reasons such as saving Yazidis, something which merely served as the public pretext. The US understands that the government in Baghdad, still in its infancy, may not be sympathetic towards US ambitions in Iraq forever. And so the US has to tread carefully not to alienate Baghdad by siding overtly with the Kurds over the issue. Brett McGurk knows very well how that could hamper ulterior US motives in Syria and Iraq. Several American private military contractors, or PMCs, like Olive Group and Academi (formerly Blackwater) are implementing US interests at the moment by trying to secure sections of the Baghdad-Damascus highway and the Baghdad-Amman highway in south-western Iraqi Anbar, hence imposing control over the famed “Shi’ite land corridor” that Israel fears so much. Iraqi PM, Haidar Abadi, awarded the contract to build sections of the road to Olive Group, while Academi would provide protection.
Moreover, the US is quietly preparing more military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. It knows that one day, things with Baghdad won’t be so rosy, as Baghdad aligns with the Russian-Iranian camp, and so it is hedging its bets by keeping an imperial outpost in a section of Iraq that will eventually strive to break away. Just not now. McGurk and Baker are offering alternatives to Barzani at postponing the Kurdish referendum for a better, more suitable time. Make no mistake about it; the West may be against Kurdish independence at this inconvenient time, but they will be preparing for it one day.
Whether or not it succeeds is in doubt. I suspect the UK, France and the US will try to sell their case at the UN and UNSC, using Western controlled institutions to legitimise their land grab and imperial outposts in a region that is becoming increasingly more hostile to their presence. There is a growing case for this suspicion, here. McGurk laments that Kurdistan lacks “legitimacy”, meaning that they need to be turned into a US-style “democracy” first (read: their puppet state) and away from Kurdish “clan-ism”. This should provide the adequate cosmetic makeover and then the case sold to the UN, when the time comes. For this to happen, the support of Russia, China and Turkey needs to be won. Without their support, the plan will run into trouble. The US at that stage won’t care much about what Baghdad thinks, or Syria and Iran. However, the US will be constrained. They could well end up being sandwiched in a land-locked region of insecurity, like Rojava in Syria, surrounded and cornered by hostile states. We will need to keep an eye on this development.
Israeli Interests in Iraqi Kurdistan
The Israelis have made no attempts at hiding their support for Kurdish ambitions. From Israel’s point of view, having a new pro-Israel non-Arab entity in the Middle East serves well at keeping their neighbours tied down and divided. Israel treads carefully however, at not going too far at alienating Turkey, knowing very well what a powerful enemy Ankara can become. It does this by publicly supporting Kurdish independence, followed up by denouncing the PKK, which the Turks hate more than anything. Israeli Mossad also uses the Kurds as intelligence assets against Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. In addition, Israel has big oil interests in Kurdish oil; receiving a large percentage of Kurdish oil imports at the port of Ashkelon via Turkey through various contracts with Iraqi Kurdistan, in the endless Israeli drive to diversify energy sources from non-Arab sources. Israel thus has some common ground with Turkey vis-a-vis Kurdish oil. Turkish President Erdogan has made no secret his desire to become a regional energy hub, with the Turks going so far as collaborating and trafficking oil with ISIS in Syria and Iraq at one point. But it had to take the Russian bear to annihilate these ISIS oil convoys and sign a new Gazprom pipline into Turkey, Turkish Stream, as the EU reneged on its South Stream deal. This delivered Erdogan the crown of energy hub King, in exchange for more cooperation in Syria. As a result, Erdogan has less reason to be interested in Kurdish oil.
For Benjamin Netenyahu to break from Washington and support the September Kurdish referendum signals some underlying Israeli friction with Washington, possibly over tacit US support of Russian-Turkish-Iranian de-escalation zones near Israel’s Golan. Washington and Tel Aviv have increasingly little control over events in Syria, having lost their regime change war. Their turn towards the Kurds, in both Syria and Iraq, is a natural gut reaction at this loss.
And so while the referendum result is overwhelmingly in support of Kurdish independence, the announcement of the result has been “delayed”, due to the pressure the Kurds face on all fronts. However, the spark for Iraqi Kurdish independence will be lit again in the future, spear-headed by the US, UK, France and Israel, who find common ground with this stateless and energy-rich people in a region where they are increasingly becoming cornered. How Iraqi Kurdistan finds ways to coexist with the growing Iranian-Russian-Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish bloc, remains to be seen. The Kurds have some more waiting to do.