Mesut Ozcan

Q: What are the Main Drivers Behind the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Decision to Hold an Independence Referendum on September 25, 2017? 

A: The first and main driver is historic. Historically the Kurds of Iraq have been demanding independence for many years and they argue that their presence in Iraq in the very beginning of the establishment of the republic was problematic. So Kurds in Iraq now argue that they are gaining their natural right. The second driver relates to the existing problems between Erbil and Baghdad that are evolving from their dispute over sharing crude oil revenues and budgetary allocations. So I think the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is using the independence referendum as a bargaining chip. Other complex economic and political factors are also pushing the KRG leadership to unify the Kurdish society behind this one cause.

Q: How Will the Referendum Result impact Intra-Kurdish Relations Ahead of the Upcoming Local Elections in the KRG?

A: Over the last two years there have been critical problems in the KRG. The parliament has not been convened and there have been serious differences between key political powers, such as those between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Gorran. There are personal rivalries and historical differences between key figures in the KRG. The referendum on independence may embolden Barzani and strengthen his hand. So Masoud Barzani is using this referendum to consolidate his party’s position in the KRG vis-à-vis other parties. However, the referendum may have a strong impact on the November local elections in Erbil, which could be postponed if this referendum succeeds.

Q: How Will Relations Between the KRG and Baghdad be Shaped by the Referendum Result?

A: We do not know yet whether this referendum will take place or not because there are some initiatives out there that are aimed at putting it on hold. But if the referendum takes place, there will certainly be major discord over borders, due to the KRG’s willingness to include disputed areas, and over economic resources (crude oil) in addition to other economic issues. Road blocks between areas controlled by Erbil and Baghdad are probable. This would not only have economic implications but also security implications, since this will hinder the movement of troops, for example. Clashes between Erbil and Baghdad are a possibility. But even if their dispute does not escalate to this level, the tensions between them will be high after the referendum. This will affect the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Q: What are the Potential Impacts of the Referendum result on KRG’s Ties with Ankara and Tehran?

A: Both Ankara and Tehran are opposed to the referendum. Both clearly voiced their concerns and objected to the referendum but they acted cautiously, particularly when making statements on their stances over the issue. The referendum will damage economic and security cooperation between Erbil and its two neighbors.

KRG officials have stated that if the ‘yes’ vote wins, they will not declare independence overnight, as they will first engage in protracted negotiations with Baghdad. If they declare independence in the short term, this will take a heavy toll on Ankara’s relations with Erbil. From my point of view, if a ‘yes’ vote wins, the KRG will not declare independence in the short term. However, one of the aspects that will influence the direction of relations between Ankara and Erbil is the latter’s approach towards the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) over the coming period.

Q: What are the Geoeconomic Implications of the Referendum Result for the KRG and the Middle East at Large?

A: The KRG’s referendum will definitely take a toll on economic cooperation between Ankara and Erbil. We should not forget that the pipelines used to export oil from the KRG to global markets via Turkey belong to Baghdad. There are already economic pressures on the KRG that emanate from the decline of crude oil prices, which raises the costs of maintaining security. But on the other hand, if you believe in a cause, then you must bear all the costs, and I am sure that KRG officials have calculated the negative economic consequences.

 BioMesut Ozcan is a Senior associate fellow at Al-Sharq Forum. He received his B.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Marmara University in 2000 and his M.A. in 2002 from the same institution. He completed his PhD at Boğaziçi University in 2007. He studied at St. Antony’s College, and Oxford University with the Jean Monnet Master Scholarship for one year in 2005-2006. He served at the Center for Strategic Research (SAM) as the Deputy Chairman between 2011 and 2013 and as the Acting Chairman between 2013 and May 2014. He is currently the Director of Diplomacy Academy at MFA. He is the author of three books including: Harmonizing Foreign Policy: Turkey, the EU and the Middle East. He also works on the editorial boards of Insight Turkey, Divan, and Perceptions journals. 

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