As you read this Iraqi Kurds are voting on whether to declare independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. While a number of analysts, including me, have been forecasting and predicting that Iraq’s Kurds would declare independence over whatever areas where under their control after the fight against ISIS is completed, today’s vote is not the same thing. The fight against ISIS is not complete. Holding the referendum now is somewhere between provocative and naive. Here’s what Masoud Barzani, the President of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan, had to say in a recent interview:
A long time ago I reached this conclusion that it was necessary to hold a referendum and let our people decide, and for a long time I have held the belief that Baghdad is not accepting real, meaningful partnership with us. We don’t want to accept being their subordinate. This is in order to prevent a bigger problem, to prevent a bloody war, and the deterioration of the security of the whole region.
That’s why we want to have this referendum — to ask our people what they want. This will help us prevent any possible future instability or bloody fighting that will follow if the situation continues. You know what the security situation in this area is like. When the people decide in this referendum, we expect all the other parties to respect the wishes and peaceful democratic decisions of the people of Kurdistan.
To answer your question why now, previously also at many stages we wanted to hold it. But because of the overall situation, the context in the area, because of other developments, we have been postponing it. But if we postpone this longer it’s not going to beneficial to our people, it will have a negative impact on the destiny of our people. So that’s why the timing right now is the best for holding this referendum.
One of the major issues in play here is who controls Kirkuk. When my teammates and I conducted our tribal study and social history in 2008, with in depth interviews of over 50 sheikhs, imams, political, and business leaders in central Iraq (predominantly from Mada’ain Qada, but also including interviewees from across Baghdad Province, and a few from Diyala and Wassit Provinces) Kurdish independence was only brought up by about five or six of our interview subjects. But when it was brought up we were told that any attempt to declare an independent Kurdistan, especially if the attempt included taking Kirkuk, would be unacceptable. We were specifically told be several sheikhs that this was one issue that would unite Sunni and Shi’a Iraqi Arabs and could lead to an Iraqi-Arab versus Iraqi-Kurdish civil war.
Another important issue is going to be Turkey’s response. Erdogan, as everyone one of his predecessors was, has been adamant that an independent Kurdistan on his border is unacceptable. In order to shore up his own internal politics, as well as to prevent Turkey’s Kurdish minority from trying to break away and unite with their Iraqi cousins, Erdogan will have to take action if an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is declared. This will further strain Turkey’s relationship with NATO, as well as complicate the fight against ISIS.
So who benefits here? In the short to medium term ISIS benefits. Any action taken by a member of the host country nation/local force partners of the US led coalition that strains that coalition benefits ISIS. In this case the potential effect is that today’s referendum could splinter the local forces that the US led coalition is partnering with in a “by, with, and through” strategy to defeat ISIS. The potential effects of today’s referendum have the ability to provide ISIS with the time and space to regroup, which is, perhaps, what they need more than anything right now.
The second major beneficiary is the Russians. Russia has been making false claims about its activities against ISIS for months; essentially taking credit for the successes of the local forces that the US led coalition is partnered with and the US led coalition. Moreover, they have been actively and aggressively working to establish greater ties with the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan. Including a petroleum exploitation agreement between Gazprom, the sanctioned Rosneft, and Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
On Friday The NY Times reported that Paul Manafort had been engaged as an external consultant on the referendum by the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan. They could not, however, verify who is paying Manafort. Given Manafort’s long history of working against US interests abroad; his involvement with planning and orchestrating an attack on US Marines at a NATO exercise in Ukraine in 2006 on behalf of his Russian backed and connected client; and his reported connections to both Russian intelligence and Russian oligarchs to whom he is deeply in debt; Manafort’s involvement should give everyone pause as to who is ultimately behind this referendum being held now. Russia’s interests in the region are bolstered and advanced if the US led coalition’s local partners are stressed, let alone if the independence referendum splinters them along Iraqi Arab versus Iraqi Kurdish lines and sucks Turkey into the dispute. Manafort’s involvement raises more questions than we have answers to right now, but it is possible that today’s referendum is just another front being opened in the Russian active measures campaign against the US and its NATO allies.