History tells us that nationalist referendums, like those in Kurdistan and the UK, never end well

Kurdish leaders before the referendum and Brexiteers before the vote in 2016 could paint their critics as unpatriotic. Compromise becomes impossible even when the alternative is to disappear over a cliff edge

Patrick Cockburn
Friday 20 October 2017 16:09 BST
Iraq sends artillery into Kirkuk after taking it back from the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government
Iraq sends artillery into Kirkuk after taking it back from the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government

Two cities – Kirkuk and Raqqa – fall in two days and the political landscape of the Middle East is transformed. One of these events, the capture of Raqqa, the last urban stronghold of Isis, by the Syrian Kurds backed by US airpower, had been expected, but was no less important for that. The “caliphate” declared three years ago has been destroyed, though Isis will persist as a guerrilla and terrorist movement.

The capture of Kirkuk, the oil city which Kurds and Arabs have battled to control for 50 years, came last Monday and was completely unexpected. It not only changed the politics of Iraq, but of the region as a whole. Put briefly, the central government of Iraq is back in business as a power to a degree not seen since 1991 when Saddam Hussein was calamitously defeated by the US and its allies after he invaded Kuwait.

Kurdish dreams of establishing an independent state drawing on the oil wealth of Kirkuk have been extinguished, probably forever. The semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which might have been a beacon to the 25 million Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria, will see its powers squeezed by the government in Baghdad. Its leaders have a lot to answer for: their divisions, miscalculations and greed have capsized the heroic Kurdish struggle for self-determination stretching back over a century.

The final debacle for the Iraqi Kurdish leaders was farcical and tragic in equal measure: Isis held Mosul for nine months and Raqqa for four months; the Syrian Kurdish YPC held Kobani for four months against ferocious Isis assault; but the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga held Kirkuk, the city they claimed was central to their future, for just four hours when the Iraqi security forces occupied it on 16 October in the face of negligible resistance.

How this happened is a shameful story of arrogance and poor judgement on the part of all the KRG leaders. It is doubtful if they have learned anything useful from the disaster since they are today denouncing each other as traitors and claiming to be the victims of a deep-laid Iranian plot to stab them in the back or on an inexplicable American failure to rescue them in their hour of need.

The Iraqi Kurdish leaders have always been good at publicising their cause, but their weakness is that they themselves believe rather more of their own propaganda than is good for them. In future, the story of how President Masoud Barzani tried to secure his political fortunes by holding a referendum on Kurdish independence – thereby provoking a wave of Kurdish nationalism he could not control – will be the subject of PhDs on political ineptitude. Many political leaders suffer defeat because they fall victim to superior forces or unforeseen circumstances, but in the Iraqi Kurdish case, the result of their actions was predictable and avoidable.

Most of the story of what happened in northern Iraq last week is now well known, though there remains one important mystery. Masoud Barzani, who should have stood down as KRG president two years ago at the end of his term, stayed on and stopped the Kurdish parliament meeting. To re-establish his position as a Kurdish national leader and to wrong foot the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), he announced a referendum on Kurdish independence to be held on 25 September.

The plan was always a risky gamble: a small nation like the Kurds depends on keeping good relations with larger ones. In this case, the referendum alienated all its allies, including the US, Turkey and Iran. The central government in Baghdad faced a threat and an opportunity at the same time: by holding the referendum in territory disputed between Kurds and Arabs, Barzani was staking permanent claim to a large chunk of Iraq. The government in Baghdad, having just won its largest military victory ever by retaking Mosul, was not going to buckle and accept this, nor did it have any need to do so because the KRG had just spurned American and Turkish protection by holding the referendum. America promised an attractive compromise deal two days before the poll, but by then nationalist intoxication had reached a peak and Barzani felt he had no choice but to reject the US initiative.

Barzani’s KDP movement is now trying to blame the final disaster on the PUK, saying that it reached a treacherous side deal with Baghdad orchestrated by Iran. But this misses the point: the KDP could already see that it had no military option and could not fight successfully the reinvigorated Iraqi armed forces. In the event, neither the KDP nor the PUK put up significant resistance to the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga of both the Kurdish parties disappearing from the frontline at equal speed.

There are lessons here not just for the Kurds, but for nationalist movements everywhere in the world, including Europe. They will probably not be learned because a self-destructive aspect of nationalism is the belief by nationalists in each country that their own experiences and sense of victimhood are unique and do not have analogies anywhere else. Nationalists in former imperial countries like England and France are loath to see parallels between their own demand for self-determination with that of what used to be referred to as “Third World” countries.

The analogies are there all the same: Kurdish mental attitudes that led them to try to secede from Iraq are not so wholly different to those of the British trying to leave the EU. It should be hurriedly said that there is nothing wrong and everything right about any national community opting for self-determination and liberty. But, justifiable though such an aim may be, national independence comes accompanied by an over-strong sense of righteousness and superiority that blurs political realism: the British and Kurdish governments both started a major political adventure with a divided country behind them while their action angered and united their neighbours.

A further weakness of nationalist movements seeking independence from larger groupings is that that they promise far more than they can deliver. Self-determination is presented as a panacea which will cure all social and economic ills, though how this might happen is seldom spelled out. Again, Kurdish leaders before the referendum and Brexiteers before the vote in 2016 could paint their critics as unpatriotic. Even more damaging, compromise becomes impossible even when the alternative is to disappear over a cliff edge.

Britain is an immeasurably greater power than Kurdistan was ever likely to be, but the same miscalculation about the balance of power between them and their neighbours comes into play in both cases. It is telling how many conflicts and wars in European history have been started by those who were never likely to win them and had everything to lose from failing to do so. Appeals to national solidarity in pursuit of a common cause build up their own momentum and are difficult to put into reverse, making ultimate disaster inevitable.

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