September 29, 2017

Possible Outcome of the Kurdistan Referendum

A man waves a Kurdish flag in central Kirkuk on September 24, 2017, on the eve of the independence referendum for the Kurdistan region.
A man waves a Kurdish flag in central Kirkuk on September 24, 2017, on the eve of the independence referendum for the Kurdistan region.

Euphoric festivities continue in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, and flags depicting a yellow sun are flying high.

The lifelong dream of many locals has finally come true. The referendum’s outcome was expected—92% voted for breaking from Iraq, even though the leading politicians of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) were quick to confirm that the referendum itself does not serve as a declaration of independence.

However, clouds have already gathered to block the yellow sun, as expected. Only in September the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq decided that the referendum was unconstitutional. Even though the international community saw it coming, the leaders of Kurdistan did not continue the legal dispute and went ahead with the referendum. There are many internal reasons for the steadfast nature of their activities. Without going into detail, I should mention the poor state of the economy, which has resulted in wages going unpaid for months in government agencies, high unemployment rates (especially among young people), severe differences of opinion between parties, widespread corruption and the patronage system, an institutional vacuum, extension of the presidential term without elections, etc. Many local critics believe that all this constitutes the reason why the manipulation with nationalist feelings peaked and led to the referendum: without this, the popularity of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is controlled by the Barzani tribe, would be in jeopardy. The referendum’s integrity was challenged by reports of fraud, threats and people being forced to vote for independence.

The Kurdistan Democratic Movement’s (KDM) view that “now’s as good a time as any” went side by side with the “No for Now” campaign supported by the international public. Influential countries assumed the position that the referendum should be pushed into the future when the region’s key issues, e.g., defeating extremism, are closer to being solved. As a result, the US and its allies as well as the more important international organisations distanced themselves from the process. The majority, especially analysts from the neighbouring countries, warned that in addition to Bagdad’s reaction the referendum will entail many threats and a backlash from Turkey and Iran, both of which have large Kurdish communities and see the KRI’s example as a potential threat to national security. The warnings were founded. The landlocked KRI is now alone in facing the countries in the region that have formed a defensive perimeter around it as a preventive measure, receiving support primarily from Israel, which is like a red rag to a bull for the other countries in the area. For the first time in years, the so-called Kurdish question has led the otherwise competitive Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad to team up in order to coordinate their activities and take joint countermeasures.

The result can be seen merely a few days later as processes that cannot mean good to an average citizen of the KRI are triggered. Baghdad imposes a flight ban while Iran, Egypt and Turkey, but also the Lebanese airline MEA have cancelled or are about to cancel flights to Erbil. Turkey is encouraging its citizens to leave the KRI and threatening to close the valves of the Ceyhan oil pipeline. Both Iran and Turkey began to show off by launching a several-days-long campaign, initiating cross-border bombings under the aegis of the fight against terrorism and the Turkish military exercises near the border were in the focus of global media attention. One should not forget that Turkey already has military outposts in the KRI that are ready to be used. The reactions of the neighbours are clearly driven by internal policy and the KRI hopes that the situation will calm down in the near future, yet the statements made by politicians of both countries show that the current countermeasures are only a hint of what’s coming.

In the coming weeks, one should pay attention to Kirkuk, which accounts for approx. 40% of Iraq’s oil production. Oil is the KRI’s main source of income and Kirkuk is one of the controversial areas where the referendum was still held despite the protests of Baghdad and local minorities. The city is controlled by the Peshmerga, but the main employer of its myriad of public employees is the central government in Baghdad. Many locals are mostly afraid that the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) will launch—under the pretence of fighting Daesh—a joint operation in villages near Kirkuk, not stopping until the city or at least its oil fields are under the central government’s control. If this scenario goes ahead, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would find itself in a highly complicated situation in terms of both economy and security.

All things considered, Iraqi Kurdistan will remain in a situation where it has to make allowances for the great powers in the region, putting a long-term question mark over its own ambitious strive for independence. Stalling the referendum process or filing an appeal against the decision of the constitutional court would have resulted in better chances for negotiating with Baghdad, especially after the national general elections. The internationally acknowledged central government can now postpone the negotiations or remove them from their list of priorities. Delaying the process would be beneficial for Baghdad—many in the KRI confirm that the civic loyalty gained through patronage, scare tactics and other undemocratic means will diminish hand-in-hand with economic downturn. By then, the leaders of the KRI will have to face both the external great powers as well a new and complicated domestic problems.