ISTANBUL – On September 25, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum on independence that nearly every international actor opposes.
Experts say the referendum is mostly about using leverage against Baghdad, which strongly opposes it.
“[KRG president Masoud] Barzani is using this referendum to put pressure on Baghdad to give more concessions to the Kurds,” Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, told The Media Line.
“The referendum doesn’t mean independence
and they all know that. Even Kurdish officials have acknowledged that reality.”
KRG lawmakers have stated that a “yes” vote, predicted by most analysts, would not result in an official declaration of independence. Denise Natali, director and distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, says Barzani and his ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are also using the referendum to maintain relevance as the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh), during which the KRG’s armed forces played a key role and expanded its territory, winds down.
“[Barzani and the KDP] may think this is an opportune moment, after all of the Daesh territorial gains, to consolidate power [and] authority in some way,” she told The Media Line.
Tol agrees, pointing out that there have been protests against Barzani’s rule and opposition politicians have called for him to step down.
“There are a lot of divisions among the Kurds themselves,” she said. “[Barzani] wants the referendum to have a rally around the flag effect.”
Natali believes Barzani is overplaying his hand.
“I think [the referendum] is a sign of deep desperation by Masoud Barzani because he’s actually weak. He’s only strong because everybody else is weaker,” she said. Barzani has overstayed his presidential term since it ended in 2015, at which time parliament was suspended, and has been accused of corruption and oppressing opponents. “Barzani has put his opponents on the defensive, daring them to oppose a Kurdish independence referendum. It's a pretty shrewd political maneuver,” Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Media Line.
“It allows Barzani – no democrat – to discipline the political arena in his favor.”
On Tuesday, Iraq’s parliament voted to reject the referendum, but Kurdish officials don’t accept the decision.
“The worst thing about the whole thing is it’s circumvented the most important people,” Natali said. “You can’t do this without at least the recognition from the Iraqi government through the constitution under parliament, or else it’s illegitimate. It was done without any international support, without any regional support.”
Natali believes a yes vote in the referendum won’t change the KRG’s precarious position – lacking any external support, with a troubled economy, no access to the sea, and holding territory disputed with Baghdad. The disputed territories are in the governorates of Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala.
“This doesn’t change anything. If you do this unilaterally, you’re going to be in the same position you’re in now – de facto controlling territories that nobody else recognizes that you’re in charge of,” Natali said. “You can’t just say that ‘Kirkuk is mine.’ You can’t just say ‘Nineveh is mine.’” Tol also expresses hesitancy over the KRG’s ability to be fully independent, especially after not being able to defend itself alone against the ISIS onslaught in 2014.
“Many people said ‘How are you going to have an independent state if you can’t even protect your own territory, if you depend on Baghdad and the international community?’” she said.
No regional or international actor except Israel has supported the referendum. The United States, the United Nations, Turkey and Iran have all denounced it.
The KRG’s once-booming economy took a major hit in 2014 when Baghdad cut off huge budget payments amounting to 17 per cent of Iraq’s oil sales. Since then, Erbil has been selling its oil through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, making it highly dependent on Ankara.
A Turkish foreign ministry statement on September 14 said that “continued insistence on carrying out this referendum, despite all friendly advice to the contrary, will carry a cost.” Ankara has been fighting a decades-long war against Kurdish militants at home but enjoys warm relations with Barzani.
Tol believes Turkey is unlikely to take concrete action against the KRG.
“I don’t think that Turkey really sees [Iraqi Kurdistan’s] independence as an existential threat, but the timing is difficult because elections are coming up in Turkey in 2019 and [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan has been playing on the nationalists,” she said.
Devlet Bahçeli, Erdoğan’s political ally and leader of Turkey’s ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP), said on September 9 that the Kurdistan referendum is a “cause for war.”
“Will [Ankara’s] actions match [its] rhetoric? Hard guess, but I am led to believe no, it will not,” Aydın Selçen, Turkey’s former consul general to Erbil, told The Media Line. “Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil will flow through Ceyhan to world markets, Habur [border crossing] will remain open and [there will be] no overland military intervention in Shengal or Qandil [regions in northern Iraq].”
Iran, a powerful player in Iraq with close ties to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Iraqi Shiite militias, and often troubled relations with its own Kurdish population, also opposes the referendum.
“The Iranians can cut off trade; Sulamaniyah [a city in Iraqi Kurdistan’s east] runs on trade with Iran. Those Iranian backed militias can also cause a lot of mischief,” Cook said.
The United States also vocally opposes the referendum, but Cook thinks Washington wouldn’t simply abandon its ally.
“The US has a long history of double dealing with the Kurds, but even with the Trump Administration's opposition, it seems hard to believe that Washington will leave the Kurds alone to face its neighbors should they really try to secede,” he said.
Tol says that whatever happens after the referendum, the KRG has many challenges in front of it as it continues to pursue independence.
“There are just so many problems facing an independent state,” she said. “It’s a bumpy road ahead.”