Kurdistan Referendum: Challenges and Consequences

The referendum on Kurdistan's independence, supposed to be organized on September 25, is a very important development as it would add more difficulties to the complicated scene in the Middle East. The Kurdish issue is not only an Iraqi one, it affects the integrity of Turkey, Iran and Syria where the vast majority of Kurds. Although the four countries differ in their attitudes towards Kurds who are considered terrorists in Turkey, fighting terrorists in Syria, sharing governance in Iraq, and a trouble maker minority in Iran, they are threatened by the referendum.

The political well of Erbil government toward independence is obvious. After a strong Kurdish role in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they are now waiting the harvest of their struggle. For a century, the dream of a Kurdish state controlled the conscience of all Kurds. They think that it may be the right moment to achieve it.

But it seems that it is not that easy. The referendum is expected to say "yes" for independence, is not likely to be immediately translated into separation as what happened in Kosovo. The referendum will probably be just an initial step to improve the negotiating status of the Kurds with Baghdad, and to take the legitimacy for calling independence. The following steps depend on the international and regional environment that appears to be resisting the full independence of the territory. There are many factories pushing that scenario.

First, Kurdish disagreement over what is beyond referendum. While the Kurdistan Democratic Party headed by Barzani and leads Erbil government considers the referendum a step forward independence. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the "Movement for Change" based in Sulaymaniyah is not see it like that. Even Hoshyar Zebari, the strong ally of Massoud Barzani, pointed out, on June 9, that the expected vote "yes" in the referendum on the independence of the Kurds will strengthen the position of the Kurdistan in its negotiations with Baghdad, but will not lead to the separation from Iraq automatically. "We are not talking about independence. We are talking about a referendum", he said.

Second, The Iraqi government refuses Kurdistan independence, considering it as the first step toward disintegration of Iraq. Bagdad would never be tolerant toward losing such important region with huge oil reserves, estimated by 40-45 billion barrels. But it is not easy for Baghdad to use force against Erbil considering the efficiency and strength of Kurdish forces and its high armament and adequate financial resources. Plus the expected western criticism to Baghdad for using force against Kurdish.

Syrian Kurds Fighting for Full Autonomy Nodar Mosaki
The Syrian Kurds will continue the sovereignization of the territory under their control. They intend to link all parts of Syrian Kurdistan and ensure its complete self-government while formally being part of Syria.

Third, the main regional powers are against Kurdistan independence. Despite its strong relations with Erbil and Barzani, Turkey shows hard opposition toward Kurdistan independence, considering it as a "grave mistake". Kurdistan independence would encourage the Turkish Kurds (14-20 million) to stepping up their operations and armed struggle for independence. Although Turkey has intervened militarily in Kurdistan region to pursue the PKK before, it is not likely to suppress the independence by using force. Strong economic pressure will be the suitable procedure used by Turkey to blocking independence. There are more than 500 Turkish companies working in Kurdistan. The trade between Turkey and Kurdistan is about 10 billion dollars. Turkish port of Ceyhan is also the main outlet for Kurdistan's oil exports, which amounts to one million barrels per day. Therefore, any economic pressure from Turkey will be painful for Kurdistan. Using force will remain the last choice for Turkey.

Iran also opposes the independence of Kurdistan and believes that the referendum create new crises in the region. Tehran worries about the echo of Kurdistan independence in Iran, where a Kurdish minority (8 million people) calling also for independence. Despite Iran's threats to Kurdistan and the Kurdish Iranian opposition based there, Tehran is not in a position to intervene militarily in the region.

That would enhance the strategic understanding and coordination between Tehran and Baghdad and also between the two and Turkey given the common threat posed by Kurdistan independence to the three countries. While Israel and some Arab countries, in their confrontation with Iran, may support the independence of Kurdistan, without formal recognition.

Fourth, western powers do not seem ready to immediate recognition of Kurdistan independence as Kosovo case. The US attitude remains the most controversial. Washington is backing the Kurds and arming them in Syria and Iraq in the context of war against terrorism. It recognizes the "legitimate right" of the Kurds for self-determination. The referendum is also an important step for US plans in Iraq and the region. Washington wants Kurdistan to be a military base for American troops and a thorn to pressure Turkey and Iraqi government if needed. Of course that angered Turkey which is traditionally an American ally. Washington recognition of Kurdistan independence would seriously damage the US Turkish alliance, which has been in crisis since the coup attempt in Turkey.

The German foreign minister expressed European fears about the referendum consequences, "warns of taking unilateral steps that could exacerbate the difficult in already volatile situation in Erbil and Baghdad." Germany is a key partner for Iraq's Kurds, supported them by weapons and training, with about 130 German soldiers stationed in Erbil to train Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Concerning Russia, as Moscow has maintained the right of self-determination for Crimea, it can not deny the same right for Kurdistan. In this context, pushing forward dialogue and negotiations between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government on broad self-rule for Iraqi Kurdistan seems to be the best alternative. It is also needed to develop a concrete proposal on the Syrian Kurds status with coordination with Turkey, Iran and Baghdad.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.