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Kurdish Referendum: Who, What and Why?

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Iraqi Kurds cast their votes in the Kurdish independence referendum in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, 25 September 2017. Photo AFP

The referendum on Kurdish independence on 25 September 2017 opened a new chapter in Kurdish hopes for their own state, nearly a century after the idea was first officially considered in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Yet beset by difficulties both at home and abroad, why has it been called now, and what chance does it have of actually bringing about a Kurdish state?

While a Kurdish state would be hailed as a victory by most Kurds, for President Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the vote offers a new lease on his political career. Since 2005, he has led the federated Kurdish provinces, shepherding his family into key government positions. His second term ended in 2013, although his presidency was extended for two years. However, since 2015 he has operated in a legal vacuum. If public opinion of him has been poisoned by his hold on power during the KRG’s recent economic woes, his move towards independence has surely boosted his public support and, if a break from Iraq is possible, he will be a likely candidate for the new state’s top job.

Economic mismanagement and corruption within the KRG have left the territory in a dire financial state. Years of poor leadership and the war against Islamic State (IS) have left the KRG with a more than $100 million monthly budget deficit and desperate for outside aid. If nothing else, the vote allows the KRG to deflect attention from its own dismal record in power, offering political leaders the chance to harangue Baghdad and foreign entities for its current woes. At the forefront of these is the KRG share of Iraq’s oil revenues. While much of this stems from oilfields now under Kurdish control, as a non-state entity, the KRG has been unable to sell this oil itself and for years it has been scrapping with Baghdad for what it considers its fair share. Low oil prices have exacerbated this pressure, building up a bed of discontent among Kurds that politicians are happy to direct outside the KRG. Nevertheless, in areas that support the PUK, the main political rival to Barzani’s KDP anger at KDP’s mismanagement may blossom into a vote against independence now. Aside from economic mismanagement, the ruling KDP government has also faced accusations of autocratic rule, at times displaying alarming disregard for the rule of law and human rights. These worries will surely play on the minds of some voting today.

Crucially, the Kurdish vote has no legal basis and was ruled illegal by a Baghdad court. Furthermore, it includes the city of Kirkuk and territory controlled by the Kurdish authorities since IS advanced in 2014, allowing the Kurdish Peshmerga to annex large areas of land that were abandoned by the Iraqi army.

Kirkuk poses a particularly troublesome question as it is home to a significant mix of Turkmen and Arab residents who have long feared a Kurdish takeover. Kirkuk’s council voted to join the referendum, in a vote boycotted by many minority politicians, leading Baghdad’s parliament to dismiss the Kurdish governor of the city. However, the tension is not limited to Kirkuk, with authority contested over a whole swathe of territory. Areas like Sinjar were badly affected by IS atrocities, and armed groups there have also clashed with Erbil authorities in the past year. With Shia militias loyal to Baghdad based within these disputed regions, where they have clashed with Peshmerga before, they could be a tinderbox if Erbil attempts formally to take control of this region. A top Kurdish diplomat has hinted that a second referendum could be held in the disputed territories, but this may not be enough to assuage the fears of those trapped between the wishes of Erbil and Baghdad.

Iraq

For Baghdad, the Kurdish referendum is a nightmare that has come at the worst of times. The fight against IS in Iraq is in its final throes, but it has ravaged the Iraqi economy and armed forces. After years of squabbling over oil revenues, relations between Erbil and Baghdad are at a low point, and there seems little likelihood of Baghdad enticing the KRG to side-line its independence hopes. Moreover, IS’ rise and the feeling of disenfranchisement among many Sunnis that aided it has posed renewed questions about the stability of the multi-ethnic composition of the states of today’s Middle East.

Baghdad relies on the revenues from the oil-rich northern provinces, especially from the fields around Kirkuk. The loss of these revenue streams, which would provide a healthy income to an independent Kurdistan, would complicate efforts to rebuild the predominantly Sunni regions that saw the bulk of the destruction in the anti-IS campaign. Given past Shia-Sunni tensions over how the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad allocates national spending, the loss of a cash flow that might help rebuild Sunni cities is a major concern.

For Turkey and Iran, both of which possess Kurdish-majority regions, any move towards Kurdish independence in Iraq increases the likelihood of calls for Kurdish self-rule in their own countries. Both states have ties with one of the two main political parties in the KRG and, as neighbours, have economic and military interest in what happens on their border. Turkey is the KRG’s main trading partner and has threatened economic and diplomatic sanctions if the KRG goes ahead with the referendum.

In the week before the vote, Turkish armed forces conducted one of the largest military exercises for years along the Iraqi border. The exercises in Silopi province involved large numbers of armoured vehicles and troops and was largely interpreted as a show of force to Erbil. The Habur border crossing in Turkey’s Silopi province is the KRG’s primary economic lifeline and the entry point of most of the territory’s much-needed imports. Turkish politicians have been warning against the referendum vote since it was announced, and two days before the referendum extended the Turkish armed forces’ mandate to operate in Iraq and Syria, raising the spectre of a Turkish military intervention. Iranian troops began similar exercises along the Iraqi border and on 23 September 2017, at Baghdad’s request, blocked flights to and from Erbil from its airspace, firmly signalling its opposition to the vote.

USA

President Donald Trump has made no secret of his sympathy for the Kurds, and many Kurds look to the United States (US) to support an independent Kurdistan. After all, the US led efforts to protect Kurds following Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Anfal campaign that left at least 50,000 dead. The Peshmerga were also supported by the US and European powers with military aid during their battles against IS, but as the focus of the campaign has shifted to Syria, US military support and promises of weapons have dwindled. Two successive White House administrations have championed the use of Kurdish forces as a proxy in the battles against IS, and many Kurds hoped that their sacrifices against the extremist group would be rewarded with independence. However, Washington is unwilling to jeopardize the Iraqi state that has emerged from the post-Saddam chaos over the past 14 years. For the US, backing Kurdish hopes for independence means incurring the wrath of all those in the region who consider it a threat. As the perceived Iranian hold on the Levant grows, the US will be keen to ensure it does not further alienate regional governments.

UN Security Council

In the week before the referendum, the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution condemning the Kurdish vote as a potentially destabilizing force in the region. All of the permanent powers on the council have significant ties to the Middle East. As Russia, the United Kingdom and China have all struggled with questions of secessionism domestically, it is little surprise that this body has come out against the referendum. While the UNSC is unlikely to encourage any action against the vote, its resolution on the issue is yet more evidence of the international community’s preference for the current status quo in the region.

Israel

Israel has been a lonely voice both regionally and internationally in expressing official support for the referendum. Israel has maintained discreet ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, viewing them as a possible non-Arab ally in the Middle East. However, Israeli support is something of a two-edged sword for Erbil. Israel is unpopular among Iraq’s Muslims and its support supposedly proves claims in the Turkish press that the vote is nothing more than an Israeli ploy to destabilize the region.

Kurds went to the polls in the hope of making history and beginning the march to an independent state in the eyes of the world. Yet that longed-for result is still far from certain. With such international opposition to their cause, legal disputes at home and the thorny issue of which territories the Kurds should be able to lay claim to, a Kurdish state may remain a pipe dream.

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