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The reverberations of the Kurdish referendum


In Duhok, one of the main cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, people eagerly headed to the polls on Monday, 25 September. Enthusiasm and emotions ran high as they cast their votes on whether or not Kurdistan should become independent from Iraq.

On Wednesday evening, the Electoral Commission announced the results: some 93 per cent had voted in support of secession. Over 3.3 million, or 72 per cent of eligible voters, had participated in the poll.

‘I voted “yes” because I want to see an independent and peaceful Kurdistan,’ Abdel Salam, a retired engineer, tells New Internationalist. ‘Baghdad has made many mistakes since 2005’ – He refers to the year when Iraq’s current constitution was approved.

‘I feel so happy,’ says Warhel, a 23-year-old student, as he exits the polling station.

‘I voted “yes” because we waited for this day for over a century, and it may not come back again. I want to see our flag in the UN, and for everyone to know I am Kurdish, not Iraqi,’ he adds.

Kurds, who straddle Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, have been struggling for autonomy since the fall  and division of the Ottoman Empire left them without a nation of their own. In Iraq, between 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed under Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign at the end of the 1980s. In 1991, a US-led no-fly zone was established to protect the Kurds.

A year later, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and a parliament were established to govern the semi-autonomous region.

After the polls had closed, Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan spent three nights celebrating on the streets. However, seeing the Kurdish flag in the UN will likely take some time – the process towards independence hangs in uncertainty.

The reverberations of the Kurdish referendum
Aerial view of the Citadel of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, surrounded by the modern city. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What’s next for Iraqi Kurdistan?

In its lead-up, nearly all of the international community opposed the referendum. Britain and the US in particular had urged the KRG to postpone the vote, wanting to keep Iraq unified while the fight against Daesh (so-called Islamic State) continues.

Despite regional and international pressure to delay the vote, Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, refused to back down and went ahead with the referendum. Since Monday, warnings and pressure from Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran have been mounting.

Turkey benefits from its trade with the KRG, but they want to ensure that the referendum will not result in immediate independence

Haider al-Abadi, prime minister of Iraq, has called for the annulment of the referendum’s results – calling the vote ‘unconstitutional’ – and has said he will not enter negotiations with the KRG.  On Friday evening, the Iraqi government suspended flights in and out of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two international airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

On Tuesday, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, said, ‘If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.

‘It will be over when we close the valves to the oil taps – all their revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.’

While fewer trucks have been crossing over, the border between Turkey and Iraq remains open. Turkey has yet to close the pipeline and cut off trade. If Ankara does move forward with its threats on trade, it would be a major blow to Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy. Iraqi Kurdistan exports around 550,000 barrels of oil per day to Turkey through the Ceyhan pipeline – the main source of income for its struggling economy. 

Dr Renad Mansour, fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, says shutting down the pipeline wouldn’t be in Turkey’s best interest either.

‘Turkey has a really good deal at the moment with the KRG,’ he says. ‘They get oil and gas at a very good price, but they can also send oil and gas to Russia and other places, and make money from that. So it’s in Turkey’s interests for the resources of the Kurdistan region [of Iraq] to move out.

‘The Kurdish region [of Iraq] is also a big market for Turkish companies, and there are many Turkish nationals living there,’ said Mansour. He explains that Turkey benefits from its trade with the KRG, but they want to ensure that the referendum will not result in immediate independence, potentially stoking further unrest amongst its own Kurdish population.

Turkey and Iran both have a sizeable Kurdish minority within their borders, and are concerned that the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan could foment separatist action in their own countries. Following Monday’s referendum, Kurds in Syria and Iran were also celebrating in the streets.

According to Reuters, Iran and Turkey began joint military drills near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Reuters also reported that Iraqi and Turkish soldiers are holding joint military exercises in southwest Turkey. 

Internal politics

While the majority of Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan want an independent nation, and support of independence cuts across party lines, Barzani drew criticism for the timing of the vote from the Gorran Movement, the main opposition party, who demanded that the parliament be re-opened before the vote take place.

Parliament has been suspended since 2015, after both Gorran and the Patritic Union of Kurdistan had opposed the extension of Barzani’s leadership past his two official four-year terms and an additional two-year extension.

‘In the short term this “divorce” is not going to be possible, and it’s not going to be amicable at all’

‘He’s a president who hasn’t had a legal mandate for a few years,’ says Mansour. ‘[He] has been dealing with an economy who has seen people not get paid for a long time; and a parliament that hasn’t worked for two years.’

The parliament has re-convened only once in the past two years, on 15 September 2017, to approve the referendum. However, members of the Gorran party boycotted the vote.

According to Mansour, Barzani was able to use the fight against Daesh and the influx of refugees and internally displaced people into Iraqi Kurdistan to justify the challenges with the economy and infighting within the political arena.

‘I think he was hoping to use this referendum to unite his people, and basically say: “I know we have problems, but once we become a state, once we are independent, these problems will go away”.’

Given the Kurds’ prominent role in fighting Daesh in the past three years, coupled with the upcoming Iraqi elections in 2018, some have posited that it was an opportune moment for Barzani to push for the referendum in order to gain leverage in negotiations with Baghdad.

Mansour adds, ‘There are a lot of negotiations going on between Erbil and Baghdad over how to divide, how to control, and how to gain influence in post-Daesh Iraq. To Barzani, this [the referendum] is a form of leverage that he is hoping to use.’

Elections for the KRG’s own parliament are expected to take place November 2017. The KDP has been led by the Barzani family since its foundation in 1946, but Barzani has said that neither he nor his family members would be running in the election.

On the other hand, Barzani’s popularity has increased following the referendum, and with renewed threats from regional neighbours it’s uncertain whether his vow to step down will remain the case.

While the referendum may have resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ within Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds in the region will now have to face down the no’s closing in on them.

‘In the short term this “divorce” is not going to be possible, and it’s not going to be amicable at all,’ says Mansour. ‘None of the countries surrounding its borders support them. Abadi and all Iraqi leaders are against it, and the Kurdistan region is landlocked, so they  [the KRG] need allies.’


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