Iraq imposes air blockade on Kurds after independence plebiscite

The fight against ISIS in Iraq may be winding down, but the US has another headache brewing in its aftermath. Kurds in the autonomous northern region voted for independence in a plebiscite earlier this week in a 92/8 nailbiter of a finish. As CNN noted on Wednesday, the government in Baghdad protested the vote and pledged that it would have no impact on the federal integrity of the nation:


More than 92% of the roughly 3 million people who cast valid ballots on Monday voted “yes” to independence, according to official results announced by the Kurdish electoral commission on Wednesday.

The outcome represents a step towards independence for the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and areas it claims, and puts Kurdish authorities on a collision course with their counterparts in Baghdad. The poll took place despite vehement opposition from the Iraqi government, which described it as unconstitutional and has authorized use of force against Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, however, says the referendum will give it a mandate for talks to secede from Iraq, although Baghdad has already ruled out such talks.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded at the time that the Kurds transfer control of their airports to Baghdad, a demand that the Barzani regional government refused. Abadi escalated matters this morning by declaring a blockade on international flights into Kurd-controlled airports, an order that will have to be respected by airlines:

Iraq’s central government is to suspend international flights to and from the Kurdistan Region, as pressure mounts after Monday’s independence referendum.

Baghdad has said only domestic flights will be permitted from 18:00 (15:00 GMT) unless the Kurds hand over control of Irbil and Sulaimaniya airports.


Kurds warned that the ban would impact the fight against ISIS, and amounted to “collective punishment”:

The Kurdistan Regional Government warned in a statement on Thursday that any ban on international flights to Irbil and Sulaimaniya would be “completely illegal and unconstitutional” and amount to “collective punishment against the Kurds”.

Officials said the airports were already subject to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority and that any restrictions would affect the battle against so-called Islamic State (IS).

Humanitarian and military transports would still be allowed access to the Kurd-controlled airports, Baghdad clarified this morning. Concerns over the ISIS fight, which is still ongoing but less intense in the Kurdish areas, are therefore not as acute. However, it will hit their economy hard, and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan has made it even more difficult. Erdogan has some advice for Masoud Barzani as well:

Baghdad announced Thursday that Turkey — an indispensable trade partner to the region and once a key political ally — will now only deal with Iraq’s central government on oil sales. That could deprive the Kurdish region of more than 80 percent of its income. …

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Masoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish administration, to be content with the region’s current semi-autonomous status, enjoy its oil revenue and not drag it into an “adventure that is bound to end in chagrin.”

“Sit still! You are at the helm in northern Iraq, you have money, wealth and everything, you have oil,” Erdogan said Thursday, speaking at a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara.


Turkey has many reasons to block Kurdish independence efforts, of course. Erdogan has made no secret that he will consider it an attempt to foment rebellion and terrorism among Kurds in his own nation and in Syria, which would have a far greater impact on the ISIS fight. He’s already begun firing on YPG positions in Syria despite their alliance with the US against ISIS, and if the Kurds break with Baghdad, Erdogan might feel empowered to attack their positions in Iraq without fear of backlash from Abadi.

For more than a quarter-century, Kurds have aspired to independence. The US set them up for special protection after the first Gulf War, imposing a no-fly zone over its territory on the Saddam Hussein regime and encouraging their democratic development. The perhaps-fatal decision to pull out of Iraq entirely in 2011 allowed them-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set up a Shi’ite-exclusive government in Baghdad that put even more distance between the Kurds and the federal government. Now that they have defended their territory militarily — and liberated Iraqi territory for Baghdad while its army crumbled — Kurds understandably believe they can stand on their own.

Unfortunately, they can’t, at least not thus far. It’s a bad start for the Kurds, especially if they intend to seek international recognition for their independence. The Wall Street Journal notes that only three nations gained wide recognition for their independence over the last twenty years, and all had one thing in common:


Only three nations world-wide gained internationally recognized independence over the past two decades—East Timor, Montenegro and, in 2011, South Sudan. All of them did so with the assent of the countries to which they used to belong—and only Montenegro, NATO’s newest member, remains an unqualified success story. …

Over the years, Iraqi Kurds—in part because of their determination to fight Islamic State—assembled many allies around the world. Many of those tacitly accepted that, one day, Iraq’s Kurdistan—home to more than five million people—could also become a country in its own right.

However, Monday’s referendum, called while the fight against Islamic State remains unfinished, has squandered much of that goodwill. It also alienated most of the friends that Iraqi Kurds will need to make it on their own in a world increasingly averse to the creation of new states.

The Barzani government has room to maneuver. The plebiscite was non-binding, and they can use it as leverage for negotiations on territorial issues and oil revenue sharing. However, Barzani may have set himself a political trap at home by promising what cannot possibly be delivered without more war and destruction at this time, and possibly not even after that. The plebiscite has made him popular for now, but few elements in politics are as corrosive as disillusion. “Sit still” may have been good advice a couple of weeks ago.


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Ed Morrissey 12:01 AM on September 21, 2023