Masoud Barzani is in search of a dangerous independence policy. He has irresponsibly commenced a referendum process that might end up in a regional conflict. Despite calls from all actors involved with Iraq, he insistently defends the policy of creating a Kurdish-dominated state which would mean the disintegration of the country. He thinks that he has got himself a window of opportunity that can add to his long struggle for independence. But he is about to face another window, which promises more threats than opportunities.
American focus elsewhere
The U.S. repeatedly criticized Barzani for his insistence and warned against an unexpected escalation in the region. In fact, Washington is not against any Kurdish state politically. Since 2003, different U.S. governments have provided support for Barzani and his semi-autonomous area. According to the official declarations, Washington could support Barzani if this referendum was not brought in the form of a fait accompli under these terribly dangerous circumstances. Currently the U.S. government and bureaucrats in control of the U.S. operations in the region are focused solely on the problem of Daesh in general and cleaning up the city of Raqqa in particular. Therefore, any attempt of Barzani in Iraq to start a new process of instability is viewed as a distraction. For that reason, the U.S. does not support Barzani’s cause.
Iran, on the other side, has a number of particular concerns of its own. Tehran views the Iraqi central government as part of its natural sphere of influence. Iraq’s division, therefore, means a challenge for Iran. Barzani is never tested and never trusted. He has probably tried to reach the Iranian government in order to convince Tehran that his independence would not harm Iranian interests. However, no one expects that Iran could take these kinds of promises seriously. Tehran is so experienced as to fully appreciate the implications of creating a new state in the region. So even if Iran seems to have its own particular reasons to be against Barzani’s referendum, it actually shares American concerns to a great extent. It is also against any form of instability in the region. Considering that Iran has been fighting numerous real asymmetric wars in different countries, having to deal with a new crisis is not desirable for Iran, at least for now.
The Iraqi central government’s motives against the referendum are easier to understand. Baghdad rejects this referendum since it obviously means losing a large part of its territory. However, the government of Iraq should not be seen as an independent actor. One must always keep in mind that Iraq will certainly depend on Iranian or American support in fighting against Barzani and his referendum plans.
Turkey is the last but not least actor concerned with the instability produced by Barzani. In fact, for a long time Ankara has invested both economically and politically in order to alleviate any attempt by Barzani to spark off such a crisis. However, it seems that Barzani was willing to “jump out” of the Turkish support at the very first opportunity. Turkey is certainly concerned with the potentially destabilizing effects of this referendum, which can bring different types of threats. From the earliest days of the war in Iraq, Turkey supported the idea of Iraq’s territorial integrity, since any crisis in Iraq produces at least either migration flows or terrorist attacks, or both. Unfortunately, Turkey is currently concerned with a PYD presence in Syria. Any form of small states on Turkey’s southern borders can be seen as a source of national security threat for one. This is why Turkey views this referendum as another example of security threat.
Despite the pressure from its neighbors and “owners”, Barzani has rejected to step back. What can possibly explain this insistence? Why is he so adamant in the face of all these warnings? One can find a number of explanations or at least attempts to explain his insistence. They are specifically circulated around in the form of rumors even though most of them are illogical and conflicting narratives.
Barzani not conventional player
In one of those narratives, he is depicted as a romantic nationalist. Accordingly, he believes that he is the leader of the Kurdish people and wants to achieve independence in his own lifetime. This might look like a powerful motive but is not enough to explain his general tendency of political behavior. He is not a new, nor a legendary political actor. He and his family have been around for decades. And their history shows that Barzani and his family is not a bunch of ideologically-oriented, irrational and emotional players. They closely cooperated with their economic and political supporters, for example, whenever they thought them to be in the interest of the Barzani clan. So there must be other reasons for Barzani’s insistence.
Another narrative has it that Barzani is too weak to stand against the opposition movements. In order to survive politically in domestic affairs, he is using the referendum as a tool of garnering nationalist support. But this story is also hardly convincing. Barzani’s political power has never been based on popular support. He is the leader of the strongest clan among the Kurds. And he has shown that he can stay in power for more than two years even if elections are not held. Barzani has never been a political actor who reacts to the public opinion but is a leader who shapes it. For this reason, claiming that he is weak and cannot give up is not a satisfactory explanation, either.
It is argued in yet another narrative that he is insisting because he is so powerful that the neighboring countries cannot force him to step back. This explanation is also based on an invalid assumption. Barzani himself as a historical player in the region can easily see his power position in the regional distribution of capabilities. He believes that the U.S., Turkey, and Iran are major players with the power to limit his effectiveness. For that reason, he is in fact smart enough to know that there are certain conditions in which he can be stopped.
In short, he is neither so emotional nor so irrational, neither so bold nor so smart, neither so powerful nor so weak. He is the usual Barzani; just a political maverick playing a brinkmanship diplomacy since he believes that he has obtained an irresistible and historic window of opportunity for achieving his political goals. These goals have no limits but are only ranked by him in order of importance.
He thinks that the U.S. might suddenly stop supporting his cause one day. Barzani has never forgotten the fact that, historically speaking, Americans have always left the Kurdish people alone. So he tends to view American demands to delay the referendum simply as a diversion tactic. But he also knows that Americans are not going to directly intervene to stop him since they are too focused on Raqqa presently.
He also thinks that both Iran and Iraq are far from stopping his referendum. Iraq does not have the power to control its own territory, and Iran, just like the U.S., is far too preoccupied with other regions and other enemies.
According to Barzani, Turkey is the only actor who can directly intervene. For that reason, he and his agents are orchestrating such comprehensive and well-studied propaganda operations in Turkey. There are a number of people who seriously claim that Barzani is Turkey’s only friend. Even though no serious political actor finds Barzani’s propaganda machine convincing, he and his cohorts are still trying to set the agenda. But Ankara is taking the required steps one by one in order to exercise coercive power on Barzani.
Under these conditions, Barzani’s plan is to realize at least one of his ranked policy goals. He would certainly be more than happy if he could really gain independence. So this is his number one strategic goal. But he is realistic enough to see that even after the referendum, de facto independence might not be so easily gained. So the referendum results might be used for his second best option that he is planning for the coming future. A large percentage of “yes” votes could be used as a legitimizer for the coming years. His third goal is to, at least, get some openly declared promises, specifically from the U.S. With these three high-priority goals uppermost in his mind, he is acting like a crazy bus driver wanting to prove to others that he does not care about even his own survival.
On this destructive route, he has already passed the final check point. He got no promise from the U.S. He could not manipulate the Turkish government, nor could pacify Iran and Iraq. The chiefs of general staffs of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq met over the weekend to discuss operational alternatives. Things are getting serious. These three actors have made their strategies clear to Barzani. Now, it is time for them to show Barzani an exit strategy so he can take the last exit. Otherwise, he will be on his own. None of the territorial destabilizers after the end of the Cold War was able to find support for their attempts. They were all left alone at best or faced coalitions at worst. Barzani will not be an exception to that rule.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.