On June 7, the representatives of the 15 Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan announced that their region will hold a non-binding independence referendum on Sept. 25, 2017. The referendum will also be held in disputed territories outside the area of the control of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) such as Kirkuk. In an attempt to allay concerns of the international community about the possible destabilizing impact of the referendum, on June 9, Washiar Zibari, a former minister and top Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official, told the press that the referendum will neither mean an immediate declaration of independence, nor will it determine the final status of disputed areas outside the KRG.
What are KRG President Masoud Barzani's motives in insisting on holding the referendum? It is noteworthy that Barzani has been in office since 2005, and has had two extensions to his time in office. In August 2015, his opponents rallied forces in the streets and created a political bloc in the parliament to unseat him. Since then, there has been a political crisis accompanied by acute financial difficulties and rampant corruption.
Based on the official reactions to the referendum from many international and regional actors, the KRG seems to have no overt support to carry out its plan for the independence vote. The Baghdad government considered the issue of holding a referendum unilateral, unconstitutional, and unacceptable, and the prime minister's office said as much to the press. The U.S. State Department expressed concern that the independence vote would distract from efforts to fight Daesh, and it declared its support for Iraq's territorial integrity. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has also denounced the referendum and considers it irresponsible. The Foreign Ministry called the referendum "a grave mistake." and the U.N., Russia and the EU have issued similar statements.
Barzani has been well-informed in advance through the powerful Kurdish lobbies in the U.S. and EU about the official stances of regional and Western countries on the referendum. However, he believes at the end of the day, the pro-Israeli lobbies in the U.S. and Europe, which support Kurdish independence and recognize the power Kurds have gained in the war against Daesh, and his secular and pro-Western credentials will eventually convince Western countries not to offer any tangible opposition to the referendum. Barzani believes Iraq disintegrated in 2014, and it is currently held together temporarily only by pro-Iranian Shiite militias and the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh. Senior KRG officials are on record saying that the one Iraq policy is fiction. They also believe that the U.S. will soon realize that their reliance on Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi to deliver them Iraq from the tight control of Iran is an illusion.
It seems that Barzani and his KDP are trying to avail themselves of an opportunity to raise the stakes in order to enhance their bargaining position with Baghdad, but not ruling out independence in the future. In February 2017, Barzani told a reporter that he has no plans for "an immediate declaration of statehood," but will rather judge the will of the "people of Kurdistan" and create the political landscape to "implement this at the appropriate time and circumstances. On May 24, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told Rudaw news that relations between Irbil and Baghdad are "akin to that of landlord and tenant – neither party likes it," as he argued that Kurds should face the challenge and take advantage of a "golden opportunity" in forming an independent Kurdistan.
Others maintain that Barzani heading for a referendum is merely a Machiavellian approach to end his legitimacy crisis as president. Barzani's timing seemed convenient enough that a journalist asked him in a recent interview whether the call for a referendum was sincere "or a mere gambit to leverage nationalist fervor and distract from domestic crises." Barzani responded: "Do you really believe that I would instrumentalize such a critical issue … just to advance my own political future?"
Finally, unless the Baghdad government or Iran acts to disrupt the current situation in the disputed areas, the referendum will be held in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a very popular demand and no Kurdish leader or group would dare stand against it. Even the anti-Barzani Goran Movement and Komal Islamic Group have issued statements that they will not stand against it. Since the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP, the two major parties, have agreed to hold the referendum, Barzani has managed to remove a big hurdle on the way to the referendum. KRG leaders have also committed themselves to do their best to solve internal issues and set the ground for parliament to be called back into session, as reported by Kurdistan24 on June 8. Therefore, there is no anticipated serious internal obstacle to holding the referendum. However, as a landlocked region plagued with numerous financial and political crises, an independent Kurdistan will not be much different from the short-lived Mahabad Kurdish Republic of 1946, or the recent experience of Southern Sudan. Therefore, the referendum will not necessarily be followed by independence.
Kurdistan will only be independent when the U.S. and Turkey lose hope of preserving Iraq as a country and fail in trimming Iran's hegemonic position in the country. Turkey may engage the KRG to safeguard Turkmen rights during the referendum and to negotiate a formula for partnership between Kurds and Turkmens after the referendum.
To sum up, a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is, to a large extent, meant as leverage in negotiations in post-Daesh Iraq. It is also an attempt by Barzani to demonstrate leadership and weaken his domestic foes. However, the international community has sent a clear message that circumstances are not yet ripe for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
* Professor at Salahaddin University, Iraqi Kurdistan, Middle East Center at Sakarya University