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What Did the Kurds Get Out of the Referendum?
What Did the Kurds Get Out of the Referendum?
How to Mitigate the Risks of Iraqi Kurdistan's Referendum
How to Mitigate the Risks of Iraqi Kurdistan's Referendum

What Did the Kurds Get Out of the Referendum?

Originally published in The Atlantic

The “yes” vote in the 25 September 2017 referendum will not deliver independence for Iraqi Kurds. Rather, it is designed merely to remind Iraqi leaders in Baghdad that it is the Kurds’ strong wish to split off from a country from which they have always felt alien.

On September 25th, the Kurds of Iraq indicated for the second time in 12 years that they wish to be free of the rest of the country. While the final results are not yet in, early indications are that it was an overwhelming victory for “yes.” That sentiment cannot come as a surprise. Feeling cheated out of a state of their own after the World War I, having fought central governments that suppressed their aspirations, and suffering grievously in the process, Kurds understandably see independence as the only viable escape from further such woe.

Yet for statehood to arise, a people’s right to self-determination and their desire to exercise it must be matched with possibility. On this score, the Kurds in Iraq, much less the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, still have a long journey ahead. A “yes” vote in the referendum will not deliver independence; it is designed merely to remind Iraqi leaders in Baghdad that it is the Kurds’ strong wish to split off from a country from which they have always felt alien—to put an end to a forced marriage that was loveless and abusive from the get-go.

Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, must have been keenly aware of the limits on Kurdish aspirations. He repeatedly called for staging a referendum in the past, but did not press the matter. This time he went all the way, extending the prospect of a strengthened hand in independence negotiations with Baghdad as a lure to Kurdish voters. He signally, and wisely, refrained from promising them that independence would be around the corner. The reason why he went ahead this time may lie in his concern that if and when the Islamic State is defeated, U.S. and European military support may dry up, along with the diplomatic leverage that comes with it. In other words, Barzani may believe that the window for Western backing of his independence bid may be closing soon.

The post-Ottoman borders remain sacrosanct for fear that a single change will trigger many more.

But the question is whether Barzani’s leverage vis-à-vis Baghdad will indeed be boosted by the chorus of “yes” voters when he proceeded against the wishes of not only his enemies, such as Iran, but also those of his friends Turkey, the United States, and European states. He might have earned international backing in his independence talks with Baghdad if he had settled for a deal with his Western allies to defer the referendum, as they had urged him to do. That chance now looks remote. Yet he must have been aware of this scenario as well, and prepared for it.

For a long time, Barzani made his bid for a referendum seem more like a bargaining strategy rather than an immutable promise to actually hold one. The time between the announcement of the vote and the event itself certainly saw intensive bargaining, as well as a good deal of threats and intimidation. Barzani took an uncompromising position, saying he would accept nothing less than guaranteed international support in negotiations with Baghdad leading to independence within a period of two years or so. But all that the United States and the Kurds’ other friends were willing to offer was their support for Kurdish leaders’ negotiations with Baghdad over the terms of their future relationship, not the terms of separation. The fact remains that no one, apart from the majority of Kurds themselves, as well as Israel (which needs the Kurds for its own geo-strategic considerations), supports Kurdish independence. The post-Ottoman borders remain sacrosanct for fear that a single change will trigger many more.

Yet Barzani can rightly argue that even if he fails to make tangible progress on statehood now, he still accomplished a great deal. He can assert that the Kurds have taken one step forward towards independence. Barzani himself, the son of Mustafa Barzani, the founder of the Kurdish national movement, can claim that he has gone further than his father, whose own effort failed dismally beyond building the movement that his son inherited. Masoud Barzani can now bequeath this legacy upon his own son, Masrour, who may complete the project of creating the Kurdish state should the regional balance of forces tilt in the Kurds’ favor.

Perhaps as importantly, Barzani bolstered his own tenuous domestic position as Kurdish president by mobilizing the popular “yes” vote and sowing disarray among the opposition. His detractors in Suleimaniya, in particular, who support Kurdish independence in principle, but oppose it if it delivers a Barzani-led state, told their supporters that they would be free to cast their vote. Barzani’s move also allowed the reopening of parliament, which he shuttered two years ago after the opposition refused to extend his tenure for another two years, without an election. The main opposition party, Gorran, decided to stay out, resulting in a more pliant parliament for Barzani.

Barzani bolstered his own tenuous domestic position as Kurdish president by mobilizing the popular “yes” vote and sowing disarray among the opposition.

Without Gorran providing a critical counterweight,Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) can strike a deal with its partner in rampant, party-based corruption, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to extend the life of parliament, and with it once again Barzani’s tenure as president without an election. Additional time is an advantage for the Kurds in a deeply unstable region constantly in flux. Perhaps two more years in power will also be enough for Barzani to perpetuate autocratic rule without major opposition. Beyond that, given the record so far, he may believe that another solution may present itself to extend it even further.

These gains are important, but they may still be undermined by Iraq, Iran, and Turkey in the coming days. They have made a series of threats to close the Kurdish region’s borders and airspace, and may make good on some of them. Because the Kurdish region is landlocked, it is vulnerable to economic embargoes. Yet none of these countries are overly worried that the Kurds will become independent anytime soon. They hold preponderant regional power, and know that they have the United States and Europe on their side regarding the independence issue. They could, however, all agree to a new round of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil over the terms of their mutual relationship and especially the boundary of the Kurdish entity, whatever its formal status. (It currently is a federal region in Iraq.)

The border question has bedeviled relations between Baghdad and Erbil since 2003 (and indeed has a much longer history); its non-resolution has fed frustrations that brought Barzani to the point of organizing a referendum. It concerns what are referred to in the Iraqi constitution (at the Kurds’ insistence) as the “disputed territories,” which for all practical purposes are territories to which the Kurds lay claim. They were subject to “Arabization” under Iraqi regimes from the 1960s onward (when the Kurdish national movement got underway inside Iraq under Mustafa Barzani and set its sights on Kirkuk), but this large area, stretching from the Iranian to the Syrian border and incorporating four of Iraq’s 18 provinces in whole or in part, historically has had an ethnically and religiously mixed population; it also happens to be rich in oil.

Even those Iraqi leaders who are sympathetic to the notion of Kurdish independence—many fought alongside the Kurds against Saddam Hussein—refuse to contemplate giving Kirkuk to the Kurds. In their view, a Kurdish state would have to exclude the oil-bearing areas, especially the super-giant Kirkuk oil field, in order to benefit from oil revenues and also to keep a Kurdish state weak. As for the Kurds, they want to annex the disputed territories to the Kurdish region (and future state) in order to have maximum economic leverage vis-à-vis its neighbors, given its landlocked status.

The KDP and PUK have controlled the Kirkuk oil fields (both the main one and some others) since the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the Islamic State in June 2014. Baghdad wants them back, and is threatening to retake them by force. The looming threat of armed conflict suggests that the time may be ripe for a mediated solution in which both sides share in Kirkuk’s administration and revenue.

Baghdad will not allow the Kurds to press for independence if their future state is meant to include Kirkuk.

This is far from a new idea. When an earlier effort to resolve the question of the disputed territories floundered on a combination of Baghdad’s inertia (it was strongly dysfunctional and buffeted by insurgency and sectarian war following the U.S. invasion) and the Kurdish parties’ unilateral moves to seize these areas, the United Nations began laying the foundation for a negotiated outcome. The result was a detailed district-by-district study of the administrative, legal, economic, and political history of the disputed territories. The implicit aim was to suggest on which side of the line a given district would most likely end up. For Kirkuk, the study proposed a power-sharing arrangement for an interim period, to be followed by a referendum, consistent with the constitution.

The UN’s final report was never published, only released to the main stakeholders. It remains a hugely impressive document and a critically important resource, however, one that, if updated (it was completed some eight years ago), could be the basis for renewed negotiations over the status of the disputed territories and, therefore, a fair demarcation of the Kurdish region.

Perhaps the current crisis will present a new opportunity to return to the negotiating table, if both sides approach it in good faith, or can be persuaded to do so by their respective international friends. What should be clear from the outset is that Baghdad will not allow the Kurds to press for independence if their future state is meant to include Kirkuk, and Barzani will accept nothing less. The only viable discussion, therefore, can only be about boundary demarcation and revenue sharing. The United States and Europe, with the support of Turkey and Iran, should press for a reinvigorated mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq focused singularly on this matter. The alternative can only be more of the same: a never-ending cycle of frustration, conflict, and suffering.

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on 15 September 2017. AFP/Safin Hamed

How to Mitigate the Risks of Iraqi Kurdistan's Referendum

A century-long quest for an independent Kurdistan has encouraged Iraqi Kurds to exploit Iraq’s ongoing crises and schedule a referendum on 25 September 2017. But the referendum is more a reflection of Iraq’s disorder than the Kurds’ readiness for statehood, and the vote’s outcome could exacerbate internal and regional tensions.

On 25 September, barring a last-minute postponement, the Iraqi Kurdistan region will hold an independence referendum. Voters will be asked whether they want “the Kurdistan region and the Kurdish areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state”. The referendum cannot turn Kurdistan into an independent state, regardless of turnout and outcome, because the vote is merely consultative and legally non-binding. Still, the situation presents serious risks, both if the referendum is held and if the price paid to delay it is too high.

On the ground, the day after the referendum likely will look very much like the day before. Iraqi Kurdistan’s legal status will not change, and Kurdish officials probably will retain their posts in the central government in Baghdad, including Iraqi President Fuad Masoum. Motivations for holding the referendum have more to do with internal Kurdish politics and longer-term relations with Baghdad than with immediate national Kurdish aspirations.

For those driving the referendum, namely the president of the Kurdistan region Masoud Barzani and his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the most immediate objective is not so much to move quickly toward a declaration of independence, but rather to shore up their own political fortunes within Iraqi Kurdistan and its chief city of Erbil. By adopting an assertive nationalist stance, they hope to silence dissent and force opponents to fall in line. Moreover, by extending the referendum to so-called “disputed territories”, a term that defines areas outside the Kurdistan region over which Baghdad and Erbil advance competing claims, the Kurdish leadership aims to strengthen its case for annexing these areas, provided they achieve a resounding yes-vote there.

[T]he referendum is less a reflection of steady, historical progress toward a Kurdish state than of the crises surrounding Iraq.

But political consequences of the vote, intended and unintended, nonetheless could be profound. Once the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is defeated, key aspects of Iraq’s power structure once more will be up for re-negotiation. This includes the question of de-centralisation of authority, the organisation and deployment of security forces, the internal balance of power within the Shiite majority and the state of U.S.-Iran competition for influence in the country. By calling the referendum, Barzani is tossing a stone into an already troubled pond.

Old Actors, New Realities

The impact already is visible. Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder Abadi, who thus far had urged accommodation with Erbil, has felt compelled to move toward a more hard-line position. His government has declared the referendum non-constitutional and, despite lacking the legal authority to do so, the Iraqi parliament voted to depose the governor of Kirkuk, a staunch referendum proponent from an area that is especially contested and volatile. Kurdish lawmakers walked out of the session, giving a taste of how the referendum issue may quickly lead to a breakdown of the political process. Abadi is under pressure from Shiite factions close to Iran who could well use the vote to undermine his leadership, posing as the real defenders of Iraqi unity against Kurdish claims. That may help them win over Sunnis living in the disputed areas, but it also could provoke clashes between the armed factions they control and the KDP peshmerga during or after the vote.

There are regional consequences too. Turkey and Iran, both neighbours of Iraqi Kurdistan, have voiced strong opposition to the referendum and warned of dire consequences. For now however, their actions do not seem to be truly aimed at preventing the vote. Ankara and Tehran appear confident that they possess sufficient leverage over leading figures in the KDP and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan from becoming a fully independent state, irrespective of the vote’s outcome. These Kurdish politicians rely on Turkey and Iran for support, and their dependency will only increase if the referendum provokes an escalation with Baghdad.

Turkey and Iran appear to be waiting to see the effects of the referendum on Iraqi and regional politics to become clearer before making more decisive moves. If, by pushing through the referendum despite strong international opposition, the KDP ends up increasingly isolated, Turkey may seek to exploit the vulnerability of its Kurdish partner to consolidate its foothold in Dohuk and the Ninewa plain, in north-western Iraq. This area is of strategic importance to Ankara because it borders eastern Syria, now dominated by a movement it regards as a dangerous foe, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade long insurgency against Ankara.

A postponement of the referendum would be the best case scenario, but not at any price.

For its part, Iran may see the referendum as an opportunity to strengthen its position in Baghdad and north-eastern Iraq. Deteriorating relations between Erbil and Baghdad almost certainly would strengthen the Iran-affiliated Shiite factions at Abadi’s and his government’s expense. Tehran also could seek to bolster its Iraqi allies’ influence and leverage over Sunni Arabs who live in the disputed territories and fear Kurdish encroachment, as well as over those PUK members who oppose KDP policies.

Postponement Scenarios

In this context, voices urging Barzani to at least postpone the vote have been loud, clear and eclectic. The assortment of countries includes the U.S., its Western allies, Turkey and Iran, as well as the UN. Barzani has responded by saying he could only delay the referendum if the Kurds were to receive international guarantees that independence negotiations with Baghdad will begin. This almost certainly is a bridge too far even for his closest Western partners. At present, talks are ongoing regarding whether Barzani might accept some lesser, vaguer version allowing him to walk back without losing face while avoiding the provocation of Baghdad.

A postponement of the referendum would be the best case scenario, but not at any price. In their desperation to halt the referendum, international actors – the U.S. prime among them – should tread carefully and avoid paying a price they may come to regret later. Some commitments make sense, such as support for immediate resumption of Erbil-Baghdad negotiations on the full range of issues that divide them. Others would be more fraught, such as any commitment affecting the status of Kirkuk or the disputed territories, or blind support for a referendum to be held by a certain date if talks with Baghdad fail, regardless of whether that referendum is to be conducted in Kirkuk or the disputed territories. In other words, kicking the can down the road makes sense, but not in any direction. Otherwise, the cost of postponement could well turn out to be heftier in the long run than the cost of the referendum itself.

If the referendum proceeds as planned, tensions are likely to rise along with the temptation to penalise Erbil.

Some guidelines should be followed under both scenarios of postponement or non- postponement. If the vote is delayed, the time gained should be used for active mediation by Iraq’s and the Kurds’ partners to de-escalate the situation and press Baghdad and Erbil to negotiate in good faith modifications to the legal framework governing their relations.

If the referendum proceeds as planned, tensions are likely to rise along with the temptation to penalise Erbil. But the smarter course for Baghdad, as well as regional and international actors, would be to downplay the event and virtually ignore it. Unless Barzani takes the next, far more perilous step of seeking to move unilaterally toward independence, the referendum’s value will diminish over time as nothing on the ground will change and nor will the status of the Kurdistan region. Handled properly as essentially a non-event, the referendum might not have overly damaging consequences.

Effective Self-reliance

For Kurds, this could well come as a bitter disappointment. Many read their history as a struggle following a linear path toward statehood. In reality, the national Kurdish struggle in Iraq has been less linear than uneven, a function of the status of the central state. Whenever the regime in Baghdad has been threatened, it has either brutally repressed its Kurdish peripheries or largely withdrawn from these areas, allowing Kurdish parties to perform basic governance and local security functions while resisting their attempts to gain full autonomy. This occurred after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War and after his ouster in 2003. Today’s developments reflect the weakening of the central state in the face of ISIS.

In this sense, the referendum is less a reflection of steady, historical progress toward a Kurdish state than of the crises surrounding Iraq. It is less a demonstration that a Kurdish state can stand on its own than a by-product of the Iraqi state’s current weakness and of a region in turmoil. Regardless of their future status, the priority for Iraqi Kurds should be to put their own house in order rather than seeking to exploit surrounding regional disorder, to which they would then inevitably be vulnerable.

In short, the Kurdish political parties that led the national struggle over the last century now face the challenge of transferring their power and authority to Kurdish institutions. The key lies in renewing the leadership of the two historical Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, to empower a new generation of Kurdish leaders who, their party affiliation aside, can prioritise nurturing a professional bureaucracy and security forces. By doing so, they could turn the Kurdish region into a more effective, self-reliant entity, which would serve them well regardless of any future dispensation on legal status. In the same spirit, they also should avoid triggering conflict with Baghdad and Iraq’s non-Kurdish communities. This applies especially to the question of the boundary separating the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. The status of the “disputed territories” must be negotiated as it cannot be imposed by either side. Equally important, Kurdish leaders should propose a vision for Iraqi Kurdistan which all political movements and non-Kurdish minorities alike can share.

A compact, formatted PDF of this commentary can be downloaded here.