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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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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Kurds in Northern Iraq voted for independence date in a referendum on Tuesday. Somewhere between 72% and 92% of the voters said yes to autonomy and independence. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced the results as follows: Translator: Great people of Kurdistan, you did not allow anyone to break your will when you voted yes to independence and no to new Anfal chemical attack and massacre. We entered a new stage and this is a win for all of Kurdistan. SHARMINI PERIES: The results triggered an avalanche of responses from Baghdad, Iraq’s central government and nearly every state in the world opposed the Kurdish independence move, except for Israel. Turkey, Iran and Iraq have already stated that they are imposing some forms of sanctions against the Kurds in order to turn back the referendum results. Joining us now to discuss the latest in all of this is Sabah Alnasseri, he’s Associate Professor at York University in Toronto, today joining us from Qatar, where he’s traveling the region for research. Thank you so much. SABAH ALNASSERI: Good to be with you, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, give us an overview of first the timing of this referendum, why now? And the measure itself, the results from Tuesday and the implications this has on Kurdish independence. SABAH ALNASSERI: First of all, I would like to say so that my comments won’t be misunderstood. I am very sympathetic to the demands of the Kurdish people, that include independence, having their own state. Yet, I do think that the timing of the referendum is neither coincidence nor something that is unproblematic. All three, I’ll give all three reasons. The first reason, what I will term “Trump mess.” When Trump came to the region, mid-May, and tried to form a so-called Islamic Alliance against Iran, two days after that a crisis erupted in the Gulf Region between Qatar on one side, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt on the other side. On June 5th, these countries boycotted Qatar and imposed sanctions and so on. On June 8th, three days after that, Barzani, the President of the KRG, the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, announced on his Twitter, a la Trump, the date of the referendum, which is September 25th. This is the first thing. The second thing, the problem is, the major problem, I believe, is the question of legitimacy and the political crisis in Kurdistan itself. The reason for that is that since 2019, there was no parliamentary election in Kurdistan, no presidential election in Kurdistan. In 2013, the Kurdish Parliament, at that time, extended the term of Barzani for two years, August 2013 to 2015. Then, in 2015 again, the Kurdish Parliament, actually the GKB, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, of Barzani, so decided the so-called consultancy council, to extend the term Barzani for other two years. This request was illegal because it didn’t follow the standard procedure in the Kurdish Parliament. According to which, this request should be signed by the Speaker of the Parliament, who was Youssef Sadiq, one member of the Gorran or the movement for change in Kurdistan, the second largest block in the Parliament. De facto, actually, he was blocked from entering an appeal at that time, by the Peshmerga. So, there was a crisis that means the extension of Barzani’s Presidential term for two years from 2015 to 2017 is illegal. That’s why many opposing Kurds to the referendum, argue that this whole process is undemocratic, because there was no Parliament and the Parliament did not back up this referendum. It was unilaterally decided by Barzani and the reason for that, I believe, because otherwise if there no referendum, Presidential and Parliamentary election would have taken place. I am sure that Barzani would have lost the election, the Presidential election. In other words, against the will and the objection of the Kurdish parties in Kurdistan, like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, like the Gorran Movement for Change, like the Islamic groups who were for the independence were for the referendum, but not now. There was arguing. We can work for year or two, or even ten. The timing is not appropriate and they believe, and rightly so, that Barzani’s trying to hijack the Kurdish quotient to stay in power. To displace the question of Presidential and Parliamentary election. The third movement, I believe, why the timing is so problematic, is that there are so-called disputed areas between Kurdistan and the central government of Baghdad. These areas were occupied by the Peshmerga in the last three years, during the fight again ISIS. That means that Kurdistan extended its territory by almost 40% beyond the border of Kurdistan. Now, holding the referendum, in these areas, Barzani’s trying to put legitimate claim to this territory to be part of the Kurdish jurisdiction in the future for the state. He can see this very clearly and the question of the referendum, the question was not only if you agree with the independence of Kurdistan, but also, and it’s very problematic, he termed the disputed area as Kurdistani’s areas. That also, Kurdistani’s area be part of the Kurdish state. I think that was a provocation for the central government in Iraq and to the ethnic mix of this territories in Diyala and [inaudible 00:07:12] Mosul part of it, and [inaudible 00:07:14], and so on. There are three moments, internal moments, I think Barzani thought the Iraqi government moment is busy fighting ISIS, especially now in Hawijah and other cities and places in Iraq, the war is not done yet. In this sense, trying to have the referendum at this time, thinking that he could secure the extension of the Kurdish territory beyond its border and expand the space of the Kurdish States, but he underestimated the internal, regional, and international reaction to the referendum. SHARMINI PERIES: So then, Sabah, given all of these issues that you are raising with the timing of the referendum, yet 92%, according to “The Guardian”, came out and voted in favor of independence. What do you make of that? SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, first of all, I’m not sure if the 92% means the voters within Kurdistan itself, that being the provinces of Tuhok, Sulaimaniyah, Halabja, and Hapi or it include the so-called disputed territory, which are not exclusively Kurds. I’m not quite sure about that. The number that I had is within Kurdistan itself. It was something like 78% … between 72% and 78%. Regardless, I believe the absolute majority of the Kurds voted in this referendum, but the problem is, as I said, we’re talking only about the voters. Not the total number of the population in Kurdistan. As far as I know, the area of the Turkmen and other minorities, did not vote in this referendum. Just in case, is the provinces of Halabja, because Barzani was using, in his speech, the reason for the referendum and independence is the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988 by, at that time, the Ba’athists under Saddam Hussein. Which is weird, because actually, since 2003, the Kurds are allied with the Shiite parties in Baghdad and they designed the Iraqi Constitution with the Shiite political parties and they have the autonomies since 1991. To go back to the ’80s to justify the referendum it’s a bit overstretched. In any case, in Halabja Provinces, where this chemical genocidal attack of the Ba’athist happened that time, Halabja actually, in its majority, 53% to 54%, voted against the separation of Kurdistan’s [inaudible 00:10:05]. The other problem is that actually the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Sulaimani and the Gorran Movement and the Jamaat Islamiyya Islamic Group were against the referendum, but they had to go with Barzani because they feared some political marginalization after the referendum. They had to say yes. That’s why I would be very cautious to read too much into these numbers. SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, let’s turn to Baghdad. What is Baghdad’s reaction to the referendum and I imagine they’re not very happy with this. SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, the Iraqi Parliament, the Iraqi Government and the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, they all rejected the referendum, because it’s unconstitutional. They tried to actually engage in negotiation with Kurdistan, especially with Barzani, to postpone the referendum especially now that Iraq is in a war with ISIS, but all these talks failed. Barzani insisted on having the referendum on September 25th. The Iraqi Government, on the eve of the referendum, argued, and the Iraq Parliament too, that if Barzani goes ahead with the referendum and acts unconstitutionally, there will be no negotiation after the referendum on question, regarding, let’s say independence, etc. That all the territories in Kurdistan and northern Iraq will be under the jurisdiction of the central government, of the [inaudible 00:11:44] governments and that the [inaudible 00:11:46] government will impose sanctions. Air, land, and other sanctions on Kurdistan and it will also coordinate with Iran and Turkey and Syria to close the border to Kurdistan. The Iraqi Government asked the Kurdish Government to give them ultimatum until Friday to actually deliver the land borders of Kurdistan and the airport and so on to the [inaudible 00:12:17] government. If there’s an escalation here in the central/Kurdistan government regarding the closed referendum movement. At the same time, Iran and Turkey but also Syria, they opposed the referendum. They consider it unconstitutional and destabilizing not only in Iraq, but also to the whole region. SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah let’s take up the regional reaction to all of this in our next segment. SABAH ALNASSERI: Happy to join you again. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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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.