Kurdistan is under international pressure to postpone its September 25 independence referendum. Photo: Rudaw
By Barak Barfi
Last month, American Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Erbil. Though the visit’s stated aim was to discuss the campaign against ISIS, its real goal was to deter Kurdistan Regional Government President (KRG) Masoud Barzani from holding a referendum on independence September 25. A steady stream of visitors has carried the same message to Erbil lately, namely that the time is not ripe for conducting such a politically sensitive vote.
But as the Kurds eye independence, they will slowly grasp that the international community will never settle on a propitious moment to secede from Iraq. Jihadists, parliamentary elections and political jockeying in Baghdad will always deter the Kurds’ allies from supporting a unilateral declaration of independence. The key to success may lie in delaying the vote in exchange for ironclad guarantees that independence will be negotiated in the coming year.
Since President Barzani declared the referendum June 7, a number of nations have voiced opposition to holding the vote.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “We support a unified, stable and a federal Iraq.” For the Americans, the referendum, “would distract from urgent priorities and that be the defeat of ISIS.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson remarked, “Any referendum or political process towards independence must be agreed with the Government of Iraq in Baghdad. Unilateral moves towards independence would not be in the interests of the people of Kurdistan Region, Iraq or of wider regional stability.
Closer to home, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei commented, “Iran opposes holding talks of a referendum to partition Iraq and considers those who fuel the idea as opponents of Iraq’s independence.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “A step toward the independence of northern Iraq is a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq, and it is wrong.”
Because all of these nations unequivocally disapprove of the referendum, it is possible they will withhold recognition if independence is declared. As the KRG’s immediate neighbors, Iran and Turkey fiercely compete for trade opportunities ranging from building projects to oil exploration. They are both cognizant that their primary goal is to block the other from being ascendant.
These countries are caught in a prisoner’s dilemma, but one in which neither wants to make the first concession but is sure to make the second. As a result, their proximate interests are likely to trump foreign policy concerns.
For Turkey, these interests are much more complex. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has been fighting Ankara since 1984 is headquartered in the mountains of Qandil. Security cooperation is key to preventing the organization’s proliferation across the border. Any souring of relations would make PKK infiltration into Turkey that much easier.
For Western nations, security concerns are equally paramount. The campaign against ISIS has relied on local proxies rather than Western forces. The Peshmerga have proved a crucial ally in this battle and the bases the KRG has offered Washington and its coalition partners are similarly vital. Jeopardizing the gains against ISIS will weigh heavily on them as they consider their next moves.
President Barzani is in a bind. He desperately wants to secure the Kurdish dream of independence and feels societal pressures to do so. The repeated delays in holding the referendum have irked Kurds. But President Barzani equally knows the vote will lead to strained ties with Western nations as they navigate the feud between Baghdad and Erbil.
Sound leadership requires judicious decision making. The referendum will test President Barzani’s mettle.
The referendum is the first step on the long road to independence. Though the vote is a unilateral decision, seceding from Iraq is a bilateral process. Everything from borders to debt obligations need to be painstakingly negotiated. Borders will prove a Gordian knot. There is no clear demarcation line between Iraq and the KRG.
There are dozens of disputed territories, virtually all of which the Kurds have captured since 2014. Some of these areas have Kurdish majorities. In others Arabs preponderate. Baghdad is unlikely to accept the KRG’s argument that though the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein moved Arabs into these areas to dilute the Kurdish population they should nevertheless be included in a Kurdish state.
For these reasons, it will take years to resolve these issues. In the interim, independence is unlikely to be declared. But that may not be enough to satiate the Iraqis and the international community. One idea President Barzani has recently floated is delaying the referendum in exchange for a United Nations (UN) guarantee that the vote would be held next year. Such a move would reduce tensions with Baghdad and its international backers while allowing Iraqis and Kurds the chance to enter into intense negotiations.
The contents of a potential letter from the UN Secretary General to President Barzani are unclear since such promises have never been extended. But as the clock ticks down to September 25, the various players should embrace any way to diffuse tensions and find a solution that placates Kurdish aspirations for independence.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation specializing in Arab and Islamic affairs. He was previously a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a correspondent for Associated Press.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.