A controversial independence referendum was held last month in several provinces of Northern Iraq. The vote started a sequence of spiraling domestic and regional tensions. A month on, here is what you need to know.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED?
Despite central government’s opposition, the leadership of the Kurdish autonomous region organized a referendum, regarding the creation of an independent Kurdish state on the 25 September 2017. The official turnout was 78%. Over 92% voted in favor of independence.
WHERE DID IT HAPPEN?
The referendum took place in the north of the country, in provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan — Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk — controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and territories disputed with the central government.
The KRG is part of the federation of Iraq, but since its creation in 1992 it has enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. It was established in the context of the 1990 Gulf war, during which the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein, prompting him to attack Northern Iraq. The humanitarian crisis that followed led US-led anti-Saddam coalition forces to create a safe haven for Kurds, giving them, in effect, autonomy.
Today 5.2 million people live in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to KRG sources.
WHO OPPOSED THE REFERENDUM?
Condemnation of the referendum came from most of the international community, including Russia and the UK. The US, despite being historical allies of the Iraqi Kurds, also opposed the move.
Neighboring countries with significant Kurdish minorities, strongly opposed the referendum, fearing a Kurdish state could encourage their own Kurdish populations to seek independence.
Turkey, despite having close ties to the KRG region urged the Kurds not to hold the referendum. Home to a sizable Kurdish population, Turkey has been fighting Kurdish insurgent groups for decades, and is currently engaged in military operations to prevent Syrian Kurdish groups from spreading their influence at its southern border.
Iran similarly warned the Kurds not to go ahead with the vote and conducted military manoeuvres as a warning before the referendum took place.
WHO BACKED IT?
Israel is the only country in the region that publicly supported the referendum. Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan are bound by a long history of quiet strategic and economic relations.
Initially against it, France eventually said it wouldn’t oppose the vote. It is the only major western power to adopt that line.
WHY HAS IT HAPPENED NOW?
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have called for a referendum several times in the past. So why now, in spite of their allies’ — including the US, Turkey and UK’s — strong opposition?
Many have argued that it ties into a strategy to legitimize territorial gains. In the fight against so-called Islamic State (IS), Kurdish forces have gained control over a number of territories that are not formally part of the Kurdistan Region, but have an ethnically mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Their importance to the Kurds can be explained both ethnically and economically.
Those areas have long been a point of contention between Baghdad and Erbil, as to whether they should be controlled by the KRG. The presence of significant reserves of oil in one of these provinces, Kirkuk, adds a strategic dimension to this longstanding political issue. The referendum can be seen as a way for the Kurds to solve it and solidify their control over these territories.
The referendum could also be seen as an attempt to gain bargaining power in a post-IS Iraq. The Kurdish establishment knows that the end of the fighting against IS will open negotiations over the reconstruction of Iraq. The parties that have so far united in the confrontation with IS all have different agendas. The Kurds threat of independence, legitimized by a referendum, could be seen as a manoeuvre to gain political leverage in post-IS negotiations.
As argued by Chatham House expert Dr. Renad Mansour, with whom iguacu met, this manoeuvre is targeted at both Baghdad and Washington. In a post-IS era, the Kurds indeed need to remain relevant to their American allies. A strong result to the independence referendum can place them on a strong seat vis-a-vis the US.
To an extent, domestic intra-Kurdish interests are also part of the answer. Before the referendum, Kurdish president Barzani’s popularity was waning and public discontent over a dysfunctional parliament and the steady decline of the Kurdish region’s economy was growing. The referendum can be seen as a way for Mr. Barzani to retain legitimacy.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE REFERENDUM IN IRAQ?
The referendum couldn’t — and didn’t — trigger immediate independence. There are no provisions for it in the Iraqi constitution. The results are, for now, a statement of intent that Iraqi Kurds and their leaders want to pursue independence, without a specific timeline or mechanism to do so.
Calling it illegal, Baghdad rejected the referendum and its result and asked the KRG to do the same. Two days later, it began implementing a ban on international flights in and out of Iraqi Kurdistan.
On the 18th of October, in a surprise campaign, the Baghdad government captured territory from Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq. The move included the capture of disputed oil fields close to the city of Kirkuk.
According to relief organizations working in the region, the transfer of control appeared to have taken place with very few episodes of violent confrontations. The International Committee of the Red Cross said the number of wounded does not go beyond a few dozens.
This rapid move has to a large extent shifted the balance of power in the region. As a consequence, the Kurds have lost a significant part of their territorial control, dashing prospects for a quick independence.
The Kurdish government subsequently asked the central government to enter political negotiations. Baghdad rejected the offer, planning further military moves.
On the 30th of October, facing increasing internal contestation, Mr. Barzani announced his resignation, opening a sequence of deep political turmoil in Kurdistan.
WHAT ARE THE REGIONAL CONSEQUENCES?
Even before the referendum, tensions between Iraqi Kurdistan and its neighbors had started to rise, with Iran and Turkey holding military manoeuvres as a warning.
The sanctions spiraled afterwards, with Turkey closing its airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish region. President Erdogan threatened to close Turkey’s borders with northern Iraq, in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Iran. According to several reports, Iran has already shut its own border with the autonomous region.
The extent of the referendum’s impact on the wider region is hard to predict, but some fear it could create further instability in an already restive Middle East.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE KURDS OUTSIDE OF IRAQ?
Although very fragmented, the KRG’s venture of independence has been widely welcomed by a majority of Kurdish representatives throughout the Middle East. Their support appears, so far, to be quite strong, though they may not be in favor of secession from their own countries.
Some communities in the region fear that the referendum could have a damaging effect on how Kurds are perceived and treated in their countries.
Want to learn more about the conflict in Iraq? Head to weareiguacu.org/iraq.