After Kurdish voters in the functionally autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from the government in Baghdad, the Big Question was – what happens next?
The answer, it turns out, had been precisely predicted to Kurdish leaders, including President Massoud Barzani, who had vigorously led the independence campaign, by Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani. Any move towards Kurdish secession from Iraq will bring a forceful military reaction.
While this dire possibility had long been alive in Kurdish rumor mills, most voters were not made aware of how definitely it had been presented by a military commander whose powerful influence in Iraq has been universally acknowledged.
Had voters known about General Soleimani’s warnings, would the vote have been different? We’ll never know.
What happened was, the vote went forward, with a number of Kurds not taking part, but with a very sufficient majority approving separation, and days later, a combination of Iraqi government forces and Iranian-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces militia units struck, retaking all the territory Kurds had controlled since 2014, including the very valuable oil fields adjacent to the city of Kirkuk. At least 65 people have been reported killed, but 180,000 have been made refugees inside the Kurdish Region.
But it turns out there was an alternative to the military strike under consideration. Bafel Talibani, part of the rival clan and political party in opposition to the Barzani government, proposed a bloodless, symbolic handover of the biggest military base in the Kirkuk region and effective control over the contested territory to a coalition of Iraqi Federal Forces (without the PMF militiamen), Kurdish Peshmerga fighters loyal to the Talibani family and party, and US Special Forces fighters still in Iraq after helping drive the Islamic State out of Mosul.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has confirmed this offer was under active consideration, but under a time deadline. The deadline passed, apparently because the Barzani government refused to take the deal.
US officials counseled Al-Abadi to extend the deadline and give non-violence a better chance. Gen. Soleimani, speaking for Iran, pushed for military action and got his way, proving in Iraq at least, the use of force can be decisive.
Of course, there are still big issues to be settled between the Kurds and the Iraqis, including control of posts along the Iraqi border with Turkey and Syria, posts essential to the security of northern Iraq’s biggest oil pipeline to the markets in Europe and the rest of the world. Did Gen. Soleimani’s strike make a peaceful settlement of the pipeline crisis more likely, or will it pave the way for more fighting that could destroy lives and, possibly, the valuable pipeline?
In Spain, citizens in the northeastern province of Catalonia, egged on by a regional politician, Carles Puigdemont, defied Spanish law and the national government in Madrid to vote for secession. The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wasn’t satisfied to declare the vote illegal and use the courts to invalidate the vote, he sent in Federal police to disrupt the vote, close down polling places, beat and arrest voting citizens.
As in Kurdistan, the vote count was 90-some percent to secede, although again, many people wary of separation did not vote. When Puigdemont rushed to follow the vote by announcing immediate Catalan withdrawal from Spain, Rajoy again responded with police force, sending Puigedemont and several of his political partners fleeing to Belgium and hustling a dozen more off to prison.
Rajoy says on December 21, Catalans will vote for a new government minus the secessionist leaders. Will his resort to force clear a path to affirmation of reunion with Spain, or will angry Catalans vote for a new group of secessionists to spite Madrid?
The use of military force in what likes to think of itself as the First World is more popular as an off-shore option…as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia…war where you only see it on television rather than feel it threatening your family, or your neighborhood.
In Europe, even funding the military option is controversial, and using force in nearby or bordering areas is downright unpopular. So what does this mean for the strength and effectiveness of NATO, for resistance to Russian military aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine?
James Kirchick is a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe and Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. A widely published journalist, he is author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age” (Yale, 2017), a correspondent for The Daily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet. He is at work on his second book, a history of gay Washington, D.C., for Henry Holt.
Kirchick’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Ha’aretz, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Slate, The Weekly Standard, The American Interest, The Virginia Quarterly Review, World Affairs Journal, National Review and Commentary, among other publications. Around the world, his writing appears regularly in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s leading newspaper, and has also been published in Britain’s Prospect, New Statesman and Spectator, Italy’s Internazionale, Canada’s Globe & Mail, National Post, and The Walrus, the Czech Republic’s Lidove Noviny and The Australian.
Kirchick has previously worked for The New Republic, The New York Sun, the New York Daily News, and The Hill. A leading voice on American gay politics and international gay rights, he is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Journalist of the Year Award. He has been a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow in Berlin, a Hoover Institution Media Fellow and a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow, and is a professional member of the PEN American Center and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.