Millions of Iraqi Kurds last Monday voted in a referendum on secession from Iraq and to set up an independent state. According to the official organisers, 92.73 percent of voters supported Kurdish independence while the participation rate stood at 72.16 percent. A huge majority of the Iraqi Kurdish people have made it clear that they feel no attachment to the quasi-sectarian Iraqi central government.
The Iraqi central government, along with Iran and Turkey, have closed their borders to the region leaving the whole area out of touch with the outside world. Over the past weeks, the Iraqi central government, along with the Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) and the Iranian regime, have all been hurriedly issuing decrees and resolutions condemning the referendum. The Iraqi government has declared the referendum to be illegal, quoting the Constitution, but the very same Baghdad government for years has held back funds allocated for Kurdistan in the Iraqi national budget.
Meanwhile the three powers have organised a series of joint military manoeuvres designed to intimidate the Kurdish people. The Iraqi parliament has also given Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi permission to send troops to disputed Kirkuk, home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Turkey has also threatened to cut the oil purchases from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
It is no mystery, that the Kurdish masses wish to break with the central government. Years of sanctions and discrimination by the central government, of sectarian rhetoric and politics, promoted by US imperialism along with all other powers who fought over control of Iraq, have left a mark. A new national survey in Iraq carried out by Almustakilla for Research (AFR) found that 95 percent of Iraqi Kurds believe that Iraq is headed in the wrong direction. The new generation of Iraqi Kurds, most of whom are not even taught Arabic anymore, no longer identify with Iraq. Most importantly they correctly see the central government as a reactionary force over which they have little to no influence.
For years Iraq - and later Syria - has been the staging ground of imperialist struggles between the powers in the region. The Erdogan regime in Turkey has been backing Barzani for years, on the one hand as a platform to influence the rest of Iraq and on the other hand as a tool to oppress the left-wing Kurdish PKK guerilla movement. Erdogan had no problems playing around with right-wing Kurdish nationalism as long as it stayed within certain limits. But an independent Kurdistan is a threat to Erdogan’s interests because it would embolden the Kurds inside Turkey as well as reducing Erdogan’s influence in Iraq as a whole, which would slide further into the Iranian sphere of influence.
Iran itself also has a large oppressed Kurdish population that is sympathetic to the struggles of their fellow Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Iranian regime wants to avoid anything which could spark a movement amongst its own oppressed minorities. But this never stopped the Iranians from bolstering Kurdish Nationalism in Iraq - both the Barzani led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Talebani led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - in the past, as a means of undermining the Iraqi regime. Even today, Iranian backed forces in Iraq lean on the PUK, Gorran and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) - the umbrella organisation set up by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) - against IS and against Barzani who has acted as a Turkish puppet in the past period. But clearly, the Iranians also wish to restrain the movement from transgressing their own core interests; especially now that the central government is dominated by Iran itself.
At the same time, the "democratic" and respectable ladies and gentlemen of the so-called "International Community" have blatantly ignored the latest aggressions towards the Kurdish people and their democratic rights. While State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed deep “disappointment” at the “destabilising referendum”, she stayed deafeningly silent about the war which is being prepared against the Kurdish people by the three neighbouring powers. It is almost surreal that these people who waste no time in criticising Iran have now lined up behind the Islamic Republic and the Erdogan regime against the Kurds.
The west has been been opposed to the right of the Kurdish people to decide their own destiny throughout the process. Before the referendum a delegation of UN, US and UK diplomats met with the present Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of President Masoud Barzani, to convince him to postpone the vote and instead negotiate with the Baghdad government "without guarantees[!]". In effect these gentlemen did not want to postpone the vote, but cancel it altogether, in favour of Iraq's "territorial integrity". These are ironic words coming from people who invaded this same “territory” and then proceeded to install the reactionary Shia sectarian Maliki regime. The sectarian measures implemented by the occupation has led to the disintegration of Iraq as we knew it.
Since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq in 2013, Iraqi Kurdish forces of different molds have played a key role in fighting the Islamist organisation. Faced with a crisis at home, the west had few other options than to lean on the Kurds to do a major part of the fighting for them. As the rotten Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of the few hundred IS fighters, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, although they withdrew, remained as a solid obstacle for IS expansion north of Mosul. The KRG also became a key alternative base of operation for the US, as the Baghdad government slipped under increasing Iranian influence. In the contested and oil rich city of Kirkuk as well, it was Peshmerga forces that took the city after ISF troops had melted away when faced with an IS onslaught. Later on, an even more formidable force came to be the forces linked to the KCK. The KCK affiliated forces not only became the most formidable force in Northern Syria (through their local organisations YPG and PYD) but also around Mount Sinjar and in Kirkuk as well. The KCK is today the only remaining US ally on the ground in Syria. But while the west has had no qualms in leaning on the Kurds to do the fighting for them, they see Kurdish independence as a destabilising factor which could undermine their position and that of their allies in the region.
“Small” nations are so much small change in the games and struggles between the major powers. All of the powers of the Middle East have at one point or another leaned on Kurdish forces. All is good, as long as Kurdish blood is being spilled to clean up a barbaric mess caused by the imperialists or when Kurds are used as cannon fodder in their proxy wars. But if those same Kurds wish to exert their democratic right to a homeland, all the powers - from "democrats" to the most extreme islamists - who only yesterday were at each other's throats, form a united front against the Kurdish masses. The only powers to back the referendum have been the Israeli regime, which is seeking a foothold to destabilise Iran, and Russia which is looking for means to leverage its Iranian and Turkish “allies” in Syria. But these exceptions only serve to prove the rule. Class interests transcend all conflicts and alliances within the ruling class.
Of course in Barzani, the Kurdish people have not found a saviour. The Barzani clan has dominated the Iraqi Kurdish national movement going back to the 1930s. Masoud took over the KDP after his father, Mustafa's death in 1979. The party dominates the Dohuk and Erbil regions of Iraqi Kurdistan and has historically been the strongest party amongst the Iraqi Kurds since its founding. Through its grip over the movement, the Barzani family has rooted itself within the economy and state structures of the region, building a major semi-tribal network of patronage. For all his talk about defending oppressed nations, he has a patchy record of oppressing the many minorities in the KRG itself.
For the Barzanis Iraqi Kurdistan is more a fiefdom to be used to gain concessions for their own benefit. It is an open secret that Barzani opportunistically pulled out his Peshmergas when IS attacked Mosul. Barzani and his Turkish backers had plans of their own for Mosul and would rather fight IS than the Iraqi army. Before the rise of IS, Barzani dealt in a particularly brutal manner with the pro-democracy and anti-corruption protest movements which erupted in Iraqi Kurdistan in the wake of the Arab revolution. Later on in 2015, as the economic crisis hit the KRG, he made deep cuts into public sector wages after not having been able to pay wages for months. These and a series of other austerity measures, which essentially halved state expenditure, led to a series of protests which, given the lack of a leadership, never generalised into a larger movement. Thus, using the war against IS and the pressures of the Baghdad government as excuses, Barzani managed to avert serious challenges to his rule.
Under the guise of fighting IS, Barzani also essentially shut down the KRG parliament and extended his presidential term for two years until 2015. Since then, our great democratic friend of the Kurds, has simply refused to leave the presidency or call new elections which would definitely lead to his downfall. But now that the war on IS is ending, he doesn't have anymore excuses. With the collapse of the oil prices and the economic sanctions of the Baghdad regime, the KRG is essentially bankrupt. 1.2 million civil servants, who already had their wages halved in 2015, have not been paid for the past two months. With IS collapsing and the prospect of the province of Kirkuk falling back into Baghdad hands, oil production - which is the only real income of the KRG - would be almost halved. Heavily indebted, the KRG is set for a major crisis.
Seeing his plummeting authority and the coming crisis, Barzani has been trying to divert the attention of the masses and to rally them behind him against Baghdad. But Barzani has used the question of independence on numerous occasions in the past whenever he was in trouble domestically and as a means of extracting concessions for himself. In 2005 a loosely organised referendum gained almost 2 million votes, 98% in favour of secession, yet nothing happened after that. As long as the Kurds are an oppressed minority and in the absence of a clear working class based opposition, Barzani can cynically leverage the oppression of the Kurds to divert attention from his own corrupt rule. Even before the referendum, he had been changing his tune under the pressure and lure of foreign powers. Over the past week, he has increasingly been talking about forming a federation instead of declaring an independent state. He has also stressed the “non-binding” character of the referendum. This only confirms the suspicions that many Kurds have towards Barzani. Yet faced with the siege imposed on the region, many, who would not even have voted, rallied behind him and they will continue to do so.
The Barzani clan will not hesitate to sell the hopes and aspirations of the Kurdish people as it has many times before. The Kurdish people cannot trust Barzani. They need a different kind of leadership, one which is based on the interests of the workers and not the corrupt, wealthy elite.
They also cannot trust any of the other of the ruling classes in the region. The Turks, the Iranians and so on will use the Kurds when it is to their advantage to do so, and then discard them when their own interests are threatened. The same applies to the major imperialist powers, such as the United States or the Europeans, and also to the Russians. One day they will lean on the Kurds, as they did in the war against IS, and the next they will betray them. Today both Israel and Russia find it advantageous to lean on the Kurds, but when this is no longer the case, they too will betray them.
In the end all the powers, both regional and world powers, will all form a united front against the Kurdish masses if these threaten their interests in the region. The Kurdish people can only trust in their own power. While the cowardly leaders have never hesitated to sell out the masses, the people have shown again and again that they are willing to fight and die for their rights. The only real allies the Kurds can find are the workers and poor of Iraq, Iran and Turkey who are oppressed by their own regimes.