The Kurdistan Regional Government tried today to surrender in its dispute with Baghdad:
Therefore, in order to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations towards the people of Kurdistan and Iraq, we propose the following to the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi and world public opinion:
1. An immediate ceasefire and halt to all military operations in the Kurdistan Region.2. Freeze the results of the referendum conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan.3. Start an open dialogue between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Federal Government on the basis of the Constitution.
This is an effort to freeze the situation on the ground before Baghdad forces take back all the territory into which Kurdish forces have expanded since 2003, while conceding at least temporarily that the results of the independence referendum will not be implemented and that future dialogue has to be on the basis of the Iraqi constitution of 2005.
Will Baghdad accept? I hope so. There is really no point in going much further on the ground, especially in areas where Kurds are clearly in the majority. Doing so risks violence that would make future dialogue even more difficult than it already is. The concessions are real: Baghdad has wanted Erbil to renounce the results of the referendum and to agree to settle things on the basis of the constitution, which provides for referenda in disputed territories on whether they want to join the KRG or not.
Those referenda will now have to be conducted under Baghdad’s authority, not the KRG’s, in the retaken areas, including Kirkuk. While Erbil won’t like that, it does mean that any votes in favor the the KRG will be perceived, both in Baghdad and internationally, as valid. That is good for the KRG, not bad, even if it means some loss of territory. The KRG can try to minimize the losses by ensuring international supervision of the referenda.
The referenda haven’t been conducted before now because of disputes over who should be able to vote. Erbil has wanted Saddam Hussein’s importation of Arabs into Kurdish areas, especially Kirkuk, reversed before referenda are held. Baghdad will feel the same about Kurds who have moved into the disputed territories since 2003, and especially since 2014. The UN will need to help resolve these issues, which have proven intractable in the past.
Territory is not the only issue. Baghdad and Erbil need also to solve the hydrocarbon equation: who is entitled to do what with which oil and gas, and where the revenue goes. These issues are soluble: there is more than enough oil and gas to meet both Erbil’s and Baghdad’s needs. Failure to reach agreement has hindered its exploitation and corrupted governance in both capitals. Whatever is decided on the specifics, it is vital that future arrangements be transparent and verifiable. My guess is that will entail some sort of third party monitoring and guarantees.
The political status of Iraqi Kurdistan, that is whether it will remain part of Iraq or become independent, will not be at issue in this initial dialogue held under the constitution. But I don’t think it can be postponed forever. If Baghdad and Erbil can solve the territorial and hydrocarbon issues in the next several years, it will soon be time to consider whether Kurdistan can gain not only independence but sovereignty, which is determined by both its capacity to control its territory and recognition by other sovereign states. A deliberative and cooperative process to decide political status is likely to produce much better results for both Baghdad and Erbil than the unilateral one President Barzani attempted with the September referendum.
Surrender is never easy. But it is sometimes wise. Now Baghdad has to show its wisdom by accepting it gracefully and avoiding humiliation of the Kurds, which would only prolong a conflict that neither Erbil nor Baghdad can benefit from.