The foreign minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Falah Mustafa, was in New York this week listening intently to colleagues attending the United Nations General Assembly pressure him to forget about divorcing Baghdad.
He heard an earful. Several countries were trying to present alternatives to a proposed referendum for Kurdish independence. Almost all the neighbors and global powers oppose it.
“Until this moment we are determined to conduct the referendum,” Mustafa told The Daily Beast. “It’s a democratic exercise. It’s the right for self determination, and we hope the free world will respect the free will of Kurdistan in this regard.”
But he indicated that Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, is ready to negotiate. “If the international community is so concerned about this situation, and they want us to delay for a period of time,” he said, “they have to come up with a strong package that will insure our independence in the future, in the near future. Otherwise we will go ahead, and we want the international community to get ready for the day after, and to engage Erbil and Baghdad in serious dialog.”
Initiated by the president of the Kurdish regional government, Masoud Barzani, the referendum opposed by the United States and most world powers, is scheduled for Monday. It would ask residents of the northern Iraqi region if they want to become an independent state, and they are expected to vote “yes” overwhelmingly.
As threats amass of sanctions against him, and even war, Barzani is adamant he’ll conduct the referendum nevertheless. So United Nations, French, and Turkish diplomats have put new proposals on the table in the latest diplomatic attempt to stop the independence drive.
“I think Barzani will switch in the last minute. He’ll cancel the referendum, postpone it or perhaps change the question,” said an Iraqi-born senior UN diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The pressure on him will prove too much, the diplomat added, “And, needless to say, it would be a disaster for my country.”
On Thursday, Iraq’s foreign minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari told The Daily Beast that Iraq’s unity should not be challenged. “We are working hard to achieve that objective,” he said, adding, “The referendum is worrisome not only for Iraq but for the entire region.”
Earlier, Jaafari attended a Security Council meeting about holding members of the so-called Islamic State accountable for crimes committed in Iraq.
The almost completed victory over ISIS, in which Kurdish troops, known as peshmerga, played a crucial role, was perhaps the strongest tailwind impelling Barzani to announce a referendum on independence.
Barzani’s supporters argue that after suffering attempted genocide by Saddam Hussein, and later creating, under American protection, all the trappings of a modern, pro-Western democratic state, they can no longer be part of Iraq, which unlike them is mostly Arab. With their own language, culture, institution, and army, they are ready to declare the first independent Kurdish state.
Opponents fear separation from Iraq would stir other Kurds in Iran, Turkey, and Syria to become more militant about seeking a state, which could instigate major wars. On Friday, Syrian Kurds are expected to conduct their own election, in defiance of the country’s president, Bashar al Assad.
The lines of demarcation in a disintegrating Iraq are another point of contention. Barzani included the oil-rich Kirkuk area in the referendum. Once heavily populated by Kurds, it now has an Arab majority and could become a flashpoint.
Iran could send in troops, or allied Shiite Iraq militias, to try to prevent Barzani from breaking away from Iraq. Barzani once struck an alliance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It lasted until last year, but since the referendum announcement relations soured.
Barzani supporters are specifically concerned about Turkey’s national security council meeting Friday. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Erdogan alluded to it, saying his advisers will examine proposals for “sanctions” on the Kurdish region. “Steps such as demands for independence that can cause new crises and conflicts in the region must be avoided,” he warned explicitly. And the Kurds are concerned sanctions might not be the end of it, according to a UN-based source.
Yet, at least publicly, Barzani is unfazed. While at first he was unclear on what follows the referendum, and even indicated that independence would be deferred after a “yes” vote, this week he announced, “Kurdistan could say goodbye to Iraq within two years after the vote.”
Last week Brett McGurk, the White House point man on ISIS terrorism, who has long coordinated the U.S. war against ISIS with the Kurds, said in Erbil that the referendum was “ill-timed and ill-advised.” The stakes were raised significantly for Barzani when the State Department issued a detailed statement Wednesday night.
Yet Kurds still hope the administration would change its mind. The New York Times reported Barzani’s allies hired the former campaign manager for President Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, as adviser, attempting to make their case in Washington.
It didn’t work. The tone of the State Department’s statement, saying the United States “strongly opposes” the referendum, as do “all of Iraq’s neighbors, and virtually the entire international community,” was decisive.
According to the statement, issued by the department’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert, “the Kurds can be proud already of what the referendum process has produced”—Kurdish unity, reviving the Kurdish parliament, and creating alliances based on “the spirit of cooperation seen between Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in the campaign against ISIS.”
Now, the statement continued, it is time to drop the referendum itself and instead enter “sustained dialogue with the central government,” which Washington, the UN, and others will facilitate.
In a press conference at the UN Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to endorse the referendum at first, saying France will never take part in “an initiative that blocks a democratic process.” But then, even as he expressed admiration for the Kurds, he urged them to change the referendum’s question: Instead of independence, they should vote for “better representation” in Baghdad.
Among all world powers, Moscow became the lone player to refrain from criticizing Barzani. Since arriving in Iraq’s Kurdistan last December, the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft has invested $4 billion in development of the region’s oil and natural gas infrastructure, according to Reuters.
And public support for Barzani’s independence aspiration came last week from an unexpected corner, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced, “Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”
Clandestine ties with Turkey’s Kurds go back to the early days of Israeli statehood, but this was the first time a Jerusalem official publicly supported independence. On the eve of the referendum, Israeli flags were displayed in Erbil right next to the Kurdish banner.
In the next few days, residents there will learn the fate of their most audacious independence gambit to date.