The reality of a future Kexit (Kurdish separation from Iraq) seemed all but certain when, on September 25, residents of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Iraq. More than 92% answered ‘yes’ to the question: Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?
The referendum, although non-binding, stoked fears of regional instability and caused anxiety both within Iraq and among neighbouring countries. These states feared that the referendum would serve as a catalyst for their own restive Kurdish populations’ separatist demands. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, denounced the referendum as unconstitutional and refused to recognize its results. He also vowed to take follow-up steps “to protect the unity of the country and the interests of every citizen living in a unified Iraq.”
Indeed, on October 16, the Iraqi army, with the help from the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces, captured the disputed region of Kirkuk and its oil fields from Peshmerga forces, which had themselves seized the area from ISIS in June 2014. This was a huge blow to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), not only because Kirkuk is the spiritual capital of Iraqi Kurdistan but also because the region accounts for nearly 40 percent of Iraq’s total oil production. By seizing Kirkuk, Baghdad made clear its message to the KRG: any push for secession will come at a great cost. For now, the balance of power is in Baghdad’s favour.
The clash between Baghdad and Erbil—formerly “allies” in the fight against ISIS—has put the Trump Administration in an awkward position. Washington has thus far remained neutral. On the one hand, the Kurds have enjoyed U.S. support as far back as the imposition of the northern no-fly zone in 1991, which provided them a safe haven from Saddam’s aerial bombardment following the Kurdish uprising. The CIA even armed the Peshmerga in 2014 in its fight against ISIS despite protests from Baghdad and Ankara. But the U.S. also relies on the Iraqi army to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to fighting ISIS, and it also wants to ensure that the Shi’ite-led central government will not drift too far into Tehran’s orbit. Thus, official U.S. policy is geared toward the support of a unified Iraq, albeit one that recognizes the Kurds’ special position within Iraq’s federalism.
Despite all the tensions it has caused, the referendum has not answered the proverbial Kurdish question that has lingered since turn of the last century, which boils down to what the final status of a Kurdish political settlement should look like—autonomy, independence, or national unity.
The referendum was more symbolic than substantive. It does not bind Erbil to any future course of action. It was also not unprecedented. In 2005, the KRG held a similar referendum resulting in an even more resounding ‘yes’ vote in favour of independence, but this did little to change the status quo. The recent referendum merely gives the KRG a mandate to negotiate secession from Baghdad if it so chooses; nothing more. In fact, as KRG President Masoud Barzani recognized, any realistic path to independence would take at least two years to achieve, including settling land and oil sharing disputes. Such a path will remain laden with political obstacles, military hurdles, and economic disincentives. In the current political climate, that independence is a bad idea for several reasons.
The Impact of Kurdish Independence on Iraq’s Stability
Firstly, Kurdish secession would jeopardize the internal stability and territorial integrity of an already-precarious Iraq. The country is in the process of forming a viable national identity in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and the ISIS takeover of Mosul in 2014. Kurdish independence would break away more than 1/3rd of Iraq’s habitable territory—a demoralizing setback for a nascent democracy, albeit one that continues to flirt with authoritarianism.
Essentially, secession sends the wrong message to other disaffected groups in Iraq at a time when sectarian and ethnic tensions remain major fault lines in Iraqi politics. The message to these groups is that that they, too, should partition a piece of Iraq for themselves rather than achieve their goals within Iraq’s federalist structure—a structure that was painstakingly negotiated by Iraq’s various political factions and ratified in the 2005 Iraq constitution. In fact, it was not long ago that the governors of the predominantly Sunni provinces of al-Anbar and Nineveh were narrowly dissuaded from making good on their promise to declare regional autonomy modeled on the Iraqi Kurdish framework. (A third Sunni-majority province, Salah al-Din, actually declared regional autonomy in 2011, but a provincial referendum was blocked by former PM Nouri al-Maliki on the basis that the declaration was a sectarian bid to turn the province into a Ba’athist refuge.)
Admittedly, a Kurdish citizen would hardly blink at the prospect that the newly-independent Kurdistan would exacerbate internal tension in Iraq. Many Kurds do not consider themselves Iraqi and many Kurdish nationalists point to the gradual disintegration of Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion as a factor for independence. However, any observer that takes the future of Iraq seriously should consider the dire consequences of Kurdish independence on Iraq’s political future. An independent Kurdish state at this critical juncture would risk the fragmentation of Iraq into mini-states or, worse, balkanization.
Kurdish Independence and the Destabilization of Regional Security
Secondly, an independent Kurdish state on Iraq’s northern frontier, often referred to as Southern Kurdistan by Kurdish nationalists, would have a destabilizing effect on the region. Such a landlocked state would be encircled by foes—namely Iraq to the south, Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, and Syria to the west—none of whom have any interest in seeing their own territorial integrity threatened by the prospect of a Greater Kurdistan. Since Baghdad would almost certainly refuse to accede to an independent Kurdistan, hostilities would almost certainly erupt between the two states. And with both the Iraqi and Syrian governments achieving battlefield victories against ISIS, both states would likely turn their attention to combating—or at least containing—the Kurds.
Kurdish independence would also rile up the PYD in Syria, which would undoubtedly draw the ire of Damascus and, more importantly, Ankara who sees the PYD as a manifestation of the PKK (the latter having waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish state). Turkey continues to crack down on Kurdish militants within northern Iraq and has carried out airstrikes on Kurdish forces in Syria. It views Kurdish separatism as a more serious internal and regional issue than the threat posed by ISIS and its Salafi brand of transnational jihad. It fears that Kurdish independence could set off internal unrest among its own Kurdish population, who make up 20 percent of Turkey’s 80-million inhabitants. Iran seems to be even more hostile to Kurdish independence, largely for similar reasons.
The history of secession movements also shows that secession tends to exacerbate rather than resolve internal tensions and creates a far more likelihood of inter-state war between the newly-independent state and its predecessor. This can be seen in the examples of the former Yugoslavia and South Sudan. What’s worse, Kurdistan is all alone, notwithstanding political support from a relatively distant Israel. A declaration of independence would drive the Kurds deeper into isolation in a region that has not been kind to Kurdish nationalism, turning the old Kurdish aphorism into a tragic realism: the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.
The Political and Economic (In)Viability of Kurdish Independence
Thirdly, there are grave doubts over whether an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is even economically and politically viable. The region’s economy has struggled in recent years as private capital has exited quicker than it’s poured in. This is due in large part to the rise of ISIS, budgetary disputes with Baghdad, and a drop in the global price of oil—not to mention endemic corruption and mismanagement by KRG officials.
This overreliance on oil revenues has also made it hard to diversify the economy. Oil sales make up 80-90 percent of the KRG’s revenues, which are then largely spent on the salaries of government employees. The economy remains almost completely dominated by the public sector. With public coffers drying up and the KRG drowning in more than $30 billion in debt, there is great pressure on the government to find new sources of revenue.
Against this backdrop, the timing of the referendum was hardly a coincidence. Barzani strategized that an overwhelming, and predictable, ‘yes’ vote would help shore up domestic support ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential Iraqi Kurdistan elections, whilst simultaneously deflecting attention away from the battered economy.
The Kurds in northern Iraq are also politically fractured. The two main ruling parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—are divided along tribal and ideological grounds. (A third party, the Gorran Movement, branched off from the PUK in 2009 and has even surpassed it in terms of seats in parliament, but it has no members in the cabinet). In fact, so divided are the political parties that the KDP has hurled accusations of treason at the PUK for allegedly failing to resist the Iraqi advance into Kirkuk on October 14. Ironically, it was Barzani who, in August 1996, appealed to Saddam Hussein to send Iraqi troops to assist the KDP’s effort to retake Erbil from the PUK. This was the brutal culmination of the KDP-PUK civil war that engulfed northern Iraq in the 1990s.
Currently, the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament is at a standstill, unable to pass any new laws. It has only convened once since 2015, solely to approve the independence referendum. Its inactivity followed the extension of Masoud Barzani’s presidential term—which was set to officially end on June 30, 2015—which prompted violent protests and political deadlock. The Peshmerga, which is often lauded as a superb fighting force, is itself divided; only a fifth of the force is non-politicized. The loyalties of the remaining 150,000 or so Peshmerga fighters are divided between the Erbil-based KDP and the Sulaimaniya-based PUK.
For now, the referendum is less about the Kurds’ readiness for statehood and more about Barzani’s bid to outmanoeuvre his political rivals by playing the nationalist card. The referendum was also about exerting pressure on Baghdad to recognize Kurdish land claims and reapportion subsidies that the KRG desperately needs. None of this is to say that the Kurds in northern Iraq do not have a right of self-determination. But, Barzani played the wrong hand at a time when the KRG needs to get its political house in order before fanning the flames of nationalism.
Barzani miscalculated his strategy: Kirkuk, the beating heart of Kurdish nationalism, has been reclaimed by Iraq’s central government; Kurdish politics has turned into a mirror image of Iraq’s fragmented polity; and the Kurds in the north have become more isolated than at any time since the post-Saddam order. Only time will tell whether the referendum will pay a political dividend.