Kurdistan Referendum: Conflict Trigger or Bargaining Chip?

  • Tomáš Kaválek
  • 19.9.2017 10:06

The referendum on independence of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is scheduled for 25 September 2017, with disagreement among various Kurdish factions on its timing. The decision has met with strong opposition from major international actors such as the US, Turkey and Iran, who support Iraqi unity. Fears of conflict between the federal government in Baghdad and Erbil linger, as the Kurdish leadership organize the referendum even in disputed territories outside the KRI.

Bad timing

The intention to hold the vote on 25 September was announced by the KRI’s president Massoud Barzani on 7 June, but not all Kurdish political factions support the idea, particularly its timing. President Barzani is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as is the KRI’s PM Nechirvan Barzani (the President’s nephew). Existing political rivalries between the KDP and other major Kurdish political parties, namely the Gorran (Change) Movement, have spilled into the debate on the referendum.

The Gorran Movement, the second largest party in the regional parliament along with the Kurdistan Islamic Union, demand a reactivation of parliament that has been shut down since October 2015, with KDP expelling the Gorran Movement ministers and parliament speaker Yusuf Mohammed. The Gorran also opposed the second prolonging of President Barzani’s tenure in 2015, which expired already in 2013 but was extended for two years by a parliamentary motion.

While the majority of Kurds wish for independence, the campaign against holding the referendum in September, dubbed ‘No for Now’, seems to have gained significant traction, particularly in the traditional stronghold of the Gorran and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah. The campaign cites democratic deficits connected to Barzani’s illegitimate tenure and the ongoing economic crisis in the KRI, insisting that the September referendum is a mere tool to divert attention from these issues, rather than a genuine effort to move towards independence

Not so many allies

In the international arena, major regional and global players seem to support Iraqi unity. Despite the US being a long-term KRI ally, for example backing Peshmerga against IS, it has repeatedly urged the KRI to at least postpone the referendum. On 8 June 2017, the US Department of State expressed concerns that the referendum will distract Iraqi actors from their fight against IS, which still holds swaths of Iraqi territory. In a phone call on August 18, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked President Barzani to postpone the vote. Iran, which maintains a strong relationship with both the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the PUK, has also warned against the referendum. On 9 June, Turkey (a key ally to the KDP), labelled the vote a ‘grave mistake’. Tehran and Ankara stressed the same view following the visit of Iranian Chief of Staff Mohammad Hussein Bagheri, on 16 August. On 8 September, Russian deputy Foreign Minister Michail Bogdanov stated that recognizing the results of the referendum is not on the table and that Moscow supports Iraqi unity.

Despite obvious international pressure on the KRI to cancel or postpone their referendum, the Kurdish leadership seems to proceed as planned. President Barzani and Kurdish leaders have noted on several occasions that holding the vote does not mean that the KRI would unilaterally declare independence anytime soon. While it is unlikely that the vote would prompt international armed conflict, both Turkey and Iran may fear that it could further ignite centrifugal tendencies of their own Kurdish minorities, should they impose sanctions on the land-locked KRI. In June and July, Iran briefly ceased the flow of water in the Zab and Alwand rivers, which was widely interpreted as a message conveying Tehran’s unease with the planned referendum.


Disputed territories

The independence referendum has been opposed as unconstitutional by major political factions in Baghdad, including PM Haidar al-Abadi and the head of the ruling Shia coalition National Iraqi Alliance, Ammar al-Hakim. After the failure of talks between Erbil and Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament voted on 12 September against the referendum and authorised PM al-Abadi to take any necessary measures to preserve Iraq’s borders. The main source of conflict is the Kurdish plan to hold the referendum in territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, according to Article 140 of the 2005 Constitution, including oil-rich Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Sinjar. Kurdish leadership regularly refers to such territories as ‘Kurdistan areas outside of the Kurdistan Region’, despite the fact that they still legally fall under Baghdad’s administration. Since the outset of war against IS, Kurdish forces have managed to fill the vacuum in some of these areas after Iraqi forces left, namely in Kirkuk, Sinjar, Khanaqin, Tuz Khormato and parts of Nineveh Plains, and seem determined to hold onto them.

Bargaining chip

Iraqi Kurdistan has already experienced one independence vote in January 2005, which was subsequently used as an argument to win greater autonomy from Baghdad. It is likely that the 2017 vote will be used for political gains, just as in 2005, primarily as a bargaining chip to win further concessions from Baghdad.  Unlike in 2005, the September 2017 referendum will include disputed territories such as Kirkuk, where it has met with opposition from the Turkmen and Arab populations. If the KRI manages to obtain overwhelmingly positive results it may bolster its legitimacy and grasp over disputed areas, in ways that surpass military presence. Despite Baghdad and Erbil not signalling any desire to initiate such conflict, the proximity of potentially hostile forces in the north increases the risk of armed clashes in disputed areas.

Tomáš Kaválek is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno and a Middle East and North Africa Analyst at Association of International Affairs (AMO).

About author: Tomáš Kaválek

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