Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Kurdistan precarious but steadfast on eve of referendum

The allure of a referendum on Kurdish independence has overridden the practical implications and very real risks.

Photo: Younes Mohammad/Getty Images
Photo: Younes Mohammad/Getty Images

It is hard not to be sympathetic to the decades-long Kurdish struggle for independence and self-determination. The long-suffering Kurdish nation was summarily divvied up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a document that continues to vex the Middle East to this day) and the Treaty of Lausanne after World War I. Ever since, the dream of Kurdish statehood has been dashed, Kurdish culture and language the targets of liquidation, Kurdish people the target of massacre and genocide and Kurdish political considerations stifled by regional and international geopolitical interests. Ever since, Peshmerga fighters and astute Kurdish political leaders have been struggling for statehood.

All of the moral, emotional and democratic arguments for Kurdish national independence are there. They always will be. The referendum on Kurdish independence planned for today in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area in northern Iraq seems long overdue.

But (and there is always a but) when it comes to Kurdish independence, the geopolitics remain as treacherous as ever; the security situation as precarious as ever; and the economic viability of a new Kurdish state, amputated off of a hobbled Iraqi state, as fragile as ever. Even as the democratic arguments for Kurdish independence remain self-evident, so too do the daunting geopolitical risks. It is this conundrum that has constantly vexed the Kurdish people in their struggle for a nationhood.

Since the 2003 Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy and influence. They control their own borders, elect their own parliament, draft their own laws and maintain their own security. Without actually declaring a state, the KRG is a de facto one. It is a tribute to the savvy political tradecraft and strategic vision of Iraqi Kurdish leaders and a sign of Baghdad's dysfunction and weakness. Civil wars, the Islamic State and successive revolutions and coups have kept the region and the KRG's neighbours in a state of disoriented flux. The KRG has deftly exploited the situation to its advantage, never officially declaring statehood but creating facts on the ground and expanding their autonomy. So with an autonomous de facto state, a weak central government in Baghdad, and entrenched opposition to formal Kurdish statehood from international and regional interests, the question is: why now? Why hold a referendum at all?

Proponents of the referendum argue that the same old justifications – Turkey's seemingly intractable opposition, the lack of international support, the need to keep the territorial integrity of Iraq and the potential spillover effect – will always remain, and will not be removed by further delay or negotiations with the KRG's neighbours.

The Kurds could never rely on international support. Baghdad already withdrew budgetary support a few years ago when the KRG and the central government could not reach an agreement on sharing resource revenue. Baghdad has few cards to play. The KRG has been surrounded by security threats since its inception. Despite Turkey's warning of guaranteed retaliation, Turkey is also distracted by political and security problems. Syria is not much of state and can no longer mount serious opposition to the KRG. There will never be a perfect moment and the time is particularly ripe now, particularly off the back of a Peshmerga-assisted victory against Islamic State.

Besides, proponents argue, the referendum is not an official declaration of independence, but one step below. The referendum will only ask 'Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?'. It is an aspirational question, not an outright declaration. There is no official timeline attached and a 'Yes' vote won't trigger any immediate moves towards independence. All an affirmative vote would do is strengthen the KRG's hand in coming negotiations with Baghdad. With Iran's tightening grip on the rest of Iraq, proponents of the referendum argue that the KRG has little time to waste before Iran's growing influence makes favourable negotiations less likely. Kurdish Peshmerga also now have de facto (though controversial) control over Kirkuk, a city the Kurds call their Jerusalem. The analogy is far from perfect, but control over this resource-rich city is central to the KRG's push for independence.

Moreover, one cannot discount the strong desire for this current crop of KRG leadership, particularly President Masoud Barzani, to be the ones to deliver independence. They are leaders of a certain age who have literally been through the wars. They have personally experienced decades of military and personal struggle, and want to be the ones to deliver independence before they are overshadowed by the next generation of Kurds, who have largely grown up in an autonomous Kurdistan.

Then there are the local political dynamics. The KRG's many successes are often hailed in the media, but there is an underlying instability that this referendum aims to mask. Barzani's term ended two years ago but he remains in his position. He runs his section of the KRG like a tribal chieftain, not a democratically elected leader. Tensions been his KDP party and the PUK and Gorran are high. Opposition figures have been persecuted. The media and civil society have been stifled. Prior to this month, parliament hadn't met for two years, ever since the leader of the opposition was barred from entering. The KRG's budget remains fragile ever since Baghdad stopped payments. The KRG, and Barzani in particular, want to distract from the economic and political troubles and allegations of corruption leveled against KRG leadership. This referendum is a perfect way to do it.

There is also a pervasive sense that, despite the many perils of declaring independence, the Kurds will never be secure as part of Iraq. The chemical attacks of Halabja are seared into the national memory. Saddam's Arabisation policy destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and killed 100,000 people. Iraqi Kurds fear that the same chauvinistic tendencies remain.

But while the reward of statehood might be great, the risks are all too real and could quickly overshadow any victory a 'Yes' vote may bring. The UN Security Council, which failed to pass declarations against the Assad regime during six years of a brutal civil war, issued a unanimous statement expressing concern about the referendum, calling the vote destabilising. The US, the Kurds' strongest military ally, has come out against it. Iran, Turkey and Iraq announced on Friday that they would consider 'countermeasures' if the KRG goes through with the vote. Turkey has begun military exercises along the Turkey-KRG border. And the KRG is being guilt-tripped into calling off the referendum because it could affect ongoing operations and regional cooperation against Islamic State.

But the referendum is going ahead and a 'Yes' vote will be the likely outcome, despite the many Kurds who are sceptical of the timing. An affirmative vote won't result in immediate independence, but it will result in swift retaliation.

Nevertheless, the allure of Kurdish independence has overridden the practical implications and very real risks. The Kurds have a poetic saying that 'the Kurds have no friends but the mountains'. Since World War I, no one has agreed to Kurdish statehood, despite purported sympathies. The Kurds' allies have routinely abandoned them and their adversaries remain steadfast. The unrealistic and audacious vision of Kurdish statehood is reflected in those mountains: precarious but steadfast.


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