If Europe fails to up its diplomatic engagement with the Kurds it will lose influence to Tehran and Ankara.
The independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), on 25th of September, was calculated to strengthen their negotiating leverage with Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, and to bolster their domestic political position by rallying Kurds behind the nationalist cause.
But instead, the vote has provoked an aggressive response from the Hashd al Shabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) and the Iraqi Army, who together launched an offensive on Kurdish territory, reclaiming several disputed areas including the oil-rich Kirkuk.
The resulting political backlash has weakened the KRG’s position vis a vis Baghdad and fractured Kurdish groups even further. Indeed, the referendum may be about to claim the political life of its champion, President Masoud Barzani, who has said he will step down this week.
Losing control of Kirkuk, which is considered by many Kurds to be their spiritual home, was a huge catastrophe. But the subsequent internal political fracturing signals that the disaster might not be limited to Kirkuk. The crisis could break up the political parties and further fracture the Kurdish political landscape, ending the previous inefficient but stable status quo.
Kurdish politics are now bitterly divided between factions who were in favour of the referendum and those who opposed it – a division that cuts across political parties. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which championed the independence idea, is split between the KRG PM Nechirvan Barzani and his uncle, President Masoud Barzani.
The PUK, which had been much less enthusiastic about the independence referendum, eventually supported the vote on the basis that opposing it would be too politically costly for the party. Now it finds itself bitterly divided between various factions openly accusing each other of betrayal.
This blame game won’t help any of the existing political parties, and it is likely that both pro-referendum and anti-referendum forces will emerge weaker from the current turmoil. Anti-referendum factions will be blamed for dividing the ranks, and pro-referendum ones for their political miscalculation.
This chaos is not just bad news for the Kurdish population in Iraq, but also for European countries. Iraqi Kurdistan has been one of the closest allies of the West in the region. It has proved to be essential in countering extremist Sunni groups such as ISIS and tempering Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Western leaders have played a positive role in Kurdish politics multiple times in recent history. The former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s successful efforts to bring together the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani, who died last month, was crucial in bringing political stability to the region, ending the era of civil war between the Kurdish parties.
European countries could now revive this positive role by facilitating negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil, as well by encouraging dialogue between rival Kurdish factions and personalities. The aim should be helping the parties get back to discussing the core disputes in a way that does not destabilise Kurdish areas or undermine those Iraqis aiming for a less corrupt and more politically independent future.
The suggestions in US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s letter to President Barzani two days before the referendum could provide a good framework for this Western role. In his letter Tillerson promised US and UN support for a one year dialogue between the Kurds and the government of Baghdad to address the following issues: the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region, including Kirkuk, within the scope of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution; the status of the Peshmerga forces; the sharing of national oil revenues; and diplomatic representation for the KRG in foreign capitals.
A deal between Iraq and Erbil is needed for the sake of long term stability. But with the Kurds so weak and divided, there is little appetite among hardliners in Baghdad to make any concessions. International pressure may therefore be needed to encourage these groups to give Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi a mandate for a more conciliatory approach in negotiations.
If Europe fails to up its diplomatic engagement in these ways, it will cede influence to Tehran and Ankara. With their conflicting agendas, which unite only on clipping the wings of the Kurds, this would constitute a distinct backwards step in the region.