Could the Kurdish Independence Referendum Mobilize Sunni Arabs in Iraq?

The fight against the Islamic State (IS) is about to come to an end. Despite the fact that eradicating the IS is in its final phases, the independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has emerged as a crucial development with the potential to alter much of the region’s power dynamics. The referendum on independence last month showed that the Iraqi central government was incapable of deterring the local authority in Erbil from attempting to secede. However, the significance of the Kurdish referendum is not solely driven by the fact that it will impact the future of Kurds in Iraq or in the region alone:it potentially sets a precedent for other sectarian segments of Iraqi society to seek decentralization and secession. Although the KRG’s referendum failed and Baghdad gained the upper hand – in part thanks to the backing of other regional actors – the referendum will have a far-reaching impact in Iraq that will last a long time to come.

In the post-2003 period, Iraqi political institutions were constituted along ethnic and sectarian lines. In this new system, Shiites have formed the government and picked the Prime Minister as well as acquiring the lion’s share of the power-sharing agreement, while the Sunni Arabs picked the parliamentaryspeaker and the Kurds picked the president. According to this system, power was concentrated in the hands of Shiites, while Sunni Arabs and Kurds were marginalized and even oppressed. Kurds have responded to these challenges by building their own political institutions and local economy and they sought to declare an autonomous state in the wake of the Sept. 25 referendum. For the moment, it seems that the Kurds had to step back because they had no international support amid fierce regional opposition. However, if it had happened, the secession of Kurds from Iraq would not affect the Kurds alone.

With the decision to move forward with holding a referendum on independence, the Kurds fractured the already fragile historical Kurdish-Arab alliance. Significant majorities of both groups had been historically linked to each other through their religious and sectarian identity, namely the Sunni faith; the separation of the Kurds would have meant a loss of power for Sunni Arabs, as they would become an even smaller minority within the new Iraqi state. The dramatic rise of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) is feeding the marginalization and alienation of Sunni Arab politics powers. If that is the case, would Sunni political powers seek decentralization (a step often seen as preliminary to secession)?

After the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the situation of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq significantly deteriorated. Aside from their tribal affiliations, Sunni Arabs lacked the presence of powerful political constituencies and strong leaders. However, recent developments have shown that Sunni Arabs are gradually coming up with a plan for a safer future in Iraq. Around 300 major political and tribal Sunni figures came together in the capital Baghdad in July 2017 to discuss the reconstruction of Sunni cities after the defeat of IS. However, what unites them might not only be post-IS reconstruction plans as this may also be laying the grounds for a new alliance to gather together Sunni powers for the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2018. It is argued that Sunni Arabs see the Kurdish referendum as an opportunity to achieve self-autonomy in their own provinces. It was reported that influential Sunni figures were preparing to complete a plan  for creating a Sunni Arab autonomous region and present it to the government. To scrutinize the reasons that may motivate Sunni Arabs to form their own autonomous region, we must examine post-2003 political arrangements in Iraq.

After the fall of Saddam and his party, Sunnis were marginalized in the power equation. Two factors have been influential in this regard: thefirst is that Sunni Arabs were divided between rejectionists and participants in the new system established under the asupices ofthe United States of America. So, Sunni involvement in politics decreased, since a significant number refused even to participate in the system. Second, Sunni Arabs were structurally discriminated against most among ethno-religious groups in the new system. They suffered intense oppression and violence, especially over Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party’s rigorous centralization plans. In 2010, when Maliki stepped up his discriminatory policies against Sunni Arabs and Kurds, a power-sharing agreement was eventually signed among al-Dawah leader Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi and Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani against both internal and external pressures. However, this agreement failed to end the discriminatory policies of the government and was only interrupted as IS emerged.

Sunni Arabs have previously proposed decentralization plans, finding their lives very difficult in the new Iraq. However, what they had in mind was far from the independence to which the Kurds were aspiring. Rather, they planned to form an autonomous region. For example, Iraqiya politicians encouraged provincial councils in Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Anbar to establish federal regions modelled on the Kurdish region after Maliki’s harsh treatmentin 2011. Projects to establish an autonomous region have been repeated frequently overrecent years.Iraqi Sunni Arabs called for the establishment of autonomous Sunni Arab regions in 2012,the ides was circulated during the Protest Movement, mainly by Islamist Party members in 2013. The former governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujayfi, also said they were planning to make Nineveh an autonomous region after its liberation from IS, because they no longer trustedthe authorities to protect them.

Although some Sunni Arabs have been seeking decentralization and they have beenmeetingincreasingly often over recent months, pushing for autonomy like the Kurds is no easy task for a number of reasons. First, Sunni Arabs do not have a charismatic leader with a powerful political constituency. Therefore, although their political and tribal leaders might be seeking political unification and a regional autonomy plan, the lack of a cohesive leadership would prevent them from developing and implementing such a plan. Second, there is a Sunni Arab component that rejects decentralization, skeptical of its negative impact on Iraqi territorial integrity. Therefore, intra-group divisions are complicating the issue of Sunni Arab self-determination as well. Third, neither the Iraqi government nor any external power is likely to support Sunni Arabs in the way they do in the Kurdish case. Iraqi Shia politician Muqtada al-Sadr’s visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates show that regional Sunni powers are willing to take a role in post-IS Iraq by engaging with Shiite powers, and supporting decentralization may harm this endeavor. Other regional powers, particularly Iran, would oppose Sunni Arabs forming their own autonomous region for other reasons. Iran would never support a Sunni Arab autonomous region in Iraq as it militarily controls the country via the PMU and supports the Shiite government.

Turkey’s situation is quite interesting because it supports groups in different states that share a common ethnic or religious identity. For example, Turkey acts as a sponsor to the Iraqi Turkmen. If we consider their harsh conditions, Turkey might be convinced to support Sunni Arabs in Iraq, especially considering that some Sunni Arab figures calling for autonomy are considered close to Ankara. In fact, Turkey has trained a Sunni Arab paramilitary force –al-Hashd al-Watani –in its military base in Bashiqa, a town east of Mosul,to fight against IS. However, it is unclear whether Turkey would support a plan for an autonomous region plan, because it currently supports the territorial integrity of Iraq and hasstrongly criticized Kurdish attempts to gain independence. Although decentralization and federal autonomy does not mean secession, it may prepare for it. Thus, Turkey may not choose, in the short term, to explicitly support a Sunni Arab plan that aims for decentralization, lest it shake the already fragile regional understanding Turkey has with Tehran and Baghdad.

There are other factors that may either encourage or discourage Sunni Arabs to pursue regional autonomy. First, there are several advantages to having an autonomous region. As discussed above, Sunni Arabs have been politically discriminated against since 2003 and the emergence of IS has threatened their security and made them react more strongly against the Iraqi central government whilst also leaving them more vulnerable. Therefore, having an autonomous region will empower Sunni Arabs  and keep them integrated politically with Baghdad. The reconstruction of Sunni areas in Iraq might be one of the strong driving forces that unify Sunni Arab political and tribal leaders in a way that feeds a plan for decentralization at a later stage.

However, as the KRG’s plan for independence has recently been crushed by the Iraqi government without regional backing, Sunni Arabs will be deterred from mobilizing to call for autonomy at this moment if a consensus does already exist over the issue. Nevertheless, introducing a new power-sharing agreement among Sunni Arabs and the Iraqi government might be a more logical compromise for both sides. If they succeed in genuinely including and integrating Sunni Arabs into the political system, it might help to undermine calls for autonomy and preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq in the long-term.

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