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An uncertain referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan

The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) President Masoud Barzani announced on June 7 that a referendum will be held in Iraqi Kurdistan on Sept. 25 this year. It will be a non-binding referendum — meaning that the proclamation of independence will be left to the discretion of the Kurdish leaders even if the outcome of the referendum is in favor of independence.

An independent Kurdistan has always been an aspiration of many Kurds, be they in Iraq, Iran, Turkey or Syria. Barzani played his cards as cautiously as possible by not going too fast. This caution may be due to several reasons: The subsidies that he was receiving from Baghdad, being worried of solation in the international arena, advantages of holding various offices in Baghdad, etc. He kept saying that Kurds have their right to independence and that they will use it when the time comes.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2002 and Nuri Al-Maliki’s becoming prime minister contributed to preparations on the ground for Kurds to advance their claim to independence. Al-Maliki’s sectarian and divisive policy ushered in uncertainty and instability in Iraq. This gave the Kurds a pretext that the country has become ungovernable and that they want to govern themselves.

When Al-Maliki started to withhold the 17 percent national oil revenues that had to go to the KRG, Barzani decided to export northern Iraqi oil to Turkey through a questionable arrangement.

In June 2014, when the Iraqi forces fled after the Daesh invasion of Mosul, Peshmerga, the military force of the Iraqi Kurdistan, took control of several areas evacuated by the army. It still holds them under its control now. Furthermore, as Daesh forces had to retreat from their positions in later attacks, Peshmerga also captured these areas, increasing the area under its control by almost a half.

The first time Barzani announced the independence referendum was in July 2014. He did not give a date, but said it would be held during the year. He later decided to postpone it, because a more conciliatory Haider Al-Abadi replaced Prime Minister Al-Maliki. Barzani renewed his commitment to the referendum in 2016, but postponed again until the liberation of Mosul from Daesh. Finally this time, he gave a precise date for it.

This step may be the beginning of the further fragmentation of Iraq. Oil-rich southern Iraq may be inspired by this bold move and may seek the establishment of a Shiite state, leaving the region around Baghdad for a Sunni state devoid of oil resources.

The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s president has announced a referendum on creating an independent state. But if that were to happen, then where does that leave the rest of the Kurdish people living throughout the region?

Yasar Yakis

The reaction to the announcement differed from one country to the other. Turkey, Iran and Syria, which have their own Kurdish minority, strongly opposed the announcement. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim qualified it as “irresponsible”; the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it was a “grave mistake”; Iran said it “supported Iraq’s territorial integrity”; Syria said it cannot “accept the division of Iraq.” They are all worried that this move may set an example for their own Kurds.

The US opposed the referendum on the grounds that it will weaken the fight against Daesh. Russia said the referendum should abide by international law.

Al-Abadi is on the record as saying in August 2016 that his government would not work against a Kurdish independence referendum, and that he saw the self-determination as an “undisputed right.” More recently, he said a September referendum this year was “untimely.”

If the referendum is held, the result will probably be in favor of the proclamation of independence, but problems will start to surface after that. Few countries have lent unconditional support to a referendum. In view of the opposition, or at least the reservation of major countries, it is difficult to tell whether this initiative will go through, because of the questionable timing. 

Yet the most complicating factor is not the date, but the provinces that the referendum would cover. It includes not only disputed provinces like Kirkuk and Makhmour, but also new areas claimed by Barzani, like Sinjar and Khanaqin, that are not considered by Baghdad as part of Kurdistan. Kirkuk is a more complex issue. It has to be examined in a separate article. The inclusion of disputed areas is likely to open a new debate on the validity of the entire referendum.

Turkey needs to handle the situation more carefully, because it cooperated in the past with the KRG for the export of Kurdish oil, despite Baghdad’s objection.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).