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Iraq and Kurdistan playing ‘a game of chicken’ over upcoming independence vote

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A major political battle is taking shape in Iraq, as defiant Kurds there prepare to vote in a September 25 independence referendum. Despite an order from the Iraqi Supreme Court this week to suspend the poll, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) electoral body even has pushed forward and relaxed voting rules, allowing Peshmerga troops to vote wherever they are deployed, and loosening identification requirements for voters.

The only indication Monday’s court order might have (sort of) landed a punch was a statement from Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s office. “[T]he referendum will not be delayed only for the sake of holding talks with Baghdad without knowing the content of these talks or knowing what international guarantees they will have,” the statement on Tuesday read.

Michael Knights, a Boston-based Lafer fellow of The Washington Institute, has been in touch with Kurdish leadership in recent weeks and has been tracking their responses to attempts delay the vote, such as the “Western Offer” (where the United States, U.K., and U.N. offered to support dialogue with Baghdad for Kurdish independence at a later, undetermined date — the offer was immediately rejected).

The referendum feels inevitable, Knights said, as, “we’re less than a week out, and the momentum inside KRG is pretty strong — they can see the win.”

Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population of its own, has indicated that it’s going to formulate some kind of response by September 22 — just three days before the vote. “What they’re signalling is, ‘If you don’t cave before the 22nd, maybe we’re going to have to do something really harsh to you,’… They’re talking about border closures, basically, a blockade,” said Knights. This, he said, would be the final “major test of resolve” for the referendum. Turkey is already engaging in military exercises at the Turkish border with the KRG.

And speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that, “Ignoring the clear and determined stance of Turkey on this matter may lead to a process that shall deprive the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government of even the opportunities it currently enjoys.”

Whatever Erdogan decides — sanctions or border closures — a Turkish attack of the KRG is unlikely, given the presence of U.S. bases and assets in the region.

Baghdad, meanwhile, has taken an increasingly critical tone against the vote over the past week, as it said the vote could further divide Iraq, a country already struggling under not only sectarian battles, but straining under the pressure to reclaim territory from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in key battles such as Mosul, Tal Afar, and the upcoming campaign in Hawija.

The parliament has already moved to delegitimize the results of the symbolic poll and has voted to remove the governor of Kirkuk, one of the disputed territories the Kurds are hoping to claim. Baghdad has deployed police to the oil-rich city in anticipation of clashes, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, up for re-election in spring 2018, has threatened military intervention in the event of any instability in the KRG.

A domestic game

“Baghdad has definitely escalated to a situation nobody expected,” said Ramzy Mardini, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

The vote, said Mardini, “is an attempt to increase the Kurds’ bargaining power in any future negotiations on statehood — it is not meant as what is perceived now, as a unilateral secession.”

“The vote will happen regardless, oh, absolutely. The [Iraqi Supreme] Court has no influence whatsoever on Barzani’s calculation,” he said, adding that Barzani will want to capitalize on the gains the KRG and Peshmerga have made in taking over fresh territory, such as Sinjar, Makhmur, and Kirkuk.

“We’ve gotten to a point where if Abadi conceded, then he would suffer greatly, in terms of political cost. He would look weak. At the same time, Barzani, if he conceded, he would suffer tremendous internal political cost, and they also have an election coming up in November,” said Mardini. “So you have two players basically playing a game of chicken.”

Knights explained that for the Iraqis, the vote is about looking tough in the 2018 elections; for Barzani, it’s about his legacy; for Turkey and Iran, it’s about making sure a Kurdish secessionist movement does not extend to and within their borders (both countries struggle with Kurdish minorities).

Indeed, Baghdad must walk a fine line in order to emerge from this situation a winner.

“The balance they’re trying to strike right now is to be enough against the Kurdish referendum so that next year, they won’t be accused of being soft on the Kurds,” said Knights. “But on the other hand, they don’t want to be too tough on the Kurds, because next year, they’ll need 165 seats [of a total of 328] in the Iraqi parliament to ratify the prime minister — and the Kurds have 60 seats. So they’re one of the biggest blocs in the parliament.”

U.S. miscalculation

The international community will have a tough time swaying things one way or the other with Baghdad or Erbil, because, said Knights, the vote is “not about the broader geopolitical play.”

The Kurds realize there’s no point in waiting for international support for their vote, said Knights, because, with the exception of Russia, which is striking natural gas deals with the KRG — viewed as tacit support for the vote — they can see that the rest of the world has no appetite for their independence.

“Getting right down to realpolitik, there’s not a lot that makes the internationals want to back Kurdistan’s breakaway,” he said. If anything, he added, the United States, “is just trying to support al-Abadi,” because “we know if he goes, what we’re going to get is not going to be as pro-western, won’t be as pro-economic reform, not going to be as cross-sectarian as he is. It’s going to be something nastier.”

“I think we’re misguided, but I don’t think we’re actually helping him… because ultimately, he needs those 60 seats next year, and if he upsets the Kurds too badly, he’s not going to get them. So I think we might be shooting ourselves in the foot, to be honest.”

While the Turks are carrying out military drills on the border, Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Quds Force (which plays major roles in Iraq as well as the Hash al-Shaabi militia in Iraq), has allegedly threatened to invade the KRG in the event of a vote. The Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units, are key partners with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIS.

With ISIS on the back foot, Mardini said neither Iran nor the United States see them as the major threat in Iraq. Still, he said the United States is using concerns about the fight against ISIS as “a safe cover” for concerns that the referendum might cause local or domestic instability within Kurdistan or Iraq, which could invite trouble from Turkey or Iran, and, even more crucially, could harm the chances of al-Abadi being re-elected next year.

“We’ve transitioned from an ISIS-centric policy into an Abadi-centric policy — that’s what the U.S. cares about,” said Mardini. The Kurds, he added, “just don’t buy” the U.S. line about ISIS. “They just came out of a war with the Islamic State, they’ve had thousands of casualties in that war, they’ve expanded their territories,” he said.

“It’s a very sensitive situation where if you come out against them, the way the United States has, it only emboldens Kurdish nationalism,” said Mardini. Through its mishandling of the situation, he added that the United States has only “managed to get both sides to dig deeper — It’s really quite stunning.”

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