September 25, 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a historic referendum asking voters whether they wanted Kurdistan and the disputed territories to become an independent state. Since it was a non-binding resolution, the election was more symbolic than anything else. Now that it’s over there is the important questions of what’s next. Kurdish officials have said they want to begin negotiations with Baghdad about seceding. There are several problems with that. First, there is no unity within the Kurdish parties on how to proceed. Second, the Kurdish authorities have angered the Arab parties so much they are uninterested in any talks, and are seeking retaliation instead. Third, the referendum didn’t have the backing of the international community to legitimize it because of the ad hoc way it was put together. Finally, the Kurds will have to gain the backing of the regional countries to become independent as well. All together that puts a daunting set of barriers for the KRG to move forward on its dreams.
The referendum was the idea of President Massoud Barzani who pushed it through by force of will, which alienated as many Kurdish parties as it gained the support of. At the end of 2016, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) brought up a vote on independence after an earlier call for one at the start of the year never came through. In January 2017, President Barzani announced that a referendum would be held by the end of the year. This was done without consulting with any of the other ruling Kurdish parties. In the end, the Kurdistan Islamic Union was the only one to fully throw in with the vote, Gorran (Change) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group were against it, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) worked with the KDP, but faced deep internal divisions over it. The plan was to push forward with the referendum hoping that the other parties would be forced to join in or face public humiliation for standing in the way of independence. That poses the question of whether future moves will be conducted the same way. Will President Barzani make decisions by himself, and try to carry the other parties along with him, which could increase the opposition to his actions? There’s also the issue of the legality of his positions since his term ended two years ago and he has refused to step down.
Another problem is that the KRG needs to negotiate its independence with Baghdad, which it just derided as untrustworthy and genocidal. From the start, President Barzani stated that the referendum was only the first step in a long process that would require talks with the central government. At the same time, Barzani continuously attacked Baghdad. He compared Premier Nouri al-Maliki cutting off the budget to the KRG as being like the Anfal campaign when Saddam Hussein pushed the KDP and PUK out of the region by destroying hundreds of villages using tanks and poison gas, which led to the death and imprisonment of thousands. He would later add other abuses Kurds faced at the hands of the central government declaring that partnership with Baghdad was over. The day of the election, Barzani said that Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s threats against the region were like the Baathist Regional Command Council. He added that national politicians routinely violated the constitution and the national unity coalition. Campaign’s often lead to heated rhetoric to rally up the base, and this was no exception. The dilemma that it poses is that the Kurds now want to enter into talks with these same authorities that were just called modern day Baathists who never follow the law.
The Arab parties found a rare period of unity against the referendum, which will also mean that Baghdad will have no interest in dealing with Kurdish independence any time soon. PM Abadi picked up his verbal jabs at the KRG as the election neared. He called it unconstitutional, and refused to accept its results. Everyone from Ammar Hakim, whose family had historically close ties to the KDP and PUK since Saddam’s time, to Badr’s Hadi Amiri and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq of the pro-Iran Hashd factions to Vice Presidents Osama Nujafi of Mutahidun and others all came out against the Kurds. There was also talk in parliament to remove President Fuad Masum, and the legislature voted to dismiss Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, and passed resolutions for the KRG to turn over all its border posts including airports, and to deploy troops to the disputed areas that the Kurds claim. Iraqi politicians can rarely agree upon anything, so this was a rare moment of unity amongst many of Iraq’s parties. With these types of statements and actions there is no way any of them can even mention independence for the Kurds right now. With elections scheduled for next year this could fester for months.
Because President Barzani came up with the referendum in an ad hoc manner there was no international recognition of it. Back in May, the KRG told the United Nations’ Security Council that it would be holding an independence vote, and one KDP official claimed that the body would oversee the vote. The U.N. quickly corrected that saying that there would be no observers unless Baghdad asked for it. That was because the Iraqi constitution does not allow secession. In September, the U.S. U.N., and British officials met with President Barzani offering to hold the referendum under the auspicious of the U.N. if it was postponed for two years. There weren’t enough carrots and sticks in the meeting however, to push Barzani to accept the deal. Again, the President was thinking short-term rather than taking the long view. The vote was as much about increasing his own personal standing as sending a message about the Kurds’ desires and aspirations. Getting international backing would have taken time and the cooperation of Baghdad, which would have been difficult. Barzani didn’t want to go that route as his standing might have been weaker by then.
Finally, the KRG always claims their independence has international backing, but that idea was soundly rejected, which again will pose barriers to achieving its goal. European and regional countries all came out against the referendum. The U.S. State Department stood by its stance to support the unity of Iraq, and claimed that the vote would distract from the war against the Islamic State. Germany, Russia, and England all questioned the election. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani paid several visits to the region lobbying against the referendum. Turkey said that the Kurds were being irresponsible, closed its border to the KRG, announced joint military drills with the Iraqi forces along the border with Kurdistan, and threatened to cut off the Kurds’ pipeline that travels through its territory. Syria said it wouldn’t recognize the referendum either. Much of this was bluster over substance. Ankara for example, has a political alliance with the KDP, and backed the Kurds building its pipeline in defiance of the central government. It never accepted Kurdish independence, but at the same time, it was behind the KRG moving away from Baghdad when it suited Erdogan’s interests. Turkey, Iran and Syria are all afraid of the demonstration affect the Iraqi Kurds might have on their own Kurdish populations. The KRG’s dreams will need their consent as well because it is a land locked area. It just found out how far away it is from achieving that as well as getting other nations’ support.
Holding the referendum was quite an achievement for the KRG. That will be the easiest step in the long process of establishing itself as a nation-state. Holding the vote deeply angered the central government, and the regional countries. The Kurds can’t expect the raised tensions to suddenly dissipate allowing them to enter into negotiations over independence. In fact, the heated environment will likely last between the central and regional authorities for the foreseeable future. Arab parties will probably use the Kurds as villains in their election campaigns next year. There could be more retaliation by the parliament as well with things like the budget and expelling Kurdish officials from office. That will put Irbil on the defense, forcing them to reply in kind. Getting any of the regional countries to change their minds will be just as difficult. Despite spending millions on lobbying the U.S. and Europe the Kurds have not been able to shake any of those government’s insistence upon the unity of Iraq as well. That means achieving independence will be more drawn out then any Kurds might be thinking right now being caught up in the euphoria of their accomplishment.
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