Massoud Barzani, the longtime president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, announced his resignation on October 29 in a tacit acknowledgement that his historic gambit for Kurdish statehood had failed spectacularly.
In the face of Iraqi and regional animosity, Barzani — the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party — went ahead with a referendum on Kurdish independence on September 25. And while 92 percent of voters favored secession from Iraq, a clear and convincing signal of Kurdish national aspirations, the Iraqi government and its allies interpreted the plebiscite as a virtual act of war.
Backed by local Shiite militias and neighboring Iran, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the U.S.-trained and supplied army into action. In the days to follow, Iraq recaptured Kirkuk, which had been held by the Kurds since 2014, and several major oil fields which had buoyed the Kurdish economy. As well, Iraq seized thousands of kilometres of disputed land around the Kurdish Regional Government and forced airlines to stop all flights to airports there, thereby isolating the Kurds.
Once again, the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the Middle East still without a state of their own, were on the losing end of the stick.
To add insult to injury, the Kurdish Democratic Party’s defeat in Kirkuk was aided and abetted by its chief Kurdish rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by the Talibani family. The Talibanis aligned themselves with the Iraqi government and Iran, whose influence in Iraq has grown exponentially since the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation.
This was not the first time the Barzani and Talibani families found themselves on opposite sides of the barricades. In 1996, when Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party, the Kurdish Democratic Party cooperated with the Iraqi regime in ejecting the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from the Kurdish city of Arbil.
Barzani had every right to call a referendum. The Kurds, alternately oppressed and courted by the central government in Baghdad, yearned for sovereignty, and he intended to quench their thirst for it. In this respect, his calculations were entirely correct. The Kurdish electorate voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq.
As a key ally of the United States in the three-year battle against the Islamic State caliphate in Iraq, he assumed that Washington would, at the very least, acquiesce to Kurdish independence. But here he miscalculated badly. The Trump administration, committed to a unified Iraq, came out against the referendum. And once the Iraqi army stormed into Kirkuk, the United States, for all intents and purposes, sided with the Iraqi government and, ironically, Iran, its chief nemesis in the Middle East.
In truth, the United States was never really in a position to endorse Kurdish statehood, notwithstanding the fact that nearly 2,000 Kurdish fighters have been killed in the struggle to eradicate Islamic State.
Following the withdrawal of the Kurds from Kirkuk, a number of American politicians, namely Senator John McCain, expressed dissatisfaction with Washington’s policy. “This is totally unacceptable,” he wrote in The New York Times. “The United States offered arms and training to the government of Iraq to fight the Islamic State and secure Iraq from external threats — not to attack Iraqi Kurds, who are some of America’s most trusted and capable partners in the region.”
As expected, McCain’s cri de coeur was ignored by the Trump administration.
Barzani, too, underestimated Baghdad’s resolve to crush the Kurdish secessionist movement at a moment when segments of Iraq are still controlled by Islamic State. And, of course, he did not fully appreciate the deep hostility exhibited by Arab states, Turkey and Iran to Kurdish statehood. These countries, fearing the specter of Kurdish unrest and secession, rallied behind Iraq.
As a result of the military setbacks Barzani has sustained in the past month, the Kurds have lost a good deal of the political and military clout they acquired since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States established a no-fly zone and supported the creation of a Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.
Despite the losses the Kurds have suffered since the ill-fated referendum, Barzani is still keen about the prospects for Kurdish statehood. But given the unfavorable conditions on the ground, he should be aware that his chances of achieving his cherished objective are extremely remote.