Iraq’s Kurds have voted overwhelmingly to become independent. More than 90 per cent of those who voted backed secession. This confident margin of victory does not translate into international confidence. The United States repeatedly attempted to dissuade the leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) from having the referendum at all.
The government of Iraq did not look kindly on talk of independence and attempted, mainly by issuing threats, to prevent the referendum from taking place. Once the vote was completed, Iraq’s leaders hardened their position.
Other regional powers also lined up to condemn the possibility of secession. In this, Iran and Turkey are looking not only outward, but inward, assessing that their own Kurdish minorities may be emboldened by the Iraqi vote.
Despite the rhetoric of KRG President Masoud Barzani and others, Iraqi Kurdish politicians are cautious. Independence is not a done deal.
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: ‘de jure independence – meaning Iraqi Kurdistan as a UN-recognised state – is not inevitable’. Instead, Knights suggested, other options remain. Iraqi Kurdistan could end up ‘a stronger federal autonomous region inside Iraq’ or the Iraqi state could embrace ‘co-federalism’.
These outcomes are not popular. They are options that require dialogue and conciliation after a campaign that strained relations between the Kurds and Iraq’s Baghdad government.
The Iraqi state has taken a hard line on the possibility of Kurdish independence and has done so in concert with neighbouring countries. It has closed Kurdish airspace to outside travel, shutting down flights linking Erbil to the wider world.
Under a Notice to Airmen, a tool used by governments to restrict flights, Kurdish airspace could remain closed until December 29. This could prove an effective punishment from Baghdad and a real obstacle to Kurdish independence.
Other countries were content to work in tandem with the national Iraqi government to make full independence less likely. Knights said: ‘Turkey is following Baghdad’s lead at present and there is a desire in Ankara to teach the Kurds a lesson and show Baghdad that Turkey is a partner in restraining a move to full independence’.
Punitive measures such as this dampen the tone in the KRG, which faces financial and governmental crises.
Abdulla Hawez, a researcher at King’s College London who looks at Kurdish politics and society, said that, despite the massive electoral victory for the independence campaign: ‘I think the majority of Kurds are actually pessimistic. There were already a large number of Kurds who were not happy with the timing of the independence [vote] and thought it is a politically driven decision by Barzani to stay in power’.
He said there are threats from Baghdad and other countries that have ‘imposed sanctions on KRG without Barzani being able to do much; increasingly a number of people are questioning whether the timing of the referendum was right and whether Barzani has an actual plan to go further with his independence project’.
Hawez noted that ‘there are many complexities’.
The practical business of secession is made more difficult by the problems that need to be resolved if Iraqi Kurdistan is to become independent. These include the continuing fight against the Islamic State (ISIS); the status of Kurdish-occupied areas, such as Kirkuk province, which have Arab majorities but are not officially incorporated into the KRG; and economic issues.
The status of Kurdistan’s natural resources is vital. If an independent Kurdistan could not control them, it would be unable to function. Hawez said ‘the economy is almost all dependent on oil and gas’.
Making use of these resources is essential. Hawez noted that given the fact that Kurdistan is landlocked, ‘the region needs to have the approval of at least one of the neighbouring countries (e.g. Turkey) to be able to export its natural resources thus to economically survive’. With Ankara aping Iraq’s national government in denouncing the referendum and the prospect of independence, this result seems unlikely.
Independence is also hampered by political dysfunction within Iraqi Kurdistan. As Hawez noted: ‘Kurdistan doesn’t have any actual functioning institutions’.
‘For instance, the KDP [Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party] was easily able to unilaterally close the parliament in 2014 when the legislators tried to discuss a new bill to change Kurdistan’s [presidential] law and eventually topple Barzani’, he said.
This is exacerbated by institutional problems within the military and police. Hawez said: ‘The security forces are not only partisan but loyal to the Barzani and Talabani ruling families’.
For Iraqi Kurdistan to succeed as an independent state, the guarantors of state security cannot be beholden to two political families.
An independent Kurdistan would face many challenges. Even to secede, its leaders would need to find, with Iraq and other neighbouring countries, solutions to almost intractable problems. None of this looks likely. The atmosphere internationally is hardly positive. This is beginning to sour the mood within the KRG.
Successfully carrying out and winning the referendum was the easy part for Barzani and other Kurdish politicians. Independence may prove unworkably difficult, involving economic hardship, political isolation and internal crisis – if Iraqi Kurdistan achieves independence at all.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.