Mohammed A. Salih

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

A: The key driver is the unique historical moment offered by the expected defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Every party to this war against ISIS is bracing themselves to reap the benefits of their participation in the war. The Kurds rightly see this as a rare watershed moment in the region’s history and realize that they need to get out of it with concrete gains given the tremendous amount of sacrifice they have made to defeat ISIS. It is important for this referendum and the push toward independence to be seen in its historical context and the Kurds’ century-long struggle for their rights and quest for statehood. It is also important to note that the relationship between Kurdistan and Baghdad in its current form, i.e. federalism, has failed as Baghdad has either violated or not enforced key constitutional provisions with regard to territorial demarcation, building second legislative chambers, and handling energy resources. Therefore, the relationship needs to be redefined either in the form of independence or some sort of loose confederation that would render Kurdistan independent in all but name and facilitate productive relations between the two sides.

No doubt, KRG President Masoud Barzani’s personal ambitions in the form of his political legacy factor greatly into his organizing this referendum now. He wants to be remembered in history as the Kurdish leader who did this. Moreover, many allege that he is also seeking to use the independence referendum as a tool for prolonging his controversial presidency. That might be true but it’s important to realize that if Barzani wanted to stay longer in office he would probably do it no matter what his opponents said or how good his excuses were. However, he has said he will step down after the referendum and I do hope he abides by his word and not risk further delegitimizing himself and hampering Kurdistan’s democratic development.

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

A: Lack of unity has been a major feature of Kurdish politics for decades, with the exception of the period from 2001 to 2011 or so. And there has been some internal opposition to the decision to hold a referendum. But through some political maneuvering, Barzani has managed to secure the support of some of the other key groups including the PUK, which is his major partner in the Kurdish government and controls Sulaymaneh and Kirkuk provinces. In an important move, lending legitimacy to the referendum, the Kurdish parliament last week endorsed the referendum with 65 votes out of 111 members. It is important to note that even those parties that did not vote for the referendum do not oppose the act of holding the referendum or the Kurdish right to independence but did so due to political disputes with Barzani. In fact, as referendum day approaches, more and more politicians, intellectuals and ordinary individuals are expressing their support for the referendum despite their criticism of Barzani or his party, the KDP. More and more Kurds are realizing how unique this moment is in history and that it should be taken advantage of to advance the Kurdish national cause despite political differences. And this is certainly a sign of political maturity. All in all, the referendum is expected to garner the support of around 70 percent of the population, which is more than enough in legal terms as only an absolute majority (50+1) is needed for the referendum results to be legal. The bottom line is that for any such referendum to count it only requires an absolute majority (50+1) and that standard should and would apply in the case of the Kurdish referendum as well.

Of course, Barzani’s opponents have legitimate concerns about his personal ambitions and his party’s intention to dominate the Kurdistani political scene but it is important to note that the KDP’s ascendance in recent years has been by and large due to the disarray in the ranks of its opponents. If they want to set a limit for the KDP and Barzani’s ambitions, which is a legitimate political goal, then they had better get their act together and form a common platform to counterbalance him rather than continue their state of disunity and bickering over petty partisan gains. Independent or not, the fight for reform, democracy and justice in Kurdistan will continue as these are popular causes.

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

A: It is crucial to understand that the Kurdistan referendum is not about a land-grab or an attempt to destabilize Iraq or the region, as some naïve commentary would depict it. It’s an act that goes far beyond the typical news headlines’ myopic portrayal of the situation. The referendum is necessarily an act of expressing the popular will of the Kurds and an attempt to reconceive and reconfigure the Iraqi state in a new way. It is not a declaration of war and it is not going to lead to independence the day after, on September 26. In essence, the referendum invites Baghdad to step forward to negotiate some sort of new deal with the Kurds either in the form of agreeing to Kurdish independence through a peaceful process that would take years to materialize or to accept a confederative arrangement with Kurdistan. The onus is really on Baghdad. It is Baghdad and its Shia paramilitary allies that would determine the course of action after the referendum and they should not opt for war. The very act of carrying out this referendum is an expression of Kurdish anxiety with their long-term status within Iraq, as the way Iraq was conceived by British colonial authorities was nothing but a recipe for disaster, dooming Kurds to perpetual minority status and a continued state of subjugation. The referendum is a historical initiative by Kurds to rethink the Iraqi state and break out of the seemingly eternal cycle of war and peace.

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

A: It is of paramount importance to note that the referendum is not an act of aggression on the part of the KRG against any actor. In the post-referendum world, the Kurds would extend hands of friendship toward Ankara and Tehran as they have done for the past couple of decades. Let us not forget that Kurds have managed to turn potentially combustible circumstances into mutually productive relations with both countries, whether in terms of trade and energy or political and security deals. The same open-armed attitude would continue, and certainly more vigorously, as far as the Kurds are concerned. The KRG leadership knows its weight and place in the regional equation and certainly does not aspire to engage in any conflict or counterproductive relations with any of its neighbors, including Baghdad.

The Middle East today is an outcome of a British-French colonial project. The Kurdish exercise of self-determination, in that regard, should be seen first and foremost as an act of partially rectifying that gross historical injustice. The quest for justice in the Middle East requires creative solutions to existing problems especially those of national groups such as Kurds and Palestinians. Now the Kurdish situation in each country is different and therefore the ceiling of their political demands vary. But Iraqi Kurds do not intend to meddle in other countries’ affairs. On the contrary, they can play a constructive role in mending relations between the governments in Ankara and Tehran and their Kurdish communities as the KRG parties did with regard to the peace process in Turkey.

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

A: In terms of economic aspects of the referendum or some form of independence, short-term tensions might have a negative bearing on energy markets and trade relations between Kurdistan and neighboring states. But, if and when tensions subside, Kurdish energy resources would mean tremendous potential for new trade deals in the region, especially with Turkey and Iran. Turkey has already expressed great interest in Kurdistan’s natural gas resources and Iran wants an oil pipeline deal with the KRG. Trade relations with a future Iraq would be a great incentive for friendly relations, as Kurdistan would be Iraq’s access point to Europe. Any future Kurdistan government would seek to develop its large reserves of oil and gas further and that would mean another important energy supplier both regionally and globally.

As far as the Kurds in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan are concerned, the referendum and the possibility of eventual independence is not a threat to any country but an attempt to live in dignity, developing stronger relations with others: first of foremost the other countries of the region.

 BioMohammed A. Salih, is a Kurdish journalist who has covered Kurdish and Iraqi affairs for over a decade. His writing and reporting has appeared at Inter Press Service, Al Jazeera English, Al-Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Middle East Institute and The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication where he focuses on extremist movements in the Middle East. He’s also a fellow at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC). He is on Twitter @MohammedASalih

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