Iraqi Kurdistan’s Independence Referendum and the West’s Middle East Strategy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 27 September 2017

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on 25 September, and voted overwhelmingly—with nearly 93% in favour—for independence. The comparison with Brexit might have been overworked by all sides, but there was a familiarity: while the result itself was not a shock, the fact of the referendum itself came as a surprise to many in what one might call the global elite, which lectured in that endearing way that had such success in deterring Brits a year ago. Then as now, the effect was, if anything, to stoke the bloody-mindedness of a population that had considerable qualms but had enough pride to repudiate being harangued in those accents. Still, as with Brexit, it wasn’t as if the naysayers didn’t have a case, and now comes the really difficult work.

For the Kurds, there are three main, interlinked challenges moving forward. First, the referendum itself is not an automatic declaration of independence and there is no infrastructure in place to enact independence. There is a non-zero possibility that in the aftermath this result gets whittled down because, to bring in the second challenge, the issues that the KRG and the central government would have to reach a settlement on are very difficult. And—which is the third challenge—there is strong external opposition to Kurdish independence from the neighbouring states and the wider international community (at least officially). Pressure will be exerted to find a face-saving way of keeping Iraq unified, and states like Iran have agents and assets within Iraq that can be mobilized to try to frustrate any moves to independence.


The KRG is struggling with an internal economic crisis and a political log-jam. KRG president Masud Barzani, whose term expired on 19 August 2015, has been maintained in office under various decrees. The opponents of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) maintain that this demonstrates a drift toward authoritarianism. Barzani and his allies counter that the KRG has been engaged in a war for its survival against the Islamic State (IS) and as soon as that challenge abated elections were organized, scheduled for November, in which Barzani will not seek another term. Meanwhile, the leading opposition group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is in turmoil after the incapacitation of its leader, Jalal Talabani, and the other parties like Gorran are too small to make much of an electoral impact. This is a concern for the KRG since negotiating secession is quite the task in any context, as has been proven in Britain, where a highly-developed state has found itself in something of a quandary trying to unwind from the European Union.

Actually getting to negotiations will be a struggle. The official position of the Iraqi government is that this referendum was illegitimate, and Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, doesn’t have the political footing to take any other position. Al-Abadi is under significant pressure from the strong ideological opposition in Arab Iraq to the division of the Iraqi state, which dovetails with those in the Iraqi political system acting at Iran’s behest. So proposals for the referendum result to be some kind of bargaining counter in a settlement that ultimately leaves Iraq unified are non-starters. Even if this political hurdle is overcome, Erbil and Baghdad have irreconcilable views. The ballot question was: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?” Those “Kurdistani areas” are contested territories along the internal border, such as areas of the Ninawa Plains and Kirkuk city, containing non-Kurdish populations that the KRG included in the referendum.

This maximalist interpretation of Kurdistan was acquired by territorial captures after 2003 and by seizures after IS’s rampage across central Iraq in 2014. What was defensible as an exigency measure to halt the jihadists’ march has since become a frontier the KRG is prepared to defend and that Baghdad is threatening to alter with force. Kirkuk is an especially volatile flashpoint: an Arab-Kurd faultline runs through it, exploited fully by IS, and there are vast reservoirs of oil that would assist the viability of the KRG and remove revenue from the Iraqi government.

Added to that, the rhetoric surrounding the referendum—from Barzani saying blood would be shed to maintain KRG rule in the mixed areas to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi equating Kurdish nationalism with racialism and Ba’thism—ensured that a formally advisory instrument took on a reality of its own that inflamed relations between Erbil and Baghdad, and between Erbil and the ethnic minority populations that at least want a say in whether they are annexed into Kurdistan. Reporters on the ground found that the enthusiasm displayed among Kurds was not in evidence in the Arab and Turkoman-majority areas of Kirkuk, there is simmering tension in the Sinjar area with a Yazidi population that holds the KRG responsible for permitting the genocide against them by IS, and the Assyrian Christians competing with the KRG for political influence around Mosul resent the KRG’s rule. The resentment of these minority populations has and will prove a useful tool for foreign actors to undermine the KRG.


One of the contenders the KRG faces is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the separatist group from Turkey that’s recognized as terrorist by many Western states, the European Union, and NATO. The PKK competes at an ideological level for the mantle of Kurdish nationalism and more practically it poses a challenge from its bases on the borders of the KRG. In Sinjar, the PKK has taken control, instrumentalizing the local Yazidis and forming them into a militia, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), which has clashed with KRG Peshmerga. On the other side of the border is the Rojava area in northeastern Syria that the PKK runs through a “political wing”, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and a “military wing”, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). All of these structures are officially under the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) banner that attempts to present the PKK’s activities as more localist and avoid the international terrorist designation, and they are all tightly controlled by PKK operatives.

PYD officials, who exert the least control in Rojava, such as Hediya Yusuf and Saleh Muslim, have given the most tepid possible public support to the KRG—saying that if the area is attacked the PKK would help defend it, something that is in their own self-interest since their headquarters is in the Qandil Mountains. The PKK’s de facto leader, Cemil Bayik, said: “The referendum is a democratic right, and no one should stand against it”. By contrast, Duran Kalkan, a Turkish citizen and ethnic Turk, a member of the executive council of the PKK who has been involved in the Rojava areas, condemned the referendum as “propaganda” intended to serve the “KDP agenda”. Kalkan further alleged that the referendum was only being held because “someone out there is telling KDP to do so”. This rhetorical ambiguity has been accompanied by hostility in action: the PKK launched a ruthless crackdown on pro-KRG Kurds in Syria who tried to publicly voice their support for the referendum.

Turkey is often regarded as the primary enemy of Kurdish independence because of the brutal war that has raged since the 1980s with the PKK. It is true that Turkey formally opposed this referendum and has made increasingly bellicose noises over the last forty-eight hours about it. Turkey has its malleable minority within the KRG, the Turkoman in Kirkuk, which also potentially provide the pretext for a larger intervention. But the likelihood is that Ankara’s policy toward the KRG—always complicated, one might say confused—will settle out in favour of continued positive relations.

In 1990, a Turkish official said Turkey would sooner accept Barzani as a Turkish MP than the head of an independent Kurdistan, and when the time came to finish with Saddam Husayn the Turks opposed the plan since it did not allow them to take charge of the areas that have now become the KRG. The Turks evolved considerably over subsequent years, however, finding the KRG a useful buffer against the furies of post-Saddam Iraq, and an important trading partner. It was Turkey that enabled the KRG to trade oil independent of Baghdad in the last few years, a decision Turkey now apparently regrets.

In the world after the “Arab Spring”, the KRG has been, with Qatar, one of Turkey’s few allies in the region. Turkey is unlikely to sacrifice this partnership, especially when the alternative creates openings for its rivals, namely Russia and Iran, that have quite enough leverage over Turkey already. If Turkey imposes sanctions on the KRG, Russia will fill the economic vacuum, and if Ankara succeeds in weakening the KDP politically, it will empower an Iran-friendly opposition and the PKK. The Iran-Russia condominium that controls so much of the Fertile Crescent already has the YPG/PKK to use against Turkey on the Syrian border; letting this alliance have a more powerful position on the Iraqi border would be folly.

There are also domestic political risks for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). On one hand, Erdogan risks being outflanked by nationalists who accuse AKP of being too soft on the Kurdish Question, but on the other hand this is an accusation grounded in the political fact that AKP has courted—and received—a significant share of the Kurdish vote. Too hard a line would alienate this Kurdish constituency that Erdogan will need for the 2019 presidential election.

Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria, of course, opposes KRG independence, but Asad has very little of his own independence left. Asad is a vassal of Iran, and the revolutionary government in Tehran stands as the “biggest loser” from this referendum, says Abdulla Hawez, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and frequent visitor to Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish who is currently studying a Master’s at King’s College London.

This was a “major setback, particularly for [the head of Iran’s expeditionary-terrorist branch, the Quds Force,] Qassem Sulayani, who though the KRG, just like the rest of Iraq, is under his firm control,” Hawez adds. Iran has significant leverage over the PUK and Sulaymani appeared near Mosul on Sunday, meeting with Christian militias run by his agents, who have been able to mobilize sections of the Christian population by playing on anti-KRG sentiment. Sulaymani thought he had “enough influence … to convince the KRG leadership to halt the referendum”, even at that late stage. The secular governance of the KRG can only irk the Iranian theocracy, Hawez notes, and the KRG’s orientation toward Turkey, the United States, and Israel—the only state to publicly support the referendum—makes it an inherent threat to the Iranian regime and a menace to Sulaymani’s project for regional dominance, possibly setting conditions for the Sunni areas of Iraq to detach themselves from Baghdad. That the referendum has already triggered large protests from Kurds in Iran only underlined how troublesome an independent KRG might be.

Iran is certainly the most likely source of outright conflict for an independent KRG. Before the day was out on Monday, Iran’s proxies had clashed with the Kurdish armed forces, and one of Tehran’s Iraqi militias, Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba—which the regime has been building the stature of at least since it announced an offshoot brigade intended to destroy Israel in March—had threatened to “liberate [i.e. invade the] disputed regions”. This comes after a rhetorical escalation over many years that has seen the Iranian-run Shi’a militias define the KRG as its “greatest problem”. Phillip Smyth, an Adjunct Fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has tracked Iran’s regional network of Shi’a militias for many years, pointed out that “there have been numerous Iran-backed Shia militia-Kurdish tensions since the beginning of the campaign to dislodge ISIS from its 2014 conquests.” “Right now, it’s at that low level,” Smyth noted, but “I think it has the capacity to become something worse.”


These dynamics have led to some positing the KRG as an instrument in stemming the Iranian tide in the region. Unfortunately, the sting of defeat on holding the referendum is likely to be erased in fairly short order, and Iran’s asymmetric meddling will be helpful in that endeavour. Already, despite the U.S. coming out against the KRG referendum—which helped shore-up Iraq’s more moderate prime minister and counter the anti-American conspiracy theories about the U.S. wanting to divide and weaken Iraq—the referendum still politically strengthened the hand of pro-Iranian forces in Baghdad. The importance of this can be doubted given the strength of that hand irrespective of the U.S. posture while the KRG has been a part of Iraq. The trend does not change when the picture is viewed more broadly.

If the U.S. can be convinced the KRG is important to holding down IS after it is “defeated”, then the crucial security support that would make the KRG viable might be forthcoming. For the KRG, this is mission accomplished on the narrow grounds of independence, though might come with a reduction in geostrategic significance. For the U.S.-led regional order, this would be a further symptom of the problem, namely the U.S. placing the counter-IS campaign at the centre of the universe. (The U.S., incredibly, made its stand against the referendum on the grounds it would damage the anti-IS operation—an especially ironic positions since, to the extent the U.S.’s anti-IS policy in Syria has had any coherence, it has laid the groundwork for a Kurdish state.)

This policy of substituting a tactical counterterrorism operation for strategy has left the U.S. on the brink of demolishing the Islamic State and paving the way for the Islamic Republic all across the northern Middle East. The Iranian axis has a near-contiguous imperium containing the leading cities of the region—Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut—plus an outpost of mischief in Sanaa. For the U.S. and its allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, bases and diplomatic representation in an independent KRG are not much of a consolation prize, as Nibras Kazimi put it. It does not leave the U.S. much of a platform to reclaim its leadership role and push back the Iranian revolution, an option that was in any case probably lost earlier this year when the U.S., after an initial hesitation, eschewed working with Turkey to clear IS from eastern Syria and went with the PKK. This will end with the Asad regime and Iran in control of the zone, albeit with severe problems, since the one guarantee of this outcome is the provision of sectarian fuel to the Islamic State that will keep it alive for many years to come.



Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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