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In the face of enormous opposition, on Monday Iraqi Kurdistan went ahead with a referendum on independence. Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States were among the major international powers that urged the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to reconsider or postpone the event. Regional powers, including Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, were less measured, issuing economic, security, and diplomatic sanctions against the KRG—most of which have not yet materialized. Even so, the mood in the KRG capital Erbil was festive. Initial results suggest a high turnout (over 72 percent), and it appears that a large majority of voters endorsed the bid for independence.
Of course, the vote is non-binding and its implications will be more political than legal. In fact, this is not even the first referendum that the Iraqi Kurds have held on the question of independence: they voted on the same question in 2005. Then, too, independence received almost unanimous support. But there is a qualitative difference between the two votes. The first was a civil-society-led initiative, whereas this is an initiative by the Kurdish government that has been ratified by the region’s parliament, which convened on September 14 for the first time in more than two years. The Kurdish leadership has emphasized that this makes the referendum more a statement of intention than a roadmap.
Even that statement, though, has caused much anxiety nationally, regionally, and internationally. Particularly alarmed are Iran and Turkey, which have threatened the KRG with dire consequences for going ahead with the vote. In fact, Iran closed its airspace to the Kurdistan region at the request of Iraq a day before the referendum, and the Turkish military held drills with the Iraqi military along the Turkey-KRG border. Both countries see the referendum as having transformed the Kurdish aspiration for statehood in Iraq from problem to be managed to a mounting crisis on their borders.
A series of miscalculations have gotten the region to its current position. For one, the international community, and particularly the United States, have long ignored the mounting tension. The Kurdish leadership's goal of independence is well-known, and KRG President Masoud Barzani expressed his plan to hold a referendum in 2014. He was disrupted by the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), but as ISIS lost ground over the spring and summer, it became inevitable that Barzani would revive his plan. On June 7, 2017, Kurdistan region’s referendum committee set a date—September 25.
At no point during this three-year period did the United States or any other international power make a serious attempt to reconcile Baghdad and Erbil as an alternative to the independence referendum. The United States engaged in shuttle diplomacy only very belatedly, and even then made the mistake of placing the onus for backing down on the Kurds. The State Department and White House both released statements opposing the referendum and appearing to threaten the Kurdish side with consequences if it moved forward. The government in Baghdad, meanwhile, was left free from criticism. Instead, the United States should have put pressure on both sides to engage in serious negotiations under international and regional supervision and mediation.
Baghdad, in turn, became less open to a negotiated settlement. The stiffening of its position is easy to trace. In April, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi acknowledged independence as the natural right of the Kurds, but called for the KRG to postpone the vote. As the referendum approached, he demanded that it be canceled altogether. He even spoke of using military measures if the referendum process turned violent. That increased the potential political cost of delaying the referendum for Barzani. In fact, the rising external opposition seems to have brought about more internal unity among Kurds.
Similarly, Turkey and Iran’s ultimatums hardened Erbil’s position. In recent years, Turkey has been one of the main powers facilitating the KRG's economic independence from Baghdad, engaging bilaterally with Erbil to sell Kurdish oil and gas to the international market. Erbil, in turn, believed that the energy trade created some interdependence, hoping this would engender a more measured response to the referendum from Turkey. Ankara had previously sent mixed messages on the question of independence, which heightened Erbil’s expectation of Turkish restraint. Just two years ago, Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan said that Kurdish independence was an internal Iraqi affair.
The KRG miscalculated. Given its role in the fight against the ISIS—a fight in which it had adopted the language of human rights, self-determination, and democratic popular demands—it expected more leeway to press for independence. But to the dismay of the Kurds, support for Iraqi territorial integrity and the status quo has been more pervasive than anticipated. Barzani was apparently perplexed by this, asking in a statement before the vote when Kurdistan’s neighbors had become so committed to the unity of Iraq.
Moreover, Kurdistan’s fragmented political landscape—the opposition Movement for Change (Gorran) and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) parties both declared that they would boycott the referendum (a position they both reversed only hours before the vote began)—boded ill for the Kurdish cause. In a similar vein, division within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the traditional rival of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its long-time governing partner, further aggravated the situation. These factors have led some to see the referendum as Barzani’s personal initiative alone, although the initial results of the vote defy such a characterization. Still, the referendum would have probably been on more solid ground if its main protagonist had invested more time and energy into creating political consensus among the Kurds as a first step.
Despite the blunders in the run-up to the referendum, it will still have real consequences.
The process leading to the referendum was as important as the referendum itself. For many years, Kurdish independence has been regarded as a theoretical discussion, and its proponents have never managed to unify their efforts. There were important regional and international realities to face, and the Kurds weren’t in a secure position to defy any external opposition. Similarly, the foes of independence could get away with equivocation and ambivalence, since independence never seemed imminent.
But as the most recent referendum process moved forward, regional powers had to disclose their positions. Turkey and Iran, along with the central Iraqi government, opposed the move most vigorously. Israel was the only country in the region to express support, while Jordan adopted a mildly sympathetic position. Such clarifications can now help the Kurds make a better assessment of their prospects for statehood. They may also lead the Kurds to either entertain alternatives to independence (at least in the medium term) or reevaluate the time frame for an actual declaration of the independence.
Similarly, all the Kurdish political parties have had to come forward with much clearer policies on the issue of independence. Despite their initial disagreements and divisions, they all ended up supporting the vote. At this stage, the question of independence has moved from an abstract discussion to a concrete process.
With this referendum, Barzani has put Kurdish aspirations and grievances—both of which risked being overlooked once the fight against ISIS was over and the United States downsized its commitment to Iraq—firmly onto the international agenda.
The KRG has taken a major step into uncertainty with this referendum. To prevent a full-fledged crisis with Iraq and its neighbors, the Kurdish and Iraqi leadership need to avoid the temptations of populism and point-scoring. Abadi’s recent ultimatum to the Kurdistan region, in which he asked for all land and air border-crossing in the KRG to be returned to the central government’s jurisdiction within three days, is undermining the potential for serious dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. Such statements need to be avoided. Similarly, the major powers, starting with the United States, should remain engaged with both sides in order to peacefully manage the crisis.
Structured and sustained dialogue among all concerned parties is essential, but one thing will need to be clarified first: the premise of the negotiations. When the Iraqi Kurds refer to dialogue and negotiation, they usually mean negotiations to separate from Iraq. When the Iraqi leadership refers to talks, it usually assumes that doing so means settling some outstanding issues between Iraq and the KRG within the framework of Iraq’s authority. The talks should start by focusing on the implementation of the constitution, which both sides are accusing each other of violating, and rethinking the framework of relationships between Baghdad and Erbil.
Further, the fact that the Iraqi Kurds have proceeded with the referendum—claiming that aside from some vague generic promises, they have not been offered any credible alternative—should not be used as a pretext for intransigence. The door for dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil should not be closed. The parties to this dispute, as well as regional and international powers, can still devise an imaginative and workable solution to the crisis. Ideally, these talks should have international supervision and mediation, with a clear and well-defined set of issues, outcomes, and time frames.
If anything, the referendum process has clearly demonstrated one point: the status quo in Baghdad-Erbil relations is not working. The Kurds argue that Baghdad has refused to implement over 50 articles of the 143-article Iraqi constitution, a point Robert Ford, the head of the political office at the American Embassy in Baghdad in 2005 during the negotiations around the new Iraqi constitution, has echoed. The contention between Erbil and Baghdad over the status of disputed territories, Kurdish peshmerga forces, budget allocation, and the management of hydrocarbon resources are particularly explosive and need to be resolved as swiftly as possible. According to the Iraqi constitution, the unity of the state is contingent upon the implementation of the constitution, which means that it is essential that these constitutional disagreements be resolved before the talks can yield results.
Meanwhile, the United States should make sure that its opposition to the Kurdish referendum is not taken as a green light by other forces (Iraq, Iran, and Shiite militia forces) to squeeze the Kurds on all sides. Such a situation would invite open conflict and sow the seeds of regional crisis. The United States has significant leverage over both Baghdad and Erbil. Although it opposes the independence option, at least for the foreseeable future, it should also push Baghdad in earnest to meet the legitimate demands of the Kurds and implement the provisions of the constitution. At the same time, the United States and the wider international community should not treat the breakup of Iraq and the emergence of an independent Kurdish state as the only alternative in town.
A new approach could hinge on an enhanced and well-defined federal structure or confederation. Here the aim should not only be to address the Kurdish search for status, recognition, and sovereignty: it should also aim to address Sunni marginalization—the root cause of extremism in Iraq—by politically recognizing and empowering that group as well. Indeed, the Kurdish search for statehood, the rise of ISIS, and the presence in the Kurdistan region of around 1.8 million internally displaced people from the rest of Iraq have all largely resulted from the increasing sectarianization of the Iraqi state, the rise of militias in its security sector, and the failure of its political system.
At this moment, either a better defined and implemented federal structure—with some international and regional guarantees—or a confederal structure are relatively more plausible options than a new independent state. If this effort is successful, the Kurds will be better served by remaining part of a functioning federal or confederal Iraq than by being outside of it. If such efforts fail once again, then the Kurds will still be on their evolutionary path to statehood with more international and regional sympathy and support.