Why Baghdad’s Move on Kirkuk Is Not About the Independence Referendum

By now, it should be abundantly obvious that  Baghdad’s move to take over Kirkuk has been pre-planned and would have advanced with or without the independence referendum.

Iraqi forces and Peshmerga were allied against ISIS in the liberation of the territories, yet Iraq’s ultimate priority has always been in retaining the control over the oil fields and revenue from the Kurdish-held territories. And with Barzani’s resignation as KRG President, we now know that whatever criticisms could be made about the latter’s hold on power well beyond the constitutional provisions, his concerns about Kurdish security and move for independence were a great deal more than just power play. Further proof of Baghdad’s disingenuous bluster about territorial integrity and “unity” (carved out by the British under the Sykes-Picot agreement, that would intentionally keep different nations with disparate identities cobbled together, foster divisions, and allow the British Empire to maintain control) are Abadi’s actions with respect to the Kurdish citizens the moment the Baghdad-Iran alliance assumed control of much of the disputed territories and the oil fields, which were, in fact the central concern.

The legitimacy of Baghdad’s concern for its national sovereignty is undermined by the unnecessary assault on the Kurdish autonomy, which can only make the Kurds yearn for independence more, not less. Though Middle East is all about overpowering and crushing your enemy to make him respect you, the excessively vindictive actions by Baghdad, and its welcoming of a foreign regime (IRGC) into this punitive takeover is likely to have the opposite effect. Baghdad’s reimposition of power began with a crackown on Kurdish media – the banning of Kurdistan24 and Rudaw, two of the major local outlets, which have been providing detailed information about both the military action of the past few weeks and internal Kurdish matters of interest to their families in Syria, Turkey, and Europe, and enhancing the understanding of world leaders who would otherwise be uninformed about the alphabet soup of Kurdish parties and factions in the region.

This move signals illegitimacy of having a separate Kurdish identity, a bitter point for a nation of approximately 30 million people with distinct languages, culture, and indigenous roots in the region, but to this day without an independent state.  Second, it is an insurance policy that the international community will have no access to real-time information on the ground, and certainly not the English-language Kurdish take on it. There is a small coterie of Western journalists presence, but as the Israeli journalist Seth Frantzman has pointed out, they tend to rely on other Western journalists for information, and thus likely miss a great deal of internal dynamics and the full spectrum of regional narratives.  Lack of alternative information will go a long way towards creating an appearance of only one perspective: Baghdad’s position, made public through official channels and formal meetings.  Whatever public support the Kurds are currently getting is largely fueled by the unrestricted access to their voices. The legitimacy of Baghdad’s own actions are severely undermined by its move to squash down criticism from the significant portion of its population, and its ally in the war against ISIS.

Second, Baghdad has moved to pay salaries directly to the Kurdish civil servants, bypassing the KRG. This undermines the authority of the Kurdish leadership, and makes the Kurdish infrastructure heavily depended on, and thus potentially loyal to, Baghdad. For sure, even if the bulk of the Kurdish civilian forces grow resentful of this deprivation of a sense of autonomy, others will cling to security for their immediate situation, and Baghdad thus far successfully divides-and-conquers the already splintered Kurdish groups.  For the same reason, Abadi’s forces are seeking to cut off Peshmerga access to the pipeline that delivers oil to Turkey, and to provide all oil to Turkey, bypassing the KRG. It’s just another way of undermining Kurdistan, weakening its economy, undermining its business relationship with Turkey, and ensuring that Iraq is viewed as the central authority, whereas Kurdistan is merely a province with no independent power to make deals or provide anything of value to the region.

Third, Baghdad is seeking to undermine the use of Kurdish languages in the region, in order to weaken the sense of a national identity and common destiny among the Kurds in Iraq, as well as a sense of unity with the Kurds in other countries. The first sign of this cultural crackdown is the attack against a Kurdish official, who used his own language rather than Arabic, in a formal media setting. While Baghdad has not yet made this move an official policy, this disturbing incident is a sign of what it could do, and what it will likely do, following the example of Turkey, if Kurds continue to resist. Suppression of national culture is the best way to weaken a potentially rebellious or troublesome population. The Soviet Union has done that systematically to the Jews; Iran has persisted in its tactics against a whole host of national minorities; and Turkey before and during Erdogan has imposed fascist policies to ensure cultural conformity.

Fourth, Baghdad is looking to divide the minorities living in Kurdish area, and has already done so, in that various groups have associated themselves with Peshmerga, PMU (connected to Iran), or with Iraqi forces, that have been trained and armed by Americans.  At the same time, Iraqi forces claimed to have no control over the Iran-backed militias, that are retaking the territories, and have opened up civilians and minorities to potential exploitation and destruction by the militias.  Having gone as far as Al Qosh, these groups have threatened a Jewish historical site, and the Christian sites in the area.  And Christian groups have reached out to the international community to complain of threats directed at them by Hashd. Yet the forces have not stopped at the borders of areas that are of strategic and geopolitical importance to the Iraqi government. They have pushed out outwards, and have been repelled by Peshmerga in multiple places, and have made way in others. Although strictly speaking there has been a ceasefire, between Iraqis and Peshmerga, that has not affected non=Peshmerga Kurdish forces protecting civilians and minorities, and who are still under threat of Iran-backed militias and IRGC. At the same time, these moves are a clear indication that Baghdad is not seeking a truce. It is seeking domination and full control of the Kurdish population, a repressive and punitive one at that.

Thus far, the response from the international community, particularly from the United States, has consisted of calls for peace and agreement, support for Iraq’s unity, and proposals of mediation to the tune of “why can’t we just all get along”. None of that was aimed at curbing Iraq’s abusive behavior or at seriously reassuring our Kurdish allies as to the commitment of the US to their security, cultural preservation, and autonomy, even under our official position of preserving Iraq as a cohesive state – quite ironic, given that there is nothing indigenous about the Sykes-Picot treaty imposed on Iraq by the British. Furthermore, there is radio silence from the US administration as to the article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, assembled with the help of US State Department and top American lawyers, which provides for Kurdish independence. Certainly, such a provision would at the very least provide a level of recognition and provision for Kurdish rights.

And ironically, it is this potential suppression of Kurdish autonomy that provides the greatest justification to independence under international law. (The Katanga case). At the end of the day, however, any nation that feels oppressed or that is otherwise dedicated to independence and pursuit of its own destiny must come to terms of having to organize its forces into strong cohesive units, making at least temporary alliances with its factions abroad, procuring whatever is needed for strong offensive and defensive fronts, through subterfuge, if necessary, and being prepared for a military triumph and complete capitulation of its opponents. In other words, if Kurds want their own state, they are going to have to fight for it, and international support will emerge only once it becomes clear that they can actually win, and have the wherewithal to support their own state without anyone’s help. It’s not pretty, but this is how it worked out for Israel, which likewise was surrounded by overwhelming enemy forces, had very limited access to inferior weapons, and no international recognition – yet there she is, nearly 70 years later, small but independent.  I hope that the US administration will see that the Baghdad government is losing its own legitimacy with each oppressive step that it takes, that its direction comes from the Iranian ayatollahs and will do the only right and practical thing under the circumstances – change its policy to fully backing the Kurds and keeping the worst of Baghdad’s actions at bay. But I wouldn’t hold my breath or rely on that.  I would also not remain passive, waiting for miracles to happen or for these problems to resolve themselves. Time may very well be ripe for a Kurdish state – but are the Kurds themselves ready?

Irina Tsukerman, human rights and national security lawyer based in New York.