Analysis

Iraqi Kurds' Independence Referendum Has Become a Weapon for Regional Control

Saudi Arabia targets Turkey, with its restive Kurdish region, after the country declares its support for Qatar in the Gulf rift

Kurdish peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk, March 20, 2017.
AKO RASHEED/REUTERS

What has caused Saudis to open Twitter accounts and flood social media with calls for Kurdish independence? Have the Saudis suddenly seen the light and recognized oppressed people's right to self-determination? Not necessarily. After Turkey declared its support for Qatar and condemned the boycott by Saudi Arabia and its allies on allies of Turkey, the country itself became a Saudi target. For Turkey, a member of the "Sunni coalition" that has deviated from the Saudi dictate, there is no more painful blow than expressions of support for Kurdish independence.

But that is only the ripple made by the stone cast by the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, when, in consultation with his partners-rivals the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, he declared his intention to hold a referendum on the independence of the Kurdish region of Iraq on September 25.

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The first condemnations came from Turkey, whose prime minister, Binali Yildirim, called the declaration a “serious mistake.” Germany joined in by saying that it opposes unilateral steps. The Iraqi government expressed shock at the possibility that Kurdistan would secede from the Iraqi federation. Only the United States, as usual, has yet to formulate a clear response. Barzani’s spokesmen, first and foremost his son Masrour Barzani, who is secretary general of Kurdistan’s Regional Security Council, say that they heard no opposition to the idea of independence in their meetings with senior U.S. officials. However, it’s difficult to find a direct quote from any top American official openly favoring Kurdish independence.

This is not the first time that Barzani has made statements about his intention to hold a referendum on the region’s independence and his aspiration to establish an independent state. He gave similar indications in 2014 after the conquests of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and later, after the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias took over the eastern part of Mosul. But until last week no date had been agreed on for a referendum, and setting the date is perceived as more significant than past declarations. But even this decision must be scrutinized in the context of internal Kurdish politics, Kurdistan's tense relationship with the Iraqi government and Barzani’s desire to force Iraq’s hand over control of Kirkuk and other areas of northern Iraq of which the Kurds have taken control during the battle against ISIS.

Iraqi Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani at a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, April 20, 2017.
Azad Lashkari/REUTERS

Kirkuk’s status has been in dispute as far back as the end of the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The Kurds demanded that the oil city be annexed to Kurdistan based on its demographics, while the Iraqi government was not prepared to give it up since it was not part of the Kurdish autonomous region during Saddam’s time. According to the new Iraqi constitution, the fate of the city was to have been decided by a referendum, which has been on hold now for more than a decade. This dispute is only one component in a bundle of disagreements that has developed between the Iraqi government and the Kurds, such as the question of ownership of the oil fields in Kurdistan, the distribution of government jobs, the freeze on payments that the central government owes Kurdistan and the oil royalties that the region still owes the central government. Thus, while holding the referendum and declaring independence should not be considered the same thing, the declaration of the referendum can serve as leverage to persuade the central Iraqi government to grant concessions on various disputed issues.

The declaration also gives Kurdistan the ability to threaten the Iraqi government. Senior Kurdish officials say that according to the outcome of the referendum, the region will decide whether or not to take part in Iraqi general elections, which will be held in 2018. If the referendum decides that the region is on its way to independence, there would ostensibly be no reason for it to participate in such elections. That would mean that any Iraqi government established after the elections would lack full legitimacy and the Kurdish region, at least de facto, would cease being a federated state. Under such circumstances, Kurdistan would continue its sole control of the oil fields in the north of the country and hold onto Kirkuk by force.

The decision to hold a referendum is not divorced from the personal standing of Barzani, either. His term in office is set to end this year after it was extended (some say illegally) by two years in 2015. The moves toward the referendum and certainly the moves that follow it will give Barzani another extension of his term. This very much angers rival Kurdish parties over what they call the stealing of the government, and these parties are particularly angry over the undemocratic nature of the Kurdish administration under Barzani.

But beyond these considerations is the main question of whether an independent Kurdish state would be economically sustainable. The autonomous Kurdish region is locked between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, with no outlet to the sea, and all flights in or out of its air space require permission from at least one of those countries.

The fight against Kurdish independence was the main common denominator for those four countries, unifying their regional strategy even in times of dispute and tension. At the moment, there is no sign that this policy is about to change or that the Kurds will be able to muster enough international support to pressure these countries. And on top of all this there is the internal dispute between the Kurds in Syria, who have already declared an independent region that is neither connected nor dependent on Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kurdish leadership in Iraq. And despite the shared dream to establish an independent country, the Turkish Kurds are also at odds with Iraqi Kurds over the nature of their national aspirations: A sizable part of the Kurdish community in Turkey seeks equal rights and cultural minority status in Turkey rather than the establishment a state.