Q: What are the Main Drivers Behind the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Decision to Hold an Independence Referendum on September 25, 2017?
A: Iraq, as a colonially-constructed nation state, has never been a success story. But around 2014, it faced the possibility of a total breakdown with the rise of ISIS. It was around this time that President Masoud Barzani declared his intention to hold a referendum. However, the referendum is being held at a time when ISIS is almost completely defeated. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds have never managed to take advantage of big moments of crisis in the region such as the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 1991, and occupation of Iraq after 2003 to move towards independence. Relations between Erbil and Baghdad were already strained some years before ISIS, due to disagreements mainly over oil exports and budget allocation. The rise of ISIS in 2014 paralyzed the central Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces, giving added impetus to the desires of the Masoud Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party to lead Iraqi Kurdistan to independence.
Contributing to this decision have also been some domestic factors. The Kurdistan Democratic Party controls most of the strategic institutions of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Therefore a breakdown in relations between Erbil and Baghdad will strengthen the KDP’s hold on power, as the party can govern the KRG without any interference from Baghdad. Faced with domestic political tension over his presidential terms, along with a newly emerging political rivalry and further weakening of the Iraqi central government, President Barzani has pushed for a referendum. A strong ‘Yes’ vote may strengthen the KDP, which has been the main champion of the referendum idea. Cancellation or postponement of the referendum due to hardened regional and international opposition, however, may also create additional grievances among the Kurdish population, which might respond by increasing its support for the KDP.
Q: How Will the Referendum Result impact Intra-Kurdish Relations Ahead of the Upcoming Local Elections in the KRG?
A: Up until now, the referendum campaign did little to unite the Kurdish political landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan. There has been some rapprochement with some sections of the PUK and the KDP. Reopening the Parliament and having it approve the referendum was also a positive step towards a more unified Kurdish politics. Nevertheless, the referendum debate also sharpened some existing divisions by pushing some of the political opposition to openly advocate an anti-referendum stance or ‘No’ campaign. Instrumentalizing the referendum issue in KRG politics ahead of the upcoming local elections in the KRG will further contribute to divisions within Kurdish politics.
However, as regional powers such as Iran and Turkey coordinate their efforts to stifle Kurdish aspirations beyond their borders, this might have the effect of pushing rival parties together. The KDP’s alignment with Turkey and the PUK’s closer relationship with Iran has been a factor contributing to the divisions within Kurdish political landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s and Turkey’s coordinated hostility towards referendum might leave little room for these countries to attempt to use rival Kurdish parties against each other.
Q: How Will Relations Between the KRG and Baghdad be Shaped by the Referendum Result?
A: A strong ‘Yes’ vote will likely strengthen President Barzani’s hand against Baghdad. However, it may also push Baghdad (and Iran) to start mobilising Shia militias against the Peshmerga, especially in contested areas. Recent threats by Shia militia leaders warning Kurds not to secede from Iraq and small incidents of mutual confrontation indicate a real possibility of increased tensions with Kirkuk being among the potential flash points. A strong ‘Yes’ vote might also weaken the Abadi government to the advantage of pro-Iranian groups. In any case, the referendum is unlikely to contribute to any positive developments with regards to the KRG–Baghdad relationship. Some might argue that a clear result from the referendum and a subsequent discussion of Kurdistan’s separation from Iraq might be better than trying to keep Iraq united based on the ambiguous constitution of 2005.
Q: What are the Potential Impacts of the Referendum Result on the KRG’s Ties with Ankara and Tehran?
A: Iraqi Kurdistan’s decision to hold an independence referendum to coincide with the rise of the Syrian Kurds has pushed Tehran and Ankara to more closely coordinate their policies regarding the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Iran will potentially be the biggest loser, should an independent Kurdistan be carved out of Iraq. Such a result will weaken a broadly pro-Iran establishment in power in Baghdad. The Iraqi Kurdish region is also better linked with the Iranian Kurdistan region and a potential safe haven for Iranian Kurdish groups. Iran will, therefore, continue to be the pivotal force against the political gains of the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey, on the other hand, has enjoyed better political and economic relations with the KRG and seen a breakdown in its relationship with the Shia-led central government even before the rise of ISIS. Nonetheless, Turkey’s relationship with two Iraqi Kurdish political parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union Party (PUK)—started in 1991, primarily as an anti-PKK relationship with a security orientation still dominates the relationship. Despite closer political and economic relations with pro-AK Party sections of the Turkish state and business community and the KDP, the Erdogan administration will ultimately follow the lead of broader sections of the Turkish state and security establishment and its political allies.
Q: What are the Geoeconomic Implications of the Referendum Result for the KRG and the Middle East at Large?
A: This depends on whether the Kurdish leadership will choose to start the process of secession after a potentially strong ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. A Kurdish region in Iraq which might come under increased pressure from Ankara, Tehran and the Baghdad, might be pushed into a rapprochement with the emerging anti-Iran bloc in the region, which is led by Saudi Arabia. It might also be pushed into improving relations with the Syrian Kurdish-led region to create alternative areas for an economic relationship. One thing that can break a likely impasse will be the restarting of a peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which will result in de-escalation between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish-led administration and ease Turkish concerns about the rise of Kurds in the region.
Turkey might choose to penalise Iraqi Kurds by closing down the border crossings for trade, but it is unlikely that Ankara will stop facilitating the export of Iraqi Kurdish oil, since it benefits from it probably even more than the KRG does.
Military intervention into Iraqi Kurdistan by Iran or Turkey is very unlikely. Using local proxies to confront the Kurds, however, is possible.