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Independence? Iraqi Kurds should be careful what they wish for

The people of Iraqi Kurdistan will vote next month in a referendum on whether to remain part of Iraq, or choose the independent state that has been the dream of every Kurdish nationalist movement since the breakup of the Ottoman empire a century ago.

If the referendum goes ahead as planned on Sept. 25 — it has been postponed several times — there is no doubt that most Kurds will vote for statehood. But the Kurdistan Regional Government’s move toward independence faces obstacles such as strong opposition from Baghdad, the absence of international recognition, domestic Kurdish political instability, weak economic and financial foundations, and reliance on external protection.

The Iraqi government continues to argue that the Kurdish drive toward independence is illegal and unconstitutional. A unilateral declaration of independence would further complicate already complex issues, such as oil resources and revenues, disputed areas, citizenship, ethnic minorities, water-sharing agreements, individual property ownership and freedom of movement.

Meanwhile, without international recognition, it is difficult to imagine the existence of an independent Kurdish state. The international community shows no enthusiasm. The head of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, Jan Kubis, called recently for negotiations between Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government to avoid conflict before the referendum. “The UN has no intention to be engaged in any way or form concerning the referendum,” he said last month in a briefing to the Security Council.

The US is also unhappy. Brett McGurk, US special presidential envoy to the US-led coalition against Daesh, said bluntly: “Having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, we think, significantly destabilizing and we’ve made those views very clear.”

The major European countries — Germany, France and the UK — support Kurdish autonomy rather than independence. Beijing and Moscow are likely to strongly oppose any unilateral move toward independence, as it could be a model or a precedent for their own minorities.

Neighboring countries have also been vocal in their opposition to any referendum that would fragment Iraq. Even if they did not intervene militarily to prevent independence, they could create problems. Iraqi Kurdistan is land-locked, which gives Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq itself huge leverage over the Kurdish economy.

The result of next month’s referendum is a foregone conclusion, but the path to the century-old dream of Kurdish statehood is strewn with obstacles.

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi

Kurdish internal division is also an issue that cannot be ignored. Historically, Kurdish people’s loyalties have been divided between the two nationalist parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Erbil and the Union of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah. The loyalties of the military, the Kurdish peshmerga, are also divided in a partisan and tribal way that hinders the establishment of a unified and professional army.

Moreover, because of economic mismanagement, declining oil prices, corruption and political rivalries, the influence of Islamist and secular opposition groups such as Gorran (Movement for Change) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group has been rising significantly. These groups accuse Kurdish President Masoud Barzani of using the referendum to bolster his own legitimacy, while regional powers have exploited political divisions in the Kurdish region to serve their national interests.

The economic situation is also not encouraging. Oil revenues are not sufficient to finance an independent state. Kurdistan’s crude output is about 570,000 barrels per day (bpd), of which about 380,000 bpd comes from fields in disputed territory around Kirkuk.

A unilateral declaration of independence would not solve the legal status of Kurdistan and is likely to deter major international companies from investing further in the region. BMI Research noted in a recent report, “Low oil prices have severely undermined the fiscal sustainability of the region, and with prices set to remain low by historical standards, financial autonomy is a distant prospect.”

In the context of these local, regional and international complexities, it is unlikely that the Kurds will declare their independence soon, whatever the result of the referendum. However, Barzani could use a “Yes” vote in three ways. First, to strengthen his Kurdistan Democratic Party’s position in November’s parliamentary elections. Second, as a bargaining chip with Baghdad to obtain greater autonomy. Third, to enter any negotiations with neighboring states from a position of greater strength.

Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East researcher, political analyst and commentator with interests in energy politics and Gulf-Asia relations. Al-Tamimi is author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He can be reached on Twitter @nasertamimi and e-mail: [email protected]