Brinksmanship for Independence: The Prospects for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Planned Referendum

KRG President MasSoud barzani meets with US secretary of state john kerry in Erbil, Iraq, June 2014  [photo:  US Dept of State  via flickr]

KRG President MasSoud barzani meets with US secretary of state john kerry in Erbil, Iraq, June 2014  [photo: US Dept of State via flickr]

On June 7, Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), announced plans to hold a referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence. His statements joined a litany of previous promises and declarations favoring a separation from Baghdad. As the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul winds down and the Kurdish Peshmerga remain ensconced in disputed territories such as the city of Kirkuk, it is tempting to view this development as a turning point on the road to eventual independence. However, the planned referendum, scheduled for September 25 of this year, provides no concrete mechanism to initiate the process of secession. Mr. Barzani asserts, rather, that the results of the referendum “must be implemented” purely because they will reflect the will of the Kurdish people. Despite the attention the planned referendum has attracted, it is altogether unlikely that it will result in any significant political change, much less outright independence for Iraqi Kurdistan.

To understand the referendum’s limits, one must be familiar with the geopolitical factors constraining Kurdish independence. The KRG has historically kept a careful eye on the desires of its key external benefactors, most notably the US and Turkey. Surrounded by countries historically opposed to Kurdish independence, including an increasingly-active Iran, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would inhabit an unfriendly geopolitical environment. KRG officials have therefore opted to prioritize the preservation of their hard-won autonomy over the pursuit of a Kurdish nationalist project. Though support for independence among the Iraqi Kurdish public is incredibly high, KRG officials have made no substantive moves toward that end beyond releasing vague public statements promising future action.

US policy toward Iraq has played a major role in the calculus of the Kurdish leadership since the early 1990s. Public statements by KRG officials regarding the future of the Iraqi state have largely mirrored the policy positions of the US; during the period of US occupation, both espoused devotion to a united, democratic, federal Iraq. Explicit calls for independence by the KRG leadership only began in June of 2014 in the wake of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State group, when Barzani asserted in an interview that the country was falling apart and that the time had come for the Kurds to “determine their future.” Interestingly, Barzani began to temper his rhetoric after these initial few months as IS advanced to within 20 miles of Erbil and the US subsequently began conducting airstrikes against its fighters that August. On a trip to Washington in January 2015, Barzani reiterated that future secession was likely, but clarified that a unified Iraq was still necessary in order to combat IS. Barzani’s apparent recalibration - correlated with the KRG’s need for military assistance and the reintroduction of US military power in Iraq - is indicative of a decades-long Kurdish tendency to tailor their strategies to remain within the good graces of the US.  

Turkey, having long taken an interest in the Iraqi Kurds for their potential to agitate the former’s own restless Kurdish population, also figures prominently into Iraqi Kurdish strategy. Since the mid-2000s, the Turkey-KRG relationship has taken a turn for the better as Turkish foreign policy has shifted. The Kurdish region subsequently benefitted from Turkish investment and economic cooperation, and circumvented the inconveniences posed by its oil rights disputes with Baghdad by exporting directly to its northern neighbor. An independent and landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan would depend heavily on Turkey for economic survival. 

The KRG’s concern for the policies of the US and Turkey has consistently checked the development of a Kurdish nationalist agenda. The amenability of these two benefactors to Kurdish independence is therefore crucial in assessing whether such a development is imminent. For now, both have reacted negatively to the proposed referendum. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim decried it as “irresponsible” and the Foreign Ministry called it a “grave mistake.” Some analysts have suggested that this harsh reaction is meant more to address domestic Turkish politics, and that Barzani would not have made the announcement had Turkey firmly indicated its opposition in private. All the same, the fact that Turkish politicians feel obligated to denounce a nonbinding referendum makes any form of Turkish support for more tangible moves toward independence unlikely. Meanwhile, the US has reacted with its now-characteristic refrain, supporting a “unified, federal, stable and democratic Iraq” and calling on all parties to work within the framework of the Iraqi federal constitution.

Given Erbil’s enduring caution regarding the question of independence and its attentiveness to the desires of external benefactors who continue to oppose Kurdish sovereignty, it is unlikely that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will emerge in the near future. Absent a profound shift in geostrategic thinking in Washington or Ankara, it is hard to envision a scenario where the ever-cautious Iraqi Kurds would cast their lot with seeking outright independence. Barzani’s actions, rather, are likely an effort to probe the international response to the prospect of independence, or to shore up his own position domestically in relation to competing Kurdish political factions. Whichever the case may be, it is altogether improbable that the KRG will make any moves toward secession as a result of the scheduled referendum, which will likely prove to be little more than an opinion poll.