A new non-Arab actor may soon appear on the Middle East volatile map. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq's autonomous oil-rich Kurdish region (KR) has announced that the northern territory will hold an independence referendum on September 25. The decision follows a meeting of the major Kurdish political parties in Erbil, the region's capital. On June 7, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi KRG, announced the date. The question put to voters would be «do you want an independent Kurdistan?» The vote will be followed by another – for a new parliament and president – on Nov. 6.
With Mosul soon to fall to US-assisted Iraqi forces, and Kurdish armed formations playing an instrumental combat role against the Islamic State, the KRG believes the time is propitious to act. The KR political parties agreed to reactivate the Kurdish parliament, out of session since October 2015, over the next three months. Referendum committees have been formed to visit foreign countries in an attempt to drum up support for Kurdish independence.
The referendum will be held in the three governorates that make up the Kurdish region and in the areas that are disputed by the Kurdish and Iraqi governments but are currently under Kurdish military control. They include the disputed city of Kirkuk as well as Khanqin, Sinjar and Makhmor. The KRG has formally informed the United Nations Security Council of its intention to hold a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan through the UN special representative to Iraq. With the United Nations oversight, the move will be made legitimate. Russia has been consulted on the issue. It stands for Iraq’s territorial integrity and talks between Baghdad and Erbil as the way to overcome contradictions and solve dividing issues.
Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish government's Security Council and son of President Barzani, said a year ago that Iraq should be divided into separate Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed.
Iraq's Kurdish region, with a population of about five million, already enjoys high degree independence with its own parliament, armed forces, constitution, state institutions, foreign policy, diplomatic representation, borders between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the Iraqi state, economy and trade deals. The KRG grows economically and politically stronger. The Kurdish oil industry is booming despite Baghdad’s threats to retaliate against the buyers of Kurdish oil. The KR has entered into several financial deals and development programs with the World Bank, UNDP, IMF and EU.
The KR is dealt with as a full sovereign entity by the US, UK, EU, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf and Arab states and UN humanitarian agencies. It receives official visits by UN Secretary General, US vice president, presidents of France, EU and special envoys from the Pope. German, Italian, US, Canadian and other ministers of foreign affairs and defense have gone to the region and the trips are treated as state official visits. President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, is received in major international capitals with official and presidential protocols as well. Israel has voiced support for Kurdish statehood, taking a position that appeared to clash with the formally announced US preference to keep the war-torn Iraq united. The fact that Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine have established consulates in the KR attests to the KRG’s expanding regional support base.
Nevertheless, the way to greater independence or statehood is no plain sailing. The KRG will have to solve some very difficult problems. The Iraqi Kurdistan will have to tackle the internal crises plaguing the various Kurdish parties. The referendum will occur amid deep divisions between Kurdish political parties and questions over the leadership of Barzani, who was supposed to step down three years ago at the end of his two terms as president before receiving a controversial extension. Gorran, the second largest party in the Kurdistan parliament, and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, did not participate in the meeting calling an independence vote as a result of political infighting.
The KRG will have to hold negotiations with the central Iraqi government, which has long opposed any cessation project in Iraq. The relations with Baghdad have worsened in recent years over a range of issues, including the sharing of oil revenues. The KRG says it is currently exporting around 600,000 barrels per day and has an export capacity of 700,000 barrels per day. Despite the fact that the Iraqi central government opposes Kurdish secession, there is little it can effectively do to prevent such a referendum or the actions to follow.
Militarily, Baghdad’s options are limited in any scenario. The war with the IS revealed the weakness of the Iraqi military. Iraq must rely on US airstrikes and support from Iranian-backed Shi’a militias to squeeze the IS formations away across the Syria’s border. Bagdad will hardly be strong enough to oppose the Kurds even after the Iraqi Army no longer engages the IS militants. The Kurdish militia’s strength is estimated to be around 200 thousand, a force to reckon with.
Another problem is the control of some disputed areas that have come under Kurdish control since 2014 during the war against the Islamic State (IS) group but are technically part of federal Iraq. The city of Kirkuk, dubbed as the Kurds' Jerusalem, is the main bone of contention. The KRG has been emboldened by the weakening of the central government in Baghdad as it has struggled to regain territory lost to the Islamic State. In 2014, the Kurdish armed militia, the Peshmerga, prevented the terrorist group from capturing Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled in the face of IS attacks.
Today, the Kurds control Kirkuk and the surrounding area, which is also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs. In April, the Kirkuk's Kurdish-led provincial council rejected a resolution by the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad to lower Kurdish flags, which been flown alongside Iraqi flags on public buildings have since March. Clashes have already erupted in the disputed regions of Sinjar, Khaniqin, Makhmour and Kirkuk in the past few years between Kurdish peshmerga forces and Shia militias. It highlights the potential for the referendum to trigger a fresh Iraqi conflict.
The KRG will have to convince the regional powers that independence will not damage their interests. Turkey, Iran and Syria, which are both concerned about autonomy aspirations among their own Kurdish minorities, all oppose the idea. At the same time, Turkey has a strong economic relationship with Iraq's Kurds and is becoming increasingly reliant on Kurdish oil.
Iran has good working relations with the KRG. It has maintained generally positive relations with Kurdish political entities and values stability along its western border with Iraq.
The US has not formally supported the decision to hold a referendum. The administration does not support the idea of Kurdistan’s independence though it is strongly backed by Congress and many pundits. The Kurdish community in the US has a presence at the lobbying level through the Kurdish National Congress of North America, established in late 1980s. Over time, the very nature of the US interaction with the Kurdish movement evolved from informal contacts to a much more institutionalized relationship. The United States has formally urged the KR to rethink its planned oil pipeline to Turkey, which is being constructed in defiance of the central government in Baghdad. Nevertheless, many American oil companies have ignored Washington’s advice, rushing in to join in the growth of now-booming Kurdistan.
In fact, Washington appears to say one thing and do another. For example, in July, 2016, the US went around the government in Baghdad to directly sign a military agreement with the KRG under the auspice of President Barzani. The Kurdish region also receives direct military support from several EU members such as Germany, France, and Sweden.
Ownership of this lucrative region is a «significant» political challenge, according to May testimony from US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Vincent Stewart. In an unusually blatant statement during a Senate hearing, the general said that the creation of an independent Kurdish state “is on a trajectory where it is probably not if but when. And it will complicate the situation unless there's an agreement in Baghdad».
In practice, Kurdistan could be used by Washington as leverage to influence Iraq if it turns into the orbit of Iran. In June 2006, a map of the Middle East, prepared by retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, was published by Armed Forces Journal. Although the map does not officially reflect a Pentagon’s doctrine, it has been used in training programs at NATO educational centers like Defense College in Rome. Among other things, it reduced Turkish landmass and featured a «Free Kurdistan» that included additional territory taken from Syria and Iraq. Iraq was presented as just a fragment of what it is now, carved up to also include Sunnis Iraq and the Arab Shiite State.
As the recent history shows, becoming an independent state is not always a success. True, more than a hundred countries recognize Kosovo, but many do not, even under the US and EU pressure. South Sudan has gained its independence through an internationally recognized referendum only to be plagued by internal conflict. The separation from Ethiopia did not make Eritrea prosperous. So, the emergence of a differences-torn territory with bleak prospects for future is a possibility.
The process of unification is a bumpy road. There are also Turks, Arabs, and Assyrians to name but a few of the multitude of peoples in the Kurdistan region. And they manifest different religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Yazdani. Unification means getting together different groups with different backgrounds, cultures and visions.
Iraq and Kurdistan cannot just break up without finding a mutually acceptable formula to settle the problems. No doubt, they can do it. After all, the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are still fighting the same enemy-the IS. They are brothers-in-arms.
The Middle East has already become a powder keg, especially in view of the recent rift between a group of states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and Qatar. Actually, the Middle East is going through changes to be reconfigured as reality dictates.
For Iraqi Kurdistan, the options are either a gradual process with diplomacy playing the key role, or plunging into the abyss of never ending wars and instability. At any cost, the KR must avoid being caught up in the strategic geopolitical calculations of the various influential actors of the Middle East. Getting separated from Iraq is no guarantee of success and better life. The Iraqi government should also realize that a prosperous and democratic Iraq is the best means to counter secessionist trends.