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  September 27, 2017

Kurdistan Independence Vote Faces Fierce Opposition (2/2)

Defying threats from Baghdad and nearly every other state in the region, Kurdistan overwhelmingly voted for independence--but it's unlikely to lead to formal statehood, and the timing of the vote could be a costly mistake, explains Sabah Alnasseri, a professor at York University
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Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.


SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome back. This is part two of my interview with Professor Sabah Alnasseri about the Kurdish question and the referendum that took place on Tuesday. Sabah Alnasseri is associate professor at York University in Toronto and today he joins us from Qatar where he's in the region doing some research. Thank you again for joining us, Sabah.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Great to be with you again, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, Turkey has a long history of representing Kurdish freedom and Iraq obviously doesn't want to lose territory, but why does Iran also oppose the Kurdish sovereignty issue?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, Iran has also Kurdish population at the northwest border of Iran, which is the border of Iraq and partly Turkey. Iran fears that the independence in Iraq and Kurdistan will empower the Kurds in Iran and will probably try to pursue the same state project that Iran think will be destabilizing to Iran and to the region. That's why. The second thing is, of course, Iran is generally an ally of the Iraqi Central Government, the Shiite parties, in their fight against Daesh and their collaboration in Syria, etc.

Of course, Iran would side with the Iraqi Central Government and put Iraqi Kurdistan under pressure. They already announced that they would close the border and especially they closed the airspace. No flights between Iran and Kurdistan, but they will also close the land border and the trade between Iran and Kurdistan.

This will put enormous pressure on Kurdistan from the side of Iran, but also, since Turkey also not only threatened with sanctions against Kurdistan, but also militarize the border with Kurdistan. There are currently joint Iraqi-Turkish maneuvers at the border between Turkey and Iraq/Kurdistan. We can see that an escalation of military conflict. It doesn't necessarily mean that there will be a war, but that Turkey or Iran ,or even the Iraqi Government will intervene militarily in Kurdistan. But, you know, sometimes a state could get out of control and then we have violent clashes in Kurdistan.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, Turkish President Erdoğan warned that he will stop any reconciliation process with Israel over Israeli support for Kurdish independence and of course, threatened Kurdistan with various sanctions and cutting off oil. Let's listen.

President Erdoğan: [Speaks in Turkish]

SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, Erdoğan clearly opposes the independence movement and any autonomous state in Kurdistan, but Israel is supporting the independence movement, against the wishes of US and US Policy towards Kurdistan. Why is Israel taking this position?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. I said before that Barzani had estimated the regional and international reaction to the referendum. One of the reason why is because Turkey had, in the last years, enormous investment in Kurdistan, over 10 billion dollars investment in Kurdistan. Turkey helped Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, build the oil pipeline that transports oil from Kurdistan to Turkey and also, Turkey collaborated with KDB, Barzani and their fight against the PKK, the Kurdish worker parties.

Barzani thought that Turkey wouldn't go so harsh against Kurdistan if it goes all the way with the referendum. It is clear that the security, the internal question, is priorities and not the economic one. That means Turkey feels that the Kurdish population in Turkey is the biggest segment of the Turkish people that the Kurdish people live in Turkey that would also pursue a state project. This move of Barzani will embolden power the state of PKK to wage and sustain the fight and struggle against the Turkish state, etc. For Turkey, now, the security issue should trump all over issues. That's something I think Barzani underestimated.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, so then why does Israel support the Kurdish independence movement?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Historically, that means from the 1960s up until 1975, Israel supported, actually, the father of Barzani, Mullah Mustafa Barzani with weapons. And these weapons went through Iran at that time. Iran and the Shah was an ally with Israel. They supported the Kurdish movement under Barzani, the father, against the Iraqi Central Government. This collaboration came to an end in 1975 when Iran, under the Shah at that time, signed a peace agreement with Iraq and stopped supporting the Kurdish movement in Kurdistan and supporting them with Israeli weapons against the Iraqi state.

But, I think, since the 1990s with the Kurdish autonomic status in Iraq since 1991 up until today, Israel...collaborated with Kurdistan, especially with Barzani. For instance, training the Peshmerga at that time.

Israel think that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would be an ally of Israel and that would help Israel to monitor Turkey, Iran, Iraq from within Iraq from within Kurdistan. It gives Israel a strategic depth in the region, something that Israel never dreamed of. At the same time, thinking that the Kurds are allies of the United States and hence will be the allies of Israel. That some sort of alliance will develop in Kurdistan/Iraq or independent Kurdistan that could wage or disrupt the wage of war or destabilize Iran.

Israel wishes to expand its region beyond the narrow Israel conclave and take it into the region, the middle of the region, against Iran.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, Barzani, the Peshmergas, and of course, the Kurds here altogether have been riding a big wave because of the successes in terms of fighting back the ISIS in the region. Now, they have received material and military support from the United States to be able to do this. Do you think with this referendum and the support by the Kurds for the independent state, the US will be rolling back their support for the Kurds?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. As I said, that's one of the things also Barzani also underestimated. Not only the regional, but also the international reaction to the referendum. The European Union, even the United States, ally of the Kurds and Iraq, hence is the case now, were against the referendum. Because of the timing, not necessarily, to be honest, here, even Abadi, the Minister President of Iraq, in April of this year, he was not against the referendum or the maybe the independence of Kurdistan. He was saying it's not the time to hold a referendum at this moment.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also argued the same, the Gorran argued the same and the international region states, whatever, were against the referendum at this stage because of the war against ISIS. And also, there's a crisis in the Gulf, let's not forget, and because especially the Trump Administration is focusing more on Iran and North Korea, so, here's nothing to move and having a new front in the region.

That means, one of the things that the Iraqi Government now is asking the European Union, the United States, Russia, and so on, is not to deliver weapons to the Peshmerga, to Kurdistan because it could be used against other minorities that are out in Turkmen, etc.

And there will be no collaboration with the Kurdistan Government without the approval of the Iraqi Central Government or it should go through the Iraqi Central Government. That means the next space of maneuver for Iraqi/Kurdistan is very narrow at the national, regional and international level. I don't think that any of the major international states would risk accepting the referendum on the dependence of Kurdistan at this stage where there are a lot of national and regional issues at stake that could lead to a war.

The problem is, or better, the only exit option out there for Barzani is actually to go back to the negotiating table with the Iraqi Central Government...just like in 2005 when the Kurds held at that time a referendum too, for the independence and the majority said yes. Nevertheless, they stayed in Iraq and they helped designed the constitution, which gave them a lot of rights within Iraq.

The only way is to negotiate with the Iraqi Government to postpone whatever the result of this referendum for a few years. To solve the political crisis, the fiscal crisis in Kurdistan with the Kurdish parties. Then, if these problems are resolved, the political legitimacy, the fiscal crisis, the crisis with the Central Government, if these crises are resolved and then you will hold a referendum, about the independence, etc., I think at that stage, Kurdistan will gain regional and international support, etc, but not now. I cannot imagine how any of the state's, regional or international, would risk recognizing an independent Kurdish state. I don't think so.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Sabah. I'll leave you for now, but I imagine we'll be coming back to discuss this further.


SHARMINI PERIES: As the negotiations with Baghdad is inevitable. I'm sure will be a part three to this discussion and I hope you can join us then. Thank you very much, Sabah.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Pleasure. Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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