The rise of regional powers in the Middle East
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence bid through last month’s referendum already seems a distant memory for the various different Iraqi Kurdish groups, particularly after Iraqi troops retook control of Kirkuk and Mosul - as well as the surrounding regions - from the Peshmerga.
One of the most significant problems with KRG President Masoud Barzani’s referendum initiative was always the fact that he failed to secure necessary unity among Kurdish groups before hitting the road for independence. Indeed, he even shut down the KRG Parliament and ignored any opposition voiced against his plans.
His refusal to quit the KRG presidency - despite his mandate officially ending in August 2015 - only fueled discontent among different Kurdish groups, particularly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Goran Movement. But Barzani’s ambition to become the founding leader of the free Kurdistan state in northern Iraq seems to have been derailed because of his single-minded attempt to turn the referendum into a kind of personal career matter.
Apart from the internal dimensions of the issue, rare coordination between Turkey, Iraq and Iran should also be seen as one of major causes stopping the KRG’s advance for independence. Just days before the Sept. 25 referendum in the KRG, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iraq and Iran came together in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings, issuing a joint declaration emphasizing their determination to not allow the political unity and territorial integrity of Iraq to be broken.
Both Turkey and Iran have sizeable Kurdish populations and are concerned that an independent state in northern Iraq would encourage their own Kurdish citizens to break away. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently paid a visit to Tehran while Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri has been in Ankara for talks. Back in August, the Iranian chief of general staff paid the country’s first ever top-level military visit to Turkey.
Similarly, Ankara and Baghdad have also launched an important dialogue process in recent months, breaking the ice between the two capitals. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu plans to visit Baghdad soon, accompanied by other ministers, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been invited to Ankara. All these visits would pave the way for deeper cooperation between the two countries, which would also have its impact on bilateral economic, trade and energy ties in the future.
However, after having been able to stop the Kurdish independence bid, both Ankara and Baghdad should continue to engage with the various Iraqi Kurdish groups, in order to avoid breeding future ethnic fault-lines in the wider region. Continued negotiations for the full implementation of Iraq’s federal constitution are the only way to keep Iraq united.
A good portion of responsibility lies on the shoulders of Iran. Iranian leaders should be aware that insisting on expansionist policies in the region will only lead to similar problems that the region has been witnessing over the past decade. Avoiding sectarian interventions has vital importance to maintaining the balance between Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad.
Regional powers have proven that they can take action for stability and peace in the region. This could also have positive reflections in Syria - if these powers abandon plotting against each other out of ethnic, political or sectarian motivations.
The Syrian theater is obviously far more complicated than that of Iraq, which is why these outside powers have to really be devoted to peace and stability in order to secure it. A planned future trilateral summit on the issue will present a good opportunity to turn this tactical cooperation over the KRG into a lasting one in Syria.