The point of no return

Outside of Iraq, perhaps the most challenging country to bring on-side, even more so than Turkey, will be Iran.

June 12, 2017 21:07
A KURDISH Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag.

A KURDISH Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag during an intensive security deployment after clashes with Islamic State militants.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The meeting which took place in Pirmam in Erbil on June 7, 2017, will undoubtedly be seen for many years to come as a historic day for the Kurdistan Region. The meeting was requested by The Kurdistan Region’s president, Masoud Barzani, after a preliminary consensus was reached between high-ranking officials from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on the matter of an independence referendum in May.

This meeting was chaired by President Barzani, who has been the biggest and most influential proponent of the Kurdistan Region independence process, and was attended (and supported) by representatives from 14 Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) political parties, including the KDP and PUK, but also, notably, the head of the Kurdistan Region High Electoral Commission (KRHEC). The large show of support for the independence referendum initiative also naturally lends the decision a great deal of internal and external legitimacy.

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Also, while the Gorran and Yekgirtu movements abstained from attending, their support for the upcoming independence referendum is not non-existent, but instead conditional. It goes without saying that the expected result of the popular vote on the future of Kurdish self-determination in Iraq will overwhelmingly be in favor of independence.

The meeting was extremely successful not only in achieving political consensus, but also in addressing a number of key technicalities regarding the upcoming referendum. Most importantly, the date of the (non-binding) referendum was officially set for September 25, 2017. This date was deemed appropriate because it allows for a 100-day period, as requested by the KRHEC, to make adequate preparations to ensure the referendum is free and fair.

Meeting participants also decided on the formation of a Kurdistan Region High Council for Referendum Affairs, which is to be overseen by President Barzani. It was also agreed that the political parties of the Kurdistan Region will have until June 12 to formally allocate a representative to this council. Also, the meeting also alluded to the specific question to be printed on the ballot paper in September, and it was decided that the question would be, put plainly, “Do you support an independent Kurdistan?” Furthermore, the meeting also brought to light a homogeneous desire to reactivate the KRG parliament, which has faced a political stalemate since 2014. It is worth noting that this process in particular may be challenging, as it requires a significant level of political consensus among all of the Kurdistan Region political parties. However, one thing which seems to be a foregone conclusion is that the previous parliament speaker, Yusuf Mohammed, will not return to his previous position, because of an expired political agreement between the KDP and the Gorran movement.

Instead, some form of an agreement will have to be made to find a new temporary configuration until the upcoming parliamentary elections, for which the date was decided in the same meeting in Pirmam (November 6, 2017). It is also likely that if such an agreement to reactivate parliament is not made before September 25, the referendum will still take place as planned.

Another key factor which was decided in the meeting, and which will draw much attention, is the territory Kurdistan Region independence will encompass.

It was agreed that all majority-Kurdish areas in the so-called disputed territory (as codified by the Constitution of Iraq’s Article 140) would be included. Such governorates and provinces are reported to include Makhmour, Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Sinjar and other areas in Nineveh. Interestingly, the KRG prime minister has stated that the issue of the disputed territories has now been resolved.

It is clear that this facet of the referendum will be met with opposition, as this territory has been contested, at different times, by a range of actors and entities both within and outside of Iraq. The KRG and its diplomatic delegations must be able to convince its neighbors that the independence of the Kurdistan Region is far from a threat and must instead be considered a stabilizing factor within the region.

This naturally brings one to question of who the main opponents and supporters of the Kurdistan’s Region’s independence referendum will be. Internally, within Iraq, the main expected source of opposition will be former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his associates. Indeed, in an interview with a Lebanese media outlet, he caused much controversy by stating that force should be used to avert the independence of the Kurdistan Region.

And while Maliki continues to possess a sizable level of influence over the political and military (Popular Mobilization Units) landscape in Iraq, much of his opposition will be likely to remain mere rhetoric, as opposed to enforceable threats. Nonetheless, the KRG must bear this mind and take precautions to ensure the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region is a principle which goes unscathed.

In addition to the plethora of KRG diplomatic delegations which have lobbied for support abroad in the international community, the Kurdistan Region High Council for Referendum Affairs will no doubt direct much attention and efforts to lobbying for the referendum.

This council will likely be split into two sections, one to lobby internally within Iraq, and one to lobby internationally.

Outside of Iraq, perhaps the most challenging country to bring on-side, even more so than Turkey, will be Iran. Indeed, Iranian officials have on a number of occasions expressed their stern opposition to the break-up of Iraq in any fashion. However, due to the symbiotic relationship between Iran and Iraq, after the fall of the Ba’ath regime, it is worth noting that support gained for the referendum in Tehran will likely translate to greater support for it in Baghdad also.

And while it may be too early to categorically point to any states in the international community which will openly support or endorse the Kurdistan Region independence referendum, one thing which becomes a justification for Kurdish optimism is no state’s downright refusal to accept or acknowledge the referendum or its results. In other words, there has been no complete dismissal by officials in Washington, London, or anywhere else during visits by high-ranking KRG officials. Instead, most governments have stressed that this is an internal Iraqi matter which must be resolved among Iraqis.

To this end, a number of high-ranking KRG delegations have visited Baghdad in recent times with the purpose of discussing the future of Erbil/Baghdad relations, with more to come, including a pending visit by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. From Erbil and Baghdad’s perspective, an amicable separation will be in the interests of both parties, as opposed to any unsavory future relations. Furthermore, the KRG has expressed its interest in the United Nations sending a delegation to watch over the referendum to ensure it matches the procedural formalities and professionalism of similar popular decisions internationally.

Moreover, the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations and its international representation offices will undoubtedly have to work overtime to relay back and forth any information, questions, or answers regarding the referendum which may be received from their governmental counterparts in the international community.

Indeed, the Kurdistan Region has formed a multiplex of diplomatic state-like foreign relations and this will certainly prove integral in the phase which comes after the independence referendum.

One thing which became clear after the meeting in Pirmam was that there can no longer be any going back or sidetracking on the question of independence for the Kurdistan Region. Additionally, while this is not likely to be a speedy process, if the results are as expected, the independence of the Kurdistan Region has now moved from the realm of “if” to that of “when.”

The author is a University of London  (SOAS) graduate, Erbil-based political analyst and researcher. His Twitter handle is @Barzani_HN.

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