On 25 September, millions of Iraqi Kurds voted in a controversial referendum for independence from Iraq. Organised by Kurdish Regional Government president Masoud Barzani, it was a non-binding vote and a show of power rather than an actual declaration of statehood, but it has nevertheless rattled both Iraq and its neighbours.
The international community had put pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders to stop the vote and even some otherwise pro-independence Kurds were wary of the idea, which they viewed as a ploy to buttress Barzani’s power, but the president successfully pressed his case. Summoning a series of huge flag-waving rallies, Barzani insisted the Kurds had to throw down the gauntlet while there was still time, because with the war on the so-called Islamic State winding down, their margin for manoeuvre would surely decrease.
Many found his reasoning persuasive, and others simply longed to put their name down for independence as a way to fulfil old dreams and stick it to old oppressors. Pitted against Iraqi Kurdistan’s stubborn, refractory brand of nationalism, the heavy-handed threats from Baghdad and regional capitals backfired completely. Barzani was hoisted on a wave of popular enthusiasm, and by referendum day the result was a foregone conclusion.
“You, the people of Kurdistan, you did not allow your will to be broken, and now, after your yes-vote that was a yes for independence and no to Anfal, chemical attacks, and another genocide, we have entered a new stage,” Barzani said after the referendum, confidently declaring a victory while votes were still being counted.
“Anfal” refers to an Iraqi army campaign in the late 1980s that involved genocidal mass killings of Kurds. Indeed, that’s the lens through which many (but not all) Iraqi Kurds seem to view Iraq: as an alien, hostile entity that will at best fail to function and at worst send death squads to their cities. They want out.
Fears of secession
Iraqi Arabs have a very different take on what just happened. Virtually every political party in Baghdad has condemned the vote as an unconstitutional secessionist act, accusing Kurdish leaders of abusing Arabs and minorities, and of trying to steal a northern oil wealth that rightfully belongs to all Iraqis.
And for a nation whose problem is division – Kurdish lands are scattered across Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq – Kurdistan has a curious talent for uniting foes abroad and at home.
Nearly every government in the neighbourhood, and far beyond, has lined up to condemn Kurdish separatism. Iraq, Turkey, and Iran are leading the charge, but support for Iraq’s territorial integrity has also been voiced by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Russia, and others; even Bashar al-Assad’s civil-war Syria has chimed in with condemnations of the referendum. The United States pronounced itself “deeply disappointed”, but said it would take no action to downgrade American-Kurdish relations.
Both before and after the vote, Kurdish authorities have tried to limit the international and Iraqi fallout by stressing its advisory nature and stating that further moves toward independence could require years of negotiations with Baghdad.
“Kurdish leaders have played their cards skilfully,” Omar Sheikhmus, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party and now a respected independent voice in Kurdish politics, tells IRIN.
He insists that Iraqi Kurdish leaders “have said all along that this will not mean independence the next day. We are willing to negotiate and we want a peaceful separation, a process that could take a few years.”
“They have conveyed the same message to the United Nations and to the United States, saying that it won’t affect our cooperation with Iraqi forces in the battle against the Islamic State.”
Ripple effects outside Iraq
It is unlikely, however, that Baghdad can be mollified as long as independence remains the ultimate goal. The same goes for neighbouring Iran, Turkey, and Syria, all of whom have a chilling record of discrimination and human rights abuse against their own Kurdish minorities.
Their fears of nationalist contagion aren’t unfounded. The Iraqi Kurdish mobilisation was instantly reflected outside Iraq, electrifying the large European-Kurdish diaspora and sending thousands of demonstrators onto the streets of Iranian cities like Sanandaj, Baneh, and Mahabad. The latter is a particularly symbolic location, having served as the capital of a short-lived Kurdish republic in 1946.
In Syrian Kurdistan, too, locals were reportedly jubilant. The Kurdish groups controlling that region are tightly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish group that does not formally seek independence and is hostile to the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Syrian Kurdish leaders have nevertheless said they will stand with their Iraqi Kurdish compatriots against any foreign threats.
“The excitement among Syrian and Turkish Kurds over the referendum shows that the PKK’s backers still like the idea of an independent state, regardless of what the official rhetoric says,” notes the Kurdish affairs analyst Aliza Marcus to IRIN.
“Because of this, the PKK has given grudging support to the Iraqi Kurdish referendum, understanding that outright opposition right now wouldn’t play well with its supporters.”
For Ankara and Damascus, this represents a long-term threat.
“Over time, if the Iraqi Kurds take new steps to begin the process of breaking away from Iraq, I’d expect that the PKK would start talking more about the possibility of independence in Turkey as well, and maybe Syria too, because moves towards independence for Kurds in Iraq will spur Kurds in Turkey and in Syria to wonder why they shouldn’t have the same,” says Marcus, author of a highly acclaimed book on the PKK.
“This of course, is one of the things that Iraqi Kurdistan's neighbours are worried about.”
A regional boycott?
If they are nervous, the countries on Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are showing it with plenty of tough talk but so far no force.
“We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” thundered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the day of the vote.
Rather than negotiating with Barzani (so far), al-Abadi has sent troops to conduct symbolic military drills with the Turkish army on Iraqi Kurdistan’s northern border and warned that he will order the closure of its airports and border gates.
Baghdad lacks physical control over these areas, but al-Abadi may have calculated that Iran and Turkey will comply by closing down traffic from their side of the border, if he provides them with a formal reason to act.
In theory, Iran should relish the reinforced Shia dominance of an Iraq deprived of its Kurdish political component.
But Tehran still vehemently opposes Kurdish secession from Iraq, seeing much to fear in it even apart from the knock-on effects among Iranian Kurds. Most significantly, Iranian leaders worry that an independent Kurdistan would serve as a vessel for American power-projection, even more than it already does.
What’s more, the KDP has longstanding low-key ties to Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, whose Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was virtually the only world leader to enthusiastically back the Kurdish bid for independence. Israel would of course jump at the opportunity to set up an embassy, a security presence, and some nice radar stations and airstrips in northern Iraq – a terrible prospect from Iran’s point of view.
It’s no surprise therefore that Iranian rhetoric on the referendum has been unkind. “Iran and Turkey and other regional countries won’t stand silent and will stand against this abhorrent deviation,” vowed Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, adding, “The Muslim nations will not allow the creation of a second Israel.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will visit Tehran in the coming week, is no less militant. After the vote, he threatened to destroy the Kurdish economy through boycotts, gleefully predicting starvation. “It will be over when we close the oil taps,” Erdogan warned, adding that the Kurds “will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.”
Barzani’s relations to Tehran and Bagdad have always been tense, but the outrage in Ankara is a new and troublesome development for the Kurdish president. Over the past decade, Erdogan’s Turkey has cultivated close political and economic relations with northern Iraq, partly in order to promote Barzani as an Ankara-friendly Kurdish alternative to the PKK. The KDP was even allowed to register an affiliate party in Turkey a few years ago. But now, Erdogan angrily accuses Barzani of “betrayal”.
Erdogan’s hawkish position “should not be so surprising”, Turkish Middle East expert Cengiz Çandar tells IRIN, adding that no amount of political and economic connectivity would be able to cushion the blow if Iraqi Kurds continue to move toward independence.
“Turkey is traditionally extremely allergic to any sort of Kurdish self-rule, including the notion of autonomy or federation,” Çandar explains, noting that this is a sentiment shared by both Erdogan’s nationalist-Islamist voter base and by Turkey’s formerly all-powerful “deep state” of military hardliners.
If Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara were to act in unison, there’s no doubt they could inflict tremendous damage on Iraqi Kurdistan without firing a single shot. Recent Russian-sponsored talks about the conflict in Syria – where Turkey opposes al-Assad, who is backed by Russia, Iran, and Iraq – appear to have facilitated discussions about their common Kurdish problem.
But although a joint boycott makes geographic sense, it might be hard to pull off in practice and even harder to sustain. All of these governments have a well-deserved reputation for diplomatic pig-headedness and, apart from a shared opposition to secession, their interests in Iraqi Kurdistan do not align except intermittently and coincidentally.
And while emotions are running high right now, pushing the Iraqi Kurds too far may come with its own costs. If isolated and impoverished, the Kurds would have less to lose than they currently do by proclaiming full independence, and a seriously destabilised northern Iraq is also not an attractive option to anyone.
So it’s possible this storm will simply pass, if the Kurds play their cards right and make no hasty moves toward statehood. As worrying as the referendum seems to Kurdistan’s neighbours, they can certainly live with a bit of nationalist posturing as long as it doesn’t evolve into a full-blown declaration of independence.
Next up: elections?
Though Barzani’s decision to put independence to his people was clearly a risky bet in terms of Kurdistan’s regional positioning, it has been a great success on the domestic scene, where parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for 1 November.
Barzani’s presidential mandate ended in 2015, and his continued refusal to step down has been protested by the PUK and other opposition parties as an outrageous, dictatorial breach of the constitution. A majority of the PUK leadership still signed on to the referendum, but two other parties, Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, long continued to protest the referendum on legal grounds. On the eve of the vote, however, both parties caved, announcing that their members were free to join in.
“It had been a dilemma for many of the critics,” says Sheikhmus, the former PUK founder. “They could not bring themselves to vote no to an independent Kurdistan, because it would put their whole history of struggle into question, when what they in fact oppose is Barzani's rule and the corruption of the KDP and the PUK.” According to unconfirmed figures provided to Sheikhmus by senior PUK contacts, only about a fifth of voters in the mostly anti-Barzani city of Sulaymaniyah voted no, though additional no votes were likely cast elsewhere by ethnic and religious minorities who reject Kurdish nationalism altogether.
In other words, Barzani’s bet seems to have paid off. He will now be able to move into the election campaign with a landslide referendum win at his back against an opposition in disarray, while waving the Kurdish sun-and-stripes flag in the face of hostile, hated foreigners. For a contested leader seeking to shore up his withering legitimacy, it’s exactly the place to be in – even if that place isn’t independent just yet.
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