Monday 10 Aug 2020 | 09:43 | SYDNEY
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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Kurds aren’t always the good guys

I have written recently about the recklessness of Kurdish leaders in staging their independence referendum. Rather than advance the Kurdish cause, it has probably set it back years, if not decades. Despite its laudable efforts against Islamic State, the Kurdish Regional Government has demonstrated how its tactical prowess exceeds its strategic. This Financial Times article provides a good insight into the thinking that may have ed President Masoud Barzani to hold his expensive referendum.

Last week presented another example of a lack of strategic sense from Kurdish groups. As part of the post-victory celebrations following the defeat of Islamic State in their former Syrian capital of Raqqa, the Kurdish women’s unit within the YPG displayed and photographed themselves in front of a giant mural of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the proscribed Kurdish terrorist group PKK. Further social media posts have emerged of other YPG members singing the praises of Öcalan and his ideology.

The US-led coalition provided extensive military, logistic and financial support to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which fought in Raqqa, and told everyone who wanted to hear that it was a mixed Kurdish-Arab force without ties to the PKK. Yet a single photo has allowed Turkey to further its claim that the US-supported YPG is simply the Syrian franchise of the PKK. The coalition criticised the actions of the Kurds involved, but the Turkish government was having none of it. The pro-government press has been unrelenting in its criticism of the Kurds and the Americans. 

It is worth pausing here to say something regarding the Australians who have volunteered to fight with Kurdish groups. The popular misconception is that the Kurds themselves have only one aim, to defeat Islamic State, and beyond that they are apolitical. By joining Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, Australians are simply doing what the Australian government is doing: fighting Islamic State. But when one joins armed Kurdish groups (or any other such groups, for that matter), one becomes hostage to their political agenda as well. They also become hostage to Kurdish military demands; the units in which they end up in will be employed wherever and whenever required.

Australians who think fighting for the Kurds should put them above the law are arrogant, naïve or both. The former Northern Territory Labor Party President Matthew Gardiner, who it is believed tried to join or did join the Kurds in Syria in 2015, has previously asked 'why is the law written so if an Australian helps the Kurds they are treated as criminals?’. Another Australian, Ashley Dyball, who fought with the Kurdish YPG in Syria, was the focus of a favourable 60 Minutes story. During a later ABC interview he said '(the government) say we can't fight for (the YPG), but yet you fund them…if I'm the bad guy, then f***ing charge me’. A third man, Jamie Williams, was arrested at the airport intending to join the YPG in Syria, but the charges were dropped on the direction of Attorney-General George Brandis without further explanation. ‘I think it is ridiculous to be honest. The Kurds are an ally of Australia. ISIS are an enemy of the world. For somebody to be prosecuted for trying to do something — whatever little they can — about this is absurd to me,’ Williams said.

The media coverage and the YPG volunteer narratives pay scant attention to the fact that the Kurds have fought against several groups in Syria during the conflict, including the Syrian military, the Turkish military, the Free Syrian Army (which accused them of coordinating with the Assad regime), and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. Amnesty International has also criticised the YPG for its activities in areas it has conquered.

The complexity of the Syrian conflict and the multiple agendas of Kurdish groups fighting there illustrate just how difficult an operating environment it is. It is simplistic to simply declare that Australian forces are supporting Kurdish fighters and that Kurdish fighters are against Islamic State, so Australians should be allowed to join Kurdish armed groups. No conflict exists in a vacuum, least of all the Syrian one.

The Australian government doesn’t allow its citizen to fight for non-state actors, either proscribed or otherwise, because there is no guarantee that the roles they envisage themselves filling will be the actual roles they perform, or that the groups they thought they would fight are the ones they end up fighting. Foreign fighters perform the roles they’re assigned, and fight the people their chosen group fights. They may be groups the Australian government is operating against, or they may not be. The foreign fighter has no choice, as either the armed group itself, or circumstances, may conspire to change the operating environment rapidly.

War is rarely simple, civil war even less so. One image taken in far-off Raqqa has reinforced the utility of the law that forbids Australians fighting for non-state or semi-state actors. It is a law that should be applied to Australians who have travelled to fight for the Kurds.

Worst enemy: Kurdistan’s history of infighting

Hopes were high in Kurdistan after the historic, if ill-advised, referendum on independence earlier this month. To the question 'Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?', 92% of respondents voted 'yes'. Turnout was 72%.

The result in itself was not surprising. Kurds in Iraq and throughout the region have longed for self-determination for decades. What was surprising was the insistence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership on the timing of the referendum, given all of the risks they knew it would entail. Observers and players warned that the referendum would trigger swift retaliation from Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad, including military retaliation; that the Kurds would risk losing control of Kirkuk; that the referendum would sow disunity within the Coalition against the Islamic State; and that the Kurds' allies would not come to their defence should things go pear-shaped.

Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. President Masoud Barzani thought this referendum gambit would give him and his party a much-needed electoral bump and bring Baghdad to the negotiating table. Instead it drew them to the battlefield.

Iraqi government forces and Hashd al-Shaabi militias pushed the Kurdish Peshmerga out of Kirkuk, lowered the Kurdish flag and deposed the KRG-appointed governor. Iraqi government forces not only took control of the oil fields in Kirkuk but oil fields held by the Peshmerga in Nineveh and Diyala as well, with little opposition from Kurdish forces. The Iraqi government, sensing its momentum, has launched a broader operation to retake all of the disputed territories in Kurdish hands. By all accounts, the referendum was a spectacular miscalculation that cost Kurdistan its oil-rich territories and sowed mistrust and disillusionment among the Kurds with their leaders.

This could be chalked up as yet another chapter in the Kurds' long history of bad timing and their perennial inability to overcome the bullying and entrenched geostrategic interests of their neighbours – despite the clear moral argument in sympathy with their right to independence.

But there is another component to this saga that is often overlooked. The Kurds have often been their own worst enemies when it comes to plotting a path for self-determination and independence. Yes, their friends have abandoned them, their enemies steadfast against them and their resources limited. But it has just as often been internal Kurdish infighting, betrayal and double-dealing that has gotten in their way.

Last week, the Kurds surrendered Kirkuk to Baghdad with little resistance. Though fears of protracted civil conflict between fierce Peshmerga fighters and central government forces abounded if Baghdad sent troops, residents of Kirkuk reported that government buildings and party headquarters were almost empty when Iraqi troops came in. Peshmerga fighters barely put up any resistance. According to one resident, 'they sold Kirkuk' – 'they' being the Kurdish leadership. 'This is shame on the Kurdish leaders and most of the Kurdish commanders in Kirkuk. They didn't fire one bullet from their weapons. They should defended Kirkuk, but they didn't', another resident said.

The Kurds lost Kirkuk ultimately not due to overwhelming force by Baghdad, but as a result of division and betrayal among their own leaders. Divisions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were growing in the lead-up to the referendum and it is reported that the PUK ordered its Peshmerga forces to stand down after striking a deal with Baghdad and Iran to give up Kirkuk in exchange for some unknown future concession.

This is not the first time PUK-KDP competition got in the way of Kurdish independence. During the 1990s, when northern Iraq was under a no-fly zone and the Kurds were out of reach of Saddam Hussein's government and military, the KDP and PUK proceeded to descend into a civil war instead of consolidating a unified administration. The purported PUK deal with Tehran and Baghdad last week has precedent, and not just within the PUK. During the Kurdish civil conflict in the 1990s, the KDP struck its own deal with Iran. In 1994 it negotiated an agreement that allowed it to conduct strikes against the PUK via Iranian territory. When the PUK later struck its own deal with Iran in 1996, the KDP then propositioned their archenemy Saddam Hussein to help them attack and drive out the PUK from Erbil. The KDP has held the Kurdish capital city ever since.

The 1998 Washington Agreement established formal peace between the two parties. Despite occasional tensions and a byzantine, inefficient governance structure of double ministries run by both PUK and KDP administration, the KRG plodded along. Opportunity struck again in the aftermath of the 2003 Gulf War. The Kurds played their hand skilfully and emerged as kingmakers in the new Iraqi government. The promptly consolidated and formalised their autonomy. It seemed as if the Kurds had learned the lessons from their painful past and would put aside animosity to work towards the greater good of a united and functioning KRG. And to a large extent they prevailed – in the period since 2003, the KRG has made economic, political and diplomatic gains.

But old habits die hard, as this latest episode demonstrates. Corruption and governance problems in Kurdistan remained rife. Kurds were frustrated with the chokehold the major parties had on Kurdish politics and civil society. It paved the way for a reformist Goran movement to gather strong support. But Goran did not have enough sway to break the KDP/PUK chain-link. Instead, the Goran Movement has splintered Iraqi politics further and has itself factionalised. After this latest episode, faith in the KRG leadership has deteriorated even further.

The Kurds may like to say they have no friends but the mountains, but their family has a history of letting them down too.

Kurdistan’s strategic overreach

There is no doubt that the Kurds have been unfairly dealt with as an ethno-linguistic group throughout modern history. They’re not alone in this, but they are probably in a different category as far as the West is concerned, as they have sometimes proven to be good allies. Their recent efforts in fighting Islamic State in Iraq (when Iraqi forces collapsed) and in Syria is the latest example. But that doesn’t mean the Kurds always make good decisions. The latest imbroglio is a good example.

Their efforts against Islamic State have earned the Kurds plaudits as a disciplined anti-Islamist ally, and have put them in a strong bargaining position with Damascus in determining the relationship between the Kurdish northeast and the central Syrian government when hostilities are concluded.

But the situation is complex, and external agents such as the US have explicitly said that their relationship is about defeating Islamic State. The US and the Kurds are tactical allies for sure, but they are not strategic partners. International realities dictate as much. The Kurdish groups are more militarily capable as a result of their relationship with Washington, but they should never have thought there was any sense of support for Kurdish independence. Middle Eastern borders are actually quite durable despite their artificiality, and sovereignty is a powerful motivator for states to maintain existing territorial boundaries.

Even for a group so accustomed to persevering in anticipation of a future Kurdish state, holding a provocative, quixotic and externally friendless referendum was an unnecessary risk for very little return. Including oil-rich Kirkuk as part of that referendum after it was effectively annexed by the Kurds in 2014 was particularly provocative.

The timing was also poor. Kurdish forces fought and died in buttressing the north when Iraqi government forces left the field of battle in a disorganised rabble in June 2014. They were supported by the West when things were tight and they took advantage of the circumstances to expand their territory. A smart operator would have used that leverage to negotiate some concessions to incrementally improve Kurdish political circumstances.

But the world has not stood still since June 2014, and Western support has assisted the Iraqi security forces to improve their technical and tactical capability. They have re-taken Mosul at the cost of nearly 1500 dead and over 5000 wounded. The idea of the Kurds running a referendum not recognised by either the Iraqi state or the international community was a red rag to a bull for a government that had just spent blood and treasure reasserting sovereignty over its second-largest city. Including Kirkuk in the referendum reinforced the confronting nature of the move.

But we must also be aware that the Kurds are not politically homogenous and the idea of the referendum was championed by Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). There are reports that the other Kurdish groups were uneasy about Barzani’s plan, and part of the reason Kirkuk was taken so easily by Iraqi forces lay with the fact that non-KDP elements may not have considered Barzani’s referendum worth dying for.

Of course, people are happy to externalise the blame for the current situation – the Iranians see it as an Israeli project, while some in the US see Iran's fingerprints on the assault against the Kurds. The reality is that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had little choice but to act when and as he did. He is leading a fractured, multiethnic, multi-sectarian federation recovering from an attempted Islamist takeover that has taken years to bring under control. Barzani threw the dice in thinking that his referendum would strengthen his personal position among the Kurds. The large turnout and good press may have provided a political sugar hit. But when none of your neighbours are happy about the conduct of the poll, and your closest external ally, the US, declares it illegitimate, the warning signs were there for all to see. 

The prospect of one US-supplied and trained sub-national group in conflict with a US-supplied and trained national military force is unusual, but not an example of confused US Middle East policy. One should remember that the decision to arm the Kurds was made by several countries (including Australia) as an immediate tactical necessity. The effort to support the Iraqi military (which also included Australia) was part of the national strategic effort. The outcome that pitted one group against another need never have occurred, and Washington had little to do with it. It had much more to do with the overreach of a Kurdish leader and the reaction of an Iraqi Prime Minister who could not afford to let such an unnecessarily provocative act pass.

After three years spent trying to reassert sovereignty within its borders, the Iraqi military has continued to reassert it after Barzani effectively dared it to do so. It will be interesting to see how this plays out among various Kurdish factions, once the enormity of what has befallen them sets in. As a Kurdish contact said to me via social media after he’d been up for 30 straight hours dealing with this train wreck: ‘We lost everything. A black day in our history.’

Syria: Five stages of grief (part 2)

Part 1 in this series described the changing mood in Syria towards acceptance of an eventual victory for the Assad regime. This post examines how the practicalities of re-establishing civil society are going to be worked out including, perhaps most importantly, determining who will pay.

The reconstruction bill is mind-boggling: the World bank estimates one-third of Syria's housing stock has been destroyed or damaged, as have half of its medical and education facilities, while the GDP loss amounts to US$226 billion. Reconstruction will take years, and if the Assad regime (or a variation of it) remains in power then the West will be faced with the tricky question of what, if anything, it does to assist. One line of argument is that such funding could be used to leverage political concessions or alter behaviour, succeeding where the backing of armed groups didn’t. But, the regime feels bullish about besting its opponents after years of war, and its inner working are so opaque that there is little prospect of Western (or Gulf) reconstruction money achieving much leverage. Best then not to donate to the reconstruction effort.  

But there is always economic opportunity after tragedy. Russia and Iran have ploughed both blood and treasure into Syria and will expect to be rewarded economically. Iran has already won contracts for five gas-fired power plants in Aleppo and is signed up to run a mobile phone network, a phosphate mine, and a parcel of 5000 hectares (around 50 square km) of agricultural land. Iran is keen to invest more in the Syrian reconstruction effort and there is little doubt that Tehran sees closer economic ties (particularly through companies linked to the Revolutionary Guards) as the perfect way to maintain influence in Syria after it eventually withdraws its too-obvious military presence when some kind peace agreement is reached.   

Russia, for its part, knows it is an internationally more acceptable foreign investor in Syria than Iran. Russia has had close relations with Syria for 50 years and nearly $20 billion in investment projects in the country pre-war. It will want to recoup those investments and add to its profit-making ventures. There are already reports that private Russian security firms are recovering Syrian economic assets for Damascus in order to get a cut of the subsequent profits. But Moscow has neither the inclination nor the ability to fund Syria’s reconstruction in toto. It has tried to put the onus on the Europeans to help out, though Russia's 'If-not-us-then-Iran' argument is not compelling in the West at the moment.

Meanwhile Damascus, aware of the perils of becoming too economically beholden to one country, has been trying to project an aura of back-to-normal economic activity to woo long-term investors willing to operate in high-risk environments. In August the Damascus International Trade Fair took place for the first time since 2011, although it was marred by a rocket or mortar attack that allegedly killed five people near the entrance to the fairground. Syria has also been busy resuscitating trade deals with India and China, both of whom are likely to be keen to get some return on pre-civil war investments. But even these seemingly ideal investors may present challenges. For example, China has been accused of importing significant numbers of Chinese workers for its infrastructure projects in Africa. This would not be the type of investment approach welcomed (or likely allowed) in Syria. 

Damascus has also indicated countries that supported (or at least didn’t actively oppose) the regime will have the inside running for reconstruction contracts. And there is certainly a sense that there is money to be made post-conflict, as indicated by activities at the port of Tripoli in neighbouring Lebanon, and the first inkling of Syria-focused investment interest in Jordan.

Reconstruction is likely to be slow, to favour those areas that remained with the regime, to be geared towards income-producing infrastructure, and to reward individuals within the regime or allied to it. Even if Assad wanted to rebuild the whole country in a deliberate manner he could not find the money, and in any case differing speeds of re-building will have a demonstration effect. If some parts of Syria remain devastated for years in the future as others prosper, it will cause Assad little grief.

One could argue that this will simply perpetuate the rancour that fuelled the uprising in the first place but Damascus is probably betting that, after years of conflict, national and international exhaustion will give Assad a free hand to deal with his opponents. Whatever occurs, no-one should assume that reconstruction in Syria will be a modern, Levantine version of the Marshall Plan.

War reporting 101: Check your sources

Earlier this year I wrote about the willingness of the news media to highlight claims of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces operating in Iraq and Syria, but their apparent unwillingness to critically examine their sources or to follow up when their claims have been denied, dismissed or proven wrong by the coalition. Of course, errors happen in war and civilians are killed. But some groups and individuals also claim civilians have been killed when they don't know the facts. And in other cases they use the media to promote claims they know to be false.

This issue has been the subject of some heated discussion in Foreign Policy. Airwars, a site that investigates and reports on alleged civilian casualties, published a scathing article criticising US acceptance of, and attitudes to, civilian casualties. In response, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve Stephen Townsend took to Foreign Policy to criticise advocacy groups and the media for a lack of intellectual rigour in assessing their sources before making claims of civilian casualties. He noted that, of the 270 allegations made by Airwars that had been assessed, 258 (more than 95%) had been found to be non-credible. 

The accuracy of sources is always incredibly difficult to determine in a conflict zone, and the coalition has the advantage of a range of intelligence products it can use to evaluate the appropriateness of the targeting and accuracy of civilian casualty claims. Advocacy groups, by contrast, normally rely on sourcing from other advocacy groups who may speak to people who claim to be witnesses. However, these groups may also have ideological biases that get in the way of due diligence or validation of reporting. They could even fabricate claims. The media needs to engage with such issues, and a laser-like focus on the strength of sources is the starting point.  

By way of example, a group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is often quoted in the media, and has won media awards for its citizen-journalism. But while it has certainly done some good reporting on ISIS-related issues it also has an obvious anti-Kurdish, anti-coalition (and some may argue pro-Islamist) bias. Even a quick examination of its website is revealing:

The western hostile (sic) of Muslims is no longer a secret, both left and right movements now share this...

the International Coalition warplanes have targeted Tabqa city with more than 25 raids led to the destruction of the only bakery in the city along with Maysaloon School and the field hospital not to mention targeting the residential areas of the city. Activists from Raqqa have...called it the 'Killer Coalition.'

Civilians are now between the criminal terrorists from a side and the International Coalition’s indiscriminate bombing from the other side. Liberating does not come by burning it and destroying it over its people...the International Coalition last campaign comes to add more killing to the endless death sequence.

An organisation that promotes such points of view may have some deficiencies as an objective source of information concerning coalition military action. Yet many media reports and other advocates base their assessments on the group's claims.

A Coalition spokesperson said 'all serious media' should not amplify claims without vetting sources and noted the Coalition held itself accountable through an 'an open and transparent process' to assess civilian casualties: 'Most of our critics do not conduct such detailed assessments and often rely on scant information, which frequently comes from single unreliable sources.The media has already vetted the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and it has been found wanting.'

While news media persist in reporting unverified claims of civilian casualties, they are far less inclined to report the results of subsequent investigations. For example, one investigation into the bombing of a building in a mosque complex refuted civilian casualty claims. Another investigation into the targeting of a school at Maysaloun in Syria concluded there was insufficient evidence to back reports civilians were injured.

Given the low credibility of claims by some advocacy groups, and the refutations supplied by coalition authorities with access to a wider range of sources, it is strange that news media has spent so much time reporting casualty claims later found to be spurious but paid such little attention to the sources of these claims.

The ABC has repeatedly cited Airwars and RBSS. These two groups are presented as authoritative sources, but I would argue they lack both objectivity and - because they don’t have access to intelligence used by coalition in the targeting and evaluation process - methodological rigour. A news story that critically examined the methodology and ideological orientation of activist media sources, and the way in which they seek to use news organisations to achieve profile or policy outcomes, would make for an interesting report. But such a story would require reporters to critically examine their own assumptions, and this isn’t something the media has been keen to do.

Kurdistan precarious but steadfast on eve of referendum

It is hard not to be sympathetic to the decades-long Kurdish struggle for independence and self-determination. The long-suffering Kurdish nation was summarily divvied up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a document that continues to vex the Middle East to this day) and the Treaty of Lausanne after World War I. Ever since, the dream of Kurdish statehood has been dashed, Kurdish culture and language the targets of liquidation, Kurdish people the target of massacre and genocide and Kurdish political considerations stifled by regional and international geopolitical interests. Ever since, Peshmerga fighters and astute Kurdish political leaders have been struggling for statehood.

All of the moral, emotional and democratic arguments for Kurdish national independence are there. They always will be. The referendum on Kurdish independence planned for today in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area in northern Iraq seems long overdue.

But (and there is always a but) when it comes to Kurdish independence, the geopolitics remain as treacherous as ever; the security situation as precarious as ever; and the economic viability of a new Kurdish state, amputated off of a hobbled Iraqi state, as fragile as ever. Even as the democratic arguments for Kurdish independence remain self-evident, so too do the daunting geopolitical risks. It is this conundrum that has constantly vexed the Kurdish people in their struggle for a nationhood.

Since the 2003 Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy and influence. They control their own borders, elect their own parliament, draft their own laws and maintain their own security. Without actually declaring a state, the KRG is a de facto one. It is a tribute to the savvy political tradecraft and strategic vision of Iraqi Kurdish leaders and a sign of Baghdad's dysfunction and weakness. Civil wars, the Islamic State and successive revolutions and coups have kept the region and the KRG's neighbours in a state of disoriented flux. The KRG has deftly exploited the situation to its advantage, never officially declaring statehood but creating facts on the ground and expanding their autonomy. So with an autonomous de facto state, a weak central government in Baghdad, and entrenched opposition to formal Kurdish statehood from international and regional interests, the question is: why now? Why hold a referendum at all?

Proponents of the referendum argue that the same old justifications – Turkey's seemingly intractable opposition, the lack of international support, the need to keep the territorial integrity of Iraq and the potential spillover effect – will always remain, and will not be removed by further delay or negotiations with the KRG's neighbours.

The Kurds could never rely on international support. Baghdad already withdrew budgetary support a few years ago when the KRG and the central government could not reach an agreement on sharing resource revenue. Baghdad has few cards to play. The KRG has been surrounded by security threats since its inception. Despite Turkey's warning of guaranteed retaliation, Turkey is also distracted by political and security problems. Syria is not much of state and can no longer mount serious opposition to the KRG. There will never be a perfect moment and the time is particularly ripe now, particularly off the back of a Peshmerga-assisted victory against Islamic State.

Besides, proponents argue, the referendum is not an official declaration of independence, but one step below. The referendum will only ask 'Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?'. It is an aspirational question, not an outright declaration. There is no official timeline attached and a 'Yes' vote won't trigger any immediate moves towards independence. All an affirmative vote would do is strengthen the KRG's hand in coming negotiations with Baghdad. With Iran's tightening grip on the rest of Iraq, proponents of the referendum argue that the KRG has little time to waste before Iran's growing influence makes favourable negotiations less likely. Kurdish Peshmerga also now have de facto (though controversial) control over Kirkuk, a city the Kurds call their Jerusalem. The analogy is far from perfect, but control over this resource-rich city is central to the KRG's push for independence.

Moreover, one cannot discount the strong desire for this current crop of KRG leadership, particularly President Masoud Barzani, to be the ones to deliver independence. They are leaders of a certain age who have literally been through the wars. They have personally experienced decades of military and personal struggle, and want to be the ones to deliver independence before they are overshadowed by the next generation of Kurds, who have largely grown up in an autonomous Kurdistan.

Then there are the local political dynamics. The KRG's many successes are often hailed in the media, but there is an underlying instability that this referendum aims to mask. Barzani's term ended two years ago but he remains in his position. He runs his section of the KRG like a tribal chieftain, not a democratically elected leader. Tensions been his KDP party and the PUK and Gorran are high. Opposition figures have been persecuted. The media and civil society have been stifled. Prior to this month, parliament hadn't met for two years, ever since the leader of the opposition was barred from entering. The KRG's budget remains fragile ever since Baghdad stopped payments. The KRG, and Barzani in particular, want to distract from the economic and political troubles and allegations of corruption leveled against KRG leadership. This referendum is a perfect way to do it.

There is also a pervasive sense that, despite the many perils of declaring independence, the Kurds will never be secure as part of Iraq. The chemical attacks of Halabja are seared into the national memory. Saddam's Arabisation policy destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and killed 100,000 people. Iraqi Kurds fear that the same chauvinistic tendencies remain.

But while the reward of statehood might be great, the risks are all too real and could quickly overshadow any victory a 'Yes' vote may bring. The UN Security Council, which failed to pass declarations against the Assad regime during six years of a brutal civil war, issued a unanimous statement expressing concern about the referendum, calling the vote destabilising. The US, the Kurds' strongest military ally, has come out against it. Iran, Turkey and Iraq announced on Friday that they would consider 'countermeasures' if the KRG goes through with the vote. Turkey has begun military exercises along the Turkey-KRG border. And the KRG is being guilt-tripped into calling off the referendum because it could affect ongoing operations and regional cooperation against Islamic State.

But the referendum is going ahead and a 'Yes' vote will be the likely outcome, despite the many Kurds who are sceptical of the timing. An affirmative vote won't result in immediate independence, but it will result in swift retaliation.

Nevertheless, the allure of Kurdish independence has overridden the practical implications and very real risks. The Kurds have a poetic saying that 'the Kurds have no friends but the mountains'. Since World War I, no one has agreed to Kurdish statehood, despite purported sympathies. The Kurds' allies have routinely abandoned them and their adversaries remain steadfast. The unrealistic and audacious vision of Kurdish statehood is reflected in those mountains: precarious but steadfast.



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