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People celebrate to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed - RC1A4278AD30

The Repercussions of the Kurdistan Referendum: between the Dream of Building the Kurdish State and the Nightmare of Geographical Reality

On September 25, the Kurdistan area of Iraq held a referendum as to whether the region should declare its independence from Iraq. The results showed that more than 92% of the voters said “yes” to independence, according to preliminary results announced by the Supreme Committee for the referendum in the region.

Many prominent experts in Middle East politics believe that the Kurdistan independence referendum signals the opening of a Pandora’s box, and that it is a step that will exacerbate existing conflict and instability in the region. The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan took the region into a new era, as signified by the independence referendum that they forced in the provinces in Kurdistan territory and disputed territory between Erbil and Baghdad, including areas where the Kurds do not make up a majority of the population.

The Kurdish leadership ignored the predicted reactions toward the referendum decision. A strong rejection of the referendum decision came from the central government in Baghdad, as well as international entities (including the United Nations, European Union, and Arab League) that support the government in Baghdad. The countries neighboring Kurdistan, despite their numerous differences on other issues, were unanimous in rejecting the referendum results and promises to support the central government in Baghdad, by any means necessary.

The United States also rejected the results of the referendum. A statement released by the White House pointed out that Washington had warned the leaders of the Kurdistan region several times that the referendum would distract attention from efforts to defeat ISIS, and endanger the stability of recently liberated areas. The U.S. called on the Kurdistan Regional Government to cancel the referendum, and begin serious and continuous dialogue with Baghdad.

The referendum is considered a game-changer for all parties involved. The Iraqis, Iranians and Turks have said they will be open to all options, including military operations, as well as negotiations between Erbil, Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran pending a decision in the relationship between the government of Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad.

The first of these issues expected to undergo long and complicated negotiations is the demarcation of borders between both sides, and decisions on the disputed areas, according to article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, to determine areas of sovereignty for each side. Controversial issues include organizing the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad, dividing the water and oil resources, the fate of the Kurds residing in areas under central government control, and the fate of Arabs living in Kurdish areas.

The relationship between Kurdistan and the neighboring countries will be complex in its own right, amid the Iranian and Turkish threat of resorting to economic, political, diplomatic and military sanctions. Moreover, Turkey and Iran are capable of reviving the issue of their borders with Kurdistan. For instance, Turkey has the ability to reconsider the existing borders with Iraq through international law, in case a separatist movement arises in the region.

A clash in Kirkuk, particularly, remains very possible — an explosion that everyone is afraid of, since it is an oil-rich province that is ethnically diversified with Arabs, Turkmani, Kurds and Assyrians. Yet, the Kurds want to include it in the new state, by force, if necessary. This situation has caused some Kurdish parties to boycott the referendum in Kirkuk. Many were surprised when Peshmerga, based in Kirkuk, suddenly withdrew from the province, allowing central government forces to take it over. The Kurdish loss of Kirkuk is certainly a blow to the dream of independence, because a State of Kurdistan without Kirkuk would not be viable. Later it was said that the retreating forces belonged to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and were led by the son and nephew of the late head of PUK, Jalal Talabani. Details of this withdrawal were accompanied by news of IRGC leader Qasim Soleimani’s visit to Sulaymaniyah, to negotiate with the Kurdish leadership the status of Kirkuk and the results of the referendum.

This development has deepened the Kurdish division between Barazani and Talibani, especially since no one expected the Kurds to lose Kirkuk so easily. As a result, the Peshmerga leadership said in a statement that the forces’ retreat was a one-sided action (they tried to imply that the Peshmerga leadership was not aware of the decision). This statement is motivated by the fact that the Kurdistan region is now in a state of conflict between Masoud Barzani and the Talabani family, after the recent death of Jalal Talabani. Yet, the withdrawal did not take place because of the decision of an influential family, or because of Soleimani’s mediation, as the news about the Iranian mediation tried to suggest. The clash between the Kurds and the central government is not in the interest of anyone, and will not be allowed by international powers, especially by the existing forces in the region including the presence of five US military bases and intelligence centers for regional and western countries. A military clash will only ignite additional regional chaos. There is fear of the expansion of separatist sentiments to other Arab and regional countries, in a kind of “domino effect,” as well as contagious hopes of various ethnic and religious groups, who might see this as the appropriate time for the establishment of their separatist entities.

Through the pressure exercised by regional and international countries, as well as the Iraqi government, there are several possible scenarios for the future of the crisis:

First – The Equivocation:  Masoud Barazani will possibly use procrastination to retreat from the results of the referendum and adhere to it, with the reservation of not provoking countries that reject secession, specifically the Iraqi and Turkish governments.

In light of both the support or rejection to the secession idea that has been seen, the most likely scenario is an agreement between the Kurdistan government and governments rejecting the secession through international mediation.

Second – Declaration of a State: Masoud Barazani will demand recognition from international institutions, but he will be faced with rejection incited by superpowers, such as the United States and Russia.  Therefore, the decision to announce a Kurdish State is not a Kurdish decision, nor an Iraqi or Arab one. It is an international resolution that will be subject to many political deals and negotiations between several regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran, and international powers like the United States and Russia, each of which represents a difficulty for Masoud Barazani.

Third – Internationally Mediated Agreement: Through this agreement, the Kurdistan Government will be granted political and economic privileges, and will be more effectively involved in the political process alongside the central Iraqi government.

In light of the support and opposition to the secession, the most likely scenario is the third, in which an agreement will be reached between the government in Kurdistan and regional governments opposing the secession. Masoud Barazani will use secession as a card in the negotiations to gain major economic or political concessions from the central government related to settling the status of disputed areas. These concessions will be pursued in order to justify to the Kurdish people his change of position since they had received his earlier promises of independence with great enthusiasm.

– Gulf International Forum

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