In the pursuit of independence, Iraq’s Kurds could vote themselves into a volatile position.
– The people of Iraqi Kurdistan will vote in a referendum on independence.
– Independence is unlikely to suppress the ongoing internal political tensions.
– The status of Disputed Territories, particularly Kirkuk, is intertwined with the referendum and will likely place the Kurds on a collision course with other regional minorities and Baghdad.
– Turkey and Iran—two of Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest trading partners—oppose a Kurdish state and are prepared to act to challenge Kurdish sovereignty.
BARZANI’S AMBITIONS: INDEPENDENCE OR POWER GRAB?
Despite strong objections from Baghdad, the President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani announced that on September 25, Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on independence.
KRG has operated with a strong degree of autonomy since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the First Gulf War. It maintains its own armed forces and manages oil production on territory under its administration. With its forces in effective control of significant parts of the Governorates of Kirkuk and Nineveh, KRG appears to be in a strong position vis-a-vis Baghdad.
The unilateral announcement of the referendum—which occurred without the involvement of KRG’s parliament—and the uncertainty around the post result process, has angered some in KRG opposition. KRG Parliament has not sat since October 2015 following a dispute between Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Gorran (Movement for Change) over the latter’s opposition to Barzani’s request to extend his Presidency. However, the decision to hold the referendum has the support of the main opposition group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and a number of small parties.
The objections of Gorran (and the Kurdistan Islamic Group) are not based on a policy against independence, but rather on a charge of KDP’s economic mismanagement, patrimonialism, corruption and increasing authoritarianism, and attempts to use the independence referendum as a political tool.
Barzani has scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections to follow the referendum on November 1. In the absence of discussions about reforms or power sharing, the elections will further strain the relationship between Barzani and the opposition.
KIRKUK AND THE DISPUTED TERRITORIES
It’s unclear how the September referendum will affect the fate of the Governorates of Kirkuk and Nineveh. These areas are part of the ‘Disputed Territories,’ which have large Kurdish populations but are not part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Following the fighting against IS, significant parts of Kirkuk as well as the Sinjar district of Nineveh are now under KRG control. KRG has made inconsistent statements about whether these areas will be included in the poll.
Absorbing Kirkuk has been a stated objective of KRG and is considered a cornerstone of the Kurdish nation building project in Iraq. Due to the drop in the price of oil, KRG has grown increasingly dependent on the export of Kirkuk oil, requiring increased volume to make up the difference caused by the lower price. The ongoing dispute between Baghdad and KRG over the latter’s unilateral export of oil—which Baghdad considers a national resource—will escalate with Kurdish independence, especially if Kirkuk also secedes.
The status of Disputed Territories is further complicated by policies of successive Iraqi governments to populate the area with Sunni Arabs and displace the Kurds. This culminated in Saddam’s 1988 Anfal Campaign and the deaths of thousands of Kurds and the deportation of many others. Following the defeat of Saddam, many Kurds returned, causing angst among the non-Kurdish populations. The Disputed Territories are also home to significant Turkmen and Assyrian populations as well as those identifying as Christians or Yazidis, who are generally sceptical of joining an independent Kurdistan.
Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution attempted to set a path for the resolution of the status of the Disputed Territories by mandating measures to reverse the effects of the Arabisation campaign. It also promised a referendum by 2007 on the question of whether the Disputed Territories should join Iraqi Kurdistan. No such referendum was held. Extending the referendum independence of Iraqi Kurdistan to the Disputed Territories will add to the uncertainty of their status, further upsetting the non-Kurdish populations.
Adding to the tensions is the high number of people displaced by the conflict with IS. Parts of the Disputed Territories are still affected by the fighting and terrorist attacks continue. Furthermore, Iraqi Kurdistan is home to around 250 000 Syrian refugees and 1.5 million internally displaces people from Iraq. How they will react to Kurdish independence, or how a future state would manage them, has yet to be addressed.
TURKEY AND IRAN: QUALIFIED SUPPORT FOR IRAQ
Both Turkey and Iran have expressed opposition to Iraqi Kurdistan declaring independence.
Turkey is a key regional backer of Barzani and KRG’s main trading partner, with total trade between the two estimated at $8 billion in 2013. While Turkey’s has spoken against the referendum, its objections are primarily directed at the inclusion of the Disputed Territories in the poll. Claiming to be a defender of Turkmen, Ankara wants to stop or at least control the absorption of Turkmen land into Kurdistan. Additionally, independence would allow the Kurds to further develop international relations that would, in time, reduce dependence on Turkey.
Turkish foreign policy is also heavily driven by opposition to Kurdish separatism at home, particularly the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has a presence in Sinjar, in the Nineveh Governorate. There, in 2014, the PKK came to the defence of the Yazidis attacked by IS, while KRG forces withdrew. Although KRG has returned to Sinjar, its absence resulted in the creation of a PKK affiliate, the Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units. Turkey is unlikely to limit its engagement against the PKK irrespective of Kurdish sovereignty.
Iran is KRG’s second largest trading partner with total trade between the two approaching $4 billion, but it has stronger ties to the main opposition PUK than the Barzani’s KDP. Like Turkey, Tehran fears Kurdish sovereignty will strengthen the resolve of its own Kurdish separatists and may limit its influence over Iraqi Kurds.
Along with its economic leverage, Iran is intent on asserting control over KRG by building dams over joint waterways. Following KRG’s announcement of the referendum in early July, Tehran cut the water flow from the Little Zab River, causing significant water supply problems on the Kurdish side.
Iran also exerts influence over a number of Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units made up of mostly Shiite militias. With the fighting against IS scaling down, the alliance between the militias and Kurdish Peshmerga appears to be breaking down along the Disputed Territories. This will likely erupt into some armed clashes as occurred in Tuz Khormato in April 2016. The September referendum will only exacerbate this situation allowing Iran to pressure KRG in areas crucial to Kurdish sovereignty.
While the September referendum will likely enhance Barzani’s political position, it will also put his government under unprecedented political, economic and possibly military pressure.