Why has Masoud Barzani gone down a very risky path such as the referendum in northern Iraq?
From the very beginning, I have thought that this was a bluff. The reason is that Barzani has been too confined in the region and raised the referendum card as a way out. Let me explain.
Everyone knows that Iran, the Baghdad administration, Talabani's Union of Kurdistan Patriots (KYB), Goran movement and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) / Democratic Union Party (PYD,) all of which have been underhandedly supported by Iran and Iraq, have long since been pressuring Barzani. The U.S. has also recently been involved in this. It cooperated with PYD and Baghdad and challenged Barzani under the pretext of Daesh. Whatever Barzani did, he could not escape this pressuring environment.
He thought that he was alone when Turkey, its only friend and biggest supporter, dealt with the coup.
Fueling the idea of an independent Kurdistan
Finally, he refueled the dream of an independent Kurdistan. This flame attracted all the attention, and this time, instead of Barzani's rule, the referendum was spoken of.
No one, with the exception of Israel, supported this referendum, namely the dream of an independent Kurdistan at the helm of Barzani. Moreover, as the date of the referendum approaches, reactions have increased and intensified.
An independent Kurdistan referendum, which is supported by neither its neighbors nor great states, is not real in terms of realpolitik. It has no credibility and chance of survival. That's why the referendum is a bluff. Eventually he would give up on the referendum, but, in return, he would gain something from the circles that are pressuring him.
What Barzani wants to achieve through this bluff
Barzani wants to achieve three things through this bluff.
1. Elimination of the problem of sharing the oil revenue with the Baghdad government and the removal of the block imposed on their budget.
2. Return of the discontinued budget of the Peshmerga and the presentation of it in the Iraqi army.
3. Clarification of the controversial Article 140 and of the status of settlements in and around Kirkuk.
If he can achieve all or one of them, he can postpone the referendum. For him, I think it's a wise move.
Turkey, Barzani's mentor and protector, recognized the bluff with well-tuned reactions and turned a blind eye to Barzani’s plan so Barzani could gain some relief. Iran, Iraq and the U.S., which wanted the referendum cancelled, also came to Turkey and asked for support. This in a sense, in fact, strengthened Turkey’s hand in regional balance.
Redline violated by Barzani
But Barzani made a mistake. He included Kirkuk in the referendum and violated Turkey’s redline, saying, "Kirkuk is the heart of Kurdistan." Turkey harshly reacted to this violation both in the eyes of public and diplomatically.
For this reason, Barzani digressed down a path that would put serious pressure on himself, as he was badly intertwined with the idea of an independent Kurdistan and the Kirkuk issue that’s like fire and gunpowder.
Now, he is starting to struggle to save himself from the situation which all neighbors and big states have shown reaction to. Because if he steps back without achieving anything, the opposition will come down on him and drown him in the waters of Arbil. If he does not step back, he will lose his only ally, Turkey. This time Baghdad and Iran will castigate him. This is the risk of missing the exit in politics. On the path you take, if you do not plan your exit well, if you cannot foresee your exit, you will lose your way.
Israeli vehicle in building where critical meeting was held
Before writing this article, I met with an official in Ankara who had a good command of the subject. Ankara is angry at Barzani who has overstepped the limit. The Kirkuk issue was such a dangerous move that it would spill over into domestic politics. There is also the possibility that Barzani, who keeps the pressure running high even one week before the referendum, might lose.
As I was writing, I called a colleague in Arbil. The conversation left me surprised. My friend was waiting in front of a building where Barzani’s KDP, Talabani’s KYB and Goran officials came together. My friend said: "A vehicle with Israeli and Kurdish flags passed me while I was talking to you." An interesting sight.
The purpose of this meeting was to cancel the referendum with a joint decision of all parties. Parliament would convene, make a unanimous decision and Barzani would not shoulder the sin of annulling the referendum on his own. If a decision is made, Parliament will announce it to the world in a few days.
Personally, I still believe that the referendum will be postponed. Even it is held, there is no legal obligation to carry it into effect. Therefore, Barzani will continue to use the declaration of independence as a trump card. But I do not know whether his tired 71-year-old body will endure such high tension.
One final question: Why has Israel gained the wrath of all Arab and Muslim countries by clearly showing that it supports independent Kurdistan? It usually does such things by playing its cards close to its chest.