When Secretary of Defense Mattis met recently with Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader was once again told of the US desire for a delay in the independence referendum. The result of this and meetings in Baghdad between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government have resulted in reports of a possible delay in the vote.
Conditions have been set for a delay that includes promises from Baghdad to send to Erbil that part of the budget that has been withheld as well as for the United States and other nations to ensure that the promises from Baghdad are kept. According to KRG President Barzani, while all concerns are noted the referendum will go forward.
Why however should the Kurds not accept a delay?
These discussions all have the same negative result in that, should the KRG accept any of the arguments, it is just a one-off solution. Delaying the vote to get concessions from Baghdad will only work once, and history has shown Baghdad will likely renege. President Barzani has explained to Mattis and others who have suggested a delay to gain concessions from Baghdad that all past attempts to work with Baghdad have not worked. If the KRG accepts this solution what happens when they set the next date? Conditional delays will not change the fact that the Kurdish people seek and deserve an independent country.
The concern over instability is one without substance. Kurdistan is the only stable area in the region. It has been called the model of what Iraq could have been.
According to the US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert: “Let’s not take our eye off of ISIS, and ISIS is the major serious threat in Iraq right now, and we’re concerned a referendum at this time … would be further destabilising.”
ISIS is a threat to all in the region and the world and the KRG has shown a commitment to aid in the fight, not only to protect Kurdistan, but Iraq, and by extension Syria. The Peshmerga, at the request of the Iraqi government, did not enter Mosul but acted as a blocking force and have in the past independently fought and defeated ISIS forces. Regardless of the status of Kurdistan, as an autonomous region or an independent country, ISIS will remain the enemy to all. As any coalition or allied force, the Peshmerga will be a part of the whole.
The larger threat to an independent Kurdistan is the reaction of its neighbors, especially Turkey. While Turkey has made no secret of its opposition to independence it has also indicated that it will not affect the economic relationship between Ankara and Erbil. In a recent meeting between President Barzani and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Barzani told the foreign minister that regardless of Erbil’s relations with Baghdad, they can and will remain “two good neighbors.” Cavusoglu, following the meeting and answering reporters’ questions, stated that there would be no economic sanctions, such as closing the border, should the referendum go through and pass.
Iran would in fact be a bigger threat having shown no reluctance to interfere in neighboring or regional countries. As there is cause for concern with Iran it must be dealt with as a part of any strategic plan and must be in conjunction with a country strong enough to be a deterrent to Iranian might and influence. Currently the only country that has shown support for Kurdish independence and can block Iran is Russia. This should not be viewed lightly by the United States and hopefully will influence advisors to President Trump. Most military commanders with direct knowledge of Iraq and the Kurdish situation support Kurdish independence, as do many in the US congress.
The last concern for the stability of a Kurdish state is economic. Here again Erbil must look first to Turkey. In the past both Kurdistan and Turkey enjoyed good trade relations that benefited both. This of course was before the ISIS attacks, causing a large influx of refugees and the need to divert resources to the fight. This also came at a time of declining oil prices worldwide putting a great strain on the Kurdistan economy. Currently, Kurdistan is billions of dollars in debt and unable to meet many of its obligations. Looking at history it can be surmised that this is temporary and can be reversed.
There are those who propose a delay in the referendum until all the problems can be addressed, and this will never happen. Political division, economic slumps, and disagreements with neighboring countries are facts of life and will not go away regardless of how long a delay.
As of this writing the referendum will take place on September 25 and very likely pass. When the KRG declares independence is not known now, but it will happen. What is also not known is the reaction of the rest of the world. Hopefully, as this has been an action coming for a long time, it will be accepted and a new nation will be born without bloodshed.