...The opportunity for Kurdish independence comes down to Kurdistan’s negotiating leverage vis-ŕ-vis the central government. It’s not a coincidence that the referendum announcement came in June, just as the battle of Mosul was winding down and the war against Islamic State was all but won...
Iraqi Kurdistan will hold an independence referendum on September 25. The vote is unofficial – it will not trigger automatic independence – but it’s expected to produce official separation negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad. Should these negotiations fail to produce any agreement, Iraqi Kurdistan would unilaterally declare independence and redraw the map of the Middle East.
An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is a controversial proposition for several players in and around the MENA region. For one, despite their intra-Kurdish political rivalries, it potentially strengthens the hand of stateless Kurdish populations in Iran, Syria and Turkey. Then there’s the matter of what it would do to Iraq, a state that has already been pushed to the limits in its war against Islamic State. The departure of Iraq’s Kurds, which represent around 20% of the country’s population, would disrupt the country’s sectarian balance and would make the majority Shiite population loom larger over Iraq’s Sunnis. It would also have major economic implications, the full extent of which would be determined by whether oil-rich Kirkuk leaves with them.
For Masoud Barzani, there’s no time like the present. It’s no secret that Iraq’s Kurds have long sought formal independence. After years of wars, displacements, and atrocities at the hands of Saddam Hussein, followed by a protracted conflict with Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis under the flag of Islamic State, independence has become a question of when, not if.
That time has now arrived according to Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The opportunity for Kurdish independence comes down to Kurdistan’s negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the central government. It’s not a coincidence that the referendum announcement came in June, just as the battle of Mosul was winding down and the war against Islamic State was all but won. The Kurds had helped Baghdad see out its war with Islamic State and resisted breaking away while the conflict was raging country-wide. Yet at that moment, the central government had still not had any chance to recover from the civil war; it was at its weakest and thus unwilling and potentially unable to fight for its claim should Erbil unilaterally declare independence.
It’s unclear what exactly the process will be going forward. After the expected ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, Kurdistan will seek negotiations with Baghdad. Yet talks have already broken down several times between the two sides, and that’s just on the matter of holding the referendum – Baghdad views the vote as unconstitutional and has instead held out the possibility of sweetening the revenue-sharing deal between the central government and the Kurdish region.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely at this point that independence will be achieved at the negotiating table alone. This doesn’t necessarily mean conflict is inevitable; it’s also possible that Baghdad simply refuses to sanction Kurdistan’s independence in the hope of revisiting the matter sometime in the near future, when it has had a chance to rebuild and recover from the war with Islamic State.
Kirkuk at the center of any independence conflict. The million-dollar question in Kurdish independence is the future status of the northern city of Kirkuk, and this is the issue that could bring the two sides into armed conflict. Kirkuk is rich in oil; it can produce around 1 million barrels a day when pumping at full capacity. This oil production used to be co-developed by the central government and Iraqi Kurdistan, but after the civil war broke out in 2014, Iraqi armed forces fled the area and the city and the nearby oil fields came under Erbil’s control. Kirkuk has remained a de facto if not de jure part of Iraqi Kurdistan ever since.
Kirkuk has always been a mixed city in terms of ethnicity, though Kurds have seen their majority status erode under Saddam Hussein’s ruthless Arabization policies. Hussein wanted to establish a larger Arab population to secure the region’s surrounding oil wealth. Thus we arrive at the present situation: a historically Kurdish city that was 72% Arab as of 1997. Since then, the sectarian balance has undoubtedly swung back in the Kurds’ favor, but it’s still unclear to what degree. A new census was supposed to take place in 2010, but it was ultimately cancelled at the last minute, possibly because the central government was worried about revealing the extent of post-2003 Kurdish migration from Iraqi Kurdistan into Kirkuk.
Kirkuk is the main point of contention should Iraqi Kurdistan declare independence. The region has long been important to the Kurds, and it is now fully controlled by Erbil. It’s unlikely that the Kurdish authorities will relinquish this control under any circumstances. The September 25 referendum is scheduled to take place in Kirkuk, along with other regions outside of Kurdistan such as Sinjar, Makhmour, and Khanaqin. Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has also declared that he will fight any group that tries to “change the reality” in Kirkuk. On the other side, some leaders in the Iran-backed Population Mobilization Units (PMU) have been vocal that Kirkuk will remain a part of Iraq, and have threatened to intervene on behalf of the city’s Shiite Turkmen populations.
Surrounded by enemies, US support a must for Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan represents an ideal partner for Washington: it’s democratic, stable, and has proven capable and willing to work with the U.S. on regional security issues, primarily the war against Islamic State. Yet by endorsing, even indirectly, Kurdistan’s independence, the United States is effectively blowing up a state that it helped create with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Washington would also be further enraging a NATO partner in Turkey, though perhaps not as much as it is by supporting Syria-based SDF forces in their march toward Raqqa (Erbil and Ankara enjoy relatively cordial bilateral relations).
This is why Washington has been urging the Kurdistan government to pump the brakes on its independence referendum. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Barzani directly and requested that the vote be delayed so as not to risk destabilizing the region. Barzani refused; he knows that Washington is wedded to the concept of a unified Iraq and that there will never be a right time so far as the Americans are concerned. He does so because of the aforementioned factors that currently favor Kurdistan. He is also probably assuming that, should the Kurds start to come under attack from Shiite militias, Washington will find it difficult to throw its lot in with Iran-backed militias over a democratic and willing potential ally in Erbil.
The referendum will go ahead on September 25, and it will quite likely return an overwhelming ‘yes’ result. But this doesn’t mean that unilateral independence and armed conflict will follow. Recall that there was a similar situation in 2005, though that referendum was not backed by the regional government at the time. It’s likely that Barzani’s primary goal here is to bring about independence at the negotiating table – but not necessarily immediately. In his calculations, there might be one last step toward ‘soft’ independence, and whatever that is, it might be palatable to a central government still reeling from the civil war.
That said, there’s also a real possibility of renewed conflict over the referendum and whatever follows it. Iraq’s Kurds have suffered mightily under Saddam Hussein, and they’ve been waiting for a shot at independence for a very long time. The price that they’re willing to pay to achieve this goal is presumably far higher than that of the Iraqi armed forces and the PMUs.