M K Bhadrakumar |
The result of the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq will be known in the next 48 hours or so, but no surprises need be expected. A big majority will say ‘yes’ to an independent Kurdistan, the longstanding dream of the Kurdish people. The real clincher was the decision by the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, Massoud Barzani, to press ahead with the referendum on Monday despite the dire warnings by Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran.
Barzani’s ‘strategic defiance’ can only be attributed to the tacit support he has enjoyed from the international community – principally, the US, and Israel. The Americans and Israelis have deep ties with the Iraqi Kurdish elite. Barzani is confident that the international community might make proforma protests about the referendum but will sooner or later recognize an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
All possibilities, from economic sanctions to military options, are on the table. Airspace, territorial fields, all are on the table. All those options are being negotiated right now
The Kurds control over 40% of Iraqi oil; the energy reserves are estimated around 45 billion barrels of oil and 150 trillion cubic metres of gas, and around 900.000 b/d are currently exported via Turkey.
Barzani has favored American and Russian oil companies, baiting them to ignore Baghdad’s strictures against having direct dealings with him in oil trade, bypassing the federal government. (ExxonMobil, which US state secretary Rex Tillerson once headed, is active in Iraqi Kurdistan.)
Barzani visited Moscow in July and was received by President Vladimir Putin. The Russians have kept longstanding links with the Kurds (who, by the way, keep a ‘representative office’ in Moscow.) Moscow has an ambivalent stance on the Kurds’ demand for self-determination. In an interview in late July with the Kurdish television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke at length on the Russian policies. In a nutshell, Moscow would have preferred that Barzani didn’t precipitate regional tensions just at the present juncture.
Quite obviously, the Kurdish independence referendum on Monday is bound to inflame nationalist/separatist sentiments in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iran as well and may well trigger another regional conflict
Suffice to say, Monday’s referendum could well turn out to be the harbinger of a historic redefinition of the map of the Middle East – of Iraq and Syria, to begin with – although the ISIS is about to be defeated and the ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria advanced by the US and its allies reached nowhere.
To be sure, a violent struggle lies ahead because Turkey, Iraq, and Iran are on the same page in opposing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Turkey, in particular, will play a key role since it gives access to the land-locked Iraqi Kurds to the world market. Erdogan is due to visit Tehran on October 4.
The US and Russia are playing a cat-and-mouse game vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue, as the killing of a Russian general and two colonels in the northeastern Syrian city of Dier Ezzor in the weekend would suggest. Moscow has hinted at US complicity in the murder, which apparently aimed at stalling any Russian-Syrian attempt to gain control of the vast oil fields in Dier Ezzor province.
Simply put, the US is facilitating the takeover of these oil fields by the Syrian Kurdish militia (which is its proxy force on the Syrian battlefield) and would expect that the Russians accept the new fact on the ground. Of course, the oil fields would provide a substantial source of income for the Syrian Kurds who are also creating an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria with US support and protection.
Curiously, the US is pitching high in hoping that the Kurds who account for just 8% of Syria’s population will gain control of some 25% of Syria’s territory and 40% of the country’s oil and gas reserves
Curiously, the US is pitching high in hoping that the Kurds who account for just 8% of Syria’s population will gain control of some 25% of Syria’s territory and 40% of the country’s oil and gas reserves.
Would the Russians and the Syrian government accept as fait accompli a Kurdish takeover in Dier Ezzor? The US (Pentagon commanders) is probably gambling that Moscow will avoid a confrontation over control of the Dier Ezzor oil fields, given the Russian leadership’s lingering hopes of a constructive engagement with the Trump administration.
The killing of the Russian general is probably intended as a hint to Moscow not to push the envelope. But a Russian response is almost certain. A Tass report today suggests that the Russian forces are preparing to confront the US’ allies in Dier Ezzor province. (Interestingly, Putin is visiting Turkey on Thursday; Putin discussed the Kurdish referendum in conversations with the Iranian and Turkish presidents on Monday.)
To be sure, a violent struggle lies ahead because Turkey, Iraq, and Iran are on the same page in opposing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq
The stakes are very high for regional security. With an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq and a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, US hopes to create in the region a petrodollar state where it remains pre-eminent, and which will help the advancement of the American regional strategies – and Israel’s interests, especially to push back at Iran.
Quite obviously, the Kurdish independence referendum on Monday is bound to inflame nationalist/separatist sentiments in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iran as well and may well trigger another regional conflict much bigger and ferocious than the war against the ISIS.
Between 25 and 35 million Kurds inhabit the mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East. Evidently, the rise of Kurdish nationalism in the region is fraught with profound consequences for the Middle East – especially if the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Turkey, Syria Iraq and Iran come under challenge.
Barzani has favored American and Russian oil companies, baiting them to ignore Baghdad’s strictures against having direct dealings with him in oil trade, bypassing the federal government
Much depends on Turkey’s moves. President Recep Erdogan has warned Barzani that Turkey will not accept the creation of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq and the latter’s hopes of Israeli and American support will not save him – “All possibilities, from economic sanctions to military options, are on the table.
Airspace, territorial fields, all are on the table. All those options are being negotiated right now. I hope that the northern Iraqi leadership will come to its senses before any of these are necessary, abandoning this adventure which will only end in darkness.”
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.