The decision by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to call a referendum on the future of Kurdistan has alarmed the rest of the country and the region.
Despite calls from Iraq’s central government, its neighbours and the United States, to delay the vote, KRG President Masoud Barzani insists it will go as scheduled on September 25.
The oil industry has a notable presence in Erbil and Western investors have travelled en masse to Kurdistan, seeing Kurdish areas as more stable than the rest of Iraq. It remains unclear, however, if Kurdistan would maintain its stability amid hostile neighbours.
If the referendum goes ahead, Iraqi Kurds are expected to vote for independence.
Abdulla Hawez, a researcher at King’s College London who analyses Kurdish politics, said that, while ‘the referendum is facing unprecedented opposition and hurdles within Kurdistan, I think the likely result if the referendum is held would be around 70 per cent ‘yes’ and the rest either vote ‘no’ or refrain from voting’.
A bigger issue lurks in the background, he said. ‘Economic crises and political division have left many citizens hopeless of any vote, be it elections or referendum’, Hawez said. This means that turnout, if low, could have a significant effect on the world’s perception of the referendum.
The world is already worried. The Americans sent Defence Secretary James Mattis to try to talk Barzani out of it. The United States may be hoping that the KRG can be induced to defer the referendum but this will only work if the KRG believes it is getting a better deal from the Iraqi central government.
‘There is a 50 per cent possibility that the referendum might be deferred if the Kurdish conditions are met or at least under the regional and international pressure both Erbil and Baghdad get to a deal’, said Hawez.
Paul Iddon, a journalist in Erbil, said this referendum was different from others. ‘Unlike the last two proposed referendums in Kurdistan, in 2014 and October 2016, this referendum has a precise date’, he said.
That date could prove difficult for Kurdistan’s president, however. ‘[Barzani] has lamented the fact that the referendum did not take place earlier, saying Kurdistan is already a little late and that it would have been easier to do two years ago’, Iddon said.
The military climate seems more conducive to independence. The immediate threat to Kurdish areas from the Islamic State (ISIS) seems to be waning and much ISIS-held territory is being retaken by Iraqi forces.
‘Now ISIS is largely defeated in Iraq. The Kurds are trying to reassure their American and Western allies that military coordination will remain intact. Barzani himself has said the Kurdish peshmerga will continue to cooperate with the Iraqi Army against common threats’, Iddon said.
The continued cooperation apes what might happen if Iraqi Kurdistan votes for independence.
‘It’s Erbil’s way of showing Baghdad, in any future negotiations, that it is negotiating for independence on behalf of the will of the Kurdish people, who are expected to vote overwhelmingly in favour of independence’, said Iddon. ‘A successful referendum will not necessarily mean immediate independence for Kurdistan, but rather a major first step in that direction’.
Hawez noted the lack of appeal of the prosaic economic arguments, which suggest using the referendum for leverage alone. ‘Kurds don’t just want a better share in the Iraqi budget but they also want more autonomy and more power to further consolidate their self-rule’, he said.
Once the referendum is given a go-ahead, its course may be dictated by more than political expediency. Iddon said it ‘is an important step for Kurdistan in its push for independence’.
Potential difficulties of this course of action are clear. What began as canny political manoeuvring may end up fragmenting Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders may be playing a political game but the dream of independence is seriously held.
Iraqi national politicians are not helping. ‘The leaders in Baghdad are busy with their own problems and all the parties try to use the Kurdish referendum in their own benefit by adopting a more aggressive tone against Kurdistan’, said Hawez.
Short-term thinking on many sides could lead to a potentially hazardous situation. The referendum could be the making of Kurdish nationhood and the effective end of the Iraqi state, still engaged in a necessary and difficult fight against ISIS.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.