Is the world ready for "Kurdexit"? Referendum among Iraqi Kurds has Middle East on edge

Iraq continues to bedevil American foreign policy, and the world. Now the Kurds will vote on their own state

Published September 10, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Safin Hamed)
(Getty/Safin Hamed)

It was an eventful summer, especially in the Middle East. It all began with the Qatar kerfuffle on June 5, followed soon thereafter with a change in Saudi Arabia’s line of succession. Then came violence and protests over security measures at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. Mosul and Tel Afar were liberated in Iraq. The American-backed Syrian Defense Forces marched on Raqqa, the self-declared Islamic State’s “capital.” Yemen descended further into a humanitarian disaster with 600,000 cases of cholera and imminent famine. Morocco exploded in protest over the death of a fishmonger last fall at the hands of police. Iran continued to consolidate its power around the Middle East. The Trump administration withheld or delayed about $300 million in military assistance to Egypt over “geopolitical and human rights concerns.” Turkey’s massive purge continued. And prosecutors in Israel edged closer to indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption.

There was another story of potentially enormous consequences that received scant attention, however. Throughout the summer Iraqi Kurds prepared for a referendum on independence that will be held on Sept. 25. For the better part of a century, Iraq’s Kurds have been trying to undo what the League of Nations did under British pressure in 1925 when it attached the former Ottoman province of Mosul to Iraq. Their incorporation into Iraq has been an unhappy experience for the Kurds, to say the least.

The flashpoint of the last three decades was the notorious Anfal campaign in the waning months of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) during which — according to Human Rights Watch — Saddam Hussein’s forces killed about 100,000 Kurds. Among those who perished were 5,000 civilians who died horrible deaths after Iraqi forces dropped mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin on the town of Halabja. Only three years later, Kurds were driven out of Iraq en masse into Turkey when they rose up against Saddam after the U.S.-led coalition drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait. In response, then-President George H.W. Bush ordered the establishment of a no-fly zone in which Iraqi aircraft were prohibited from operating above the 36th parallel, protecting the Kurds and denying Iraq full sovereignty.

These traumatic events are only the most notorious in the bloody relations between Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds. The violence only punctuated more routine efforts to enfeeble the Kurds and subdue Kurdish national aspirations. Saddam also undertook an Arabization campaign to alter the demographics of the areas where the Kurds predominate. Particularly important is the oil-abundant governorate of Kirkuk, which lies between the Kurdish provinces of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, as well as the mostly Sunni Arab governorate of Salahuddin. It has long been a diverse area that included Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, but Saddam sought to alter Kirkuk’s demography permanently by moving Sunni Arabs into the region and pushing out Kurds. Like Halabja, Kirkuk has become a national symbol for many Kurds.

The American (and British) patrolled no-fly zones over northern (and southern) Iraq lasted until March 2003 and Operation Iraqi Freedom, when they were rendered moot. In the 12 years in between the Iraq wars, the Kurds built a state within a state. In 1992, the Kurdistan National Parliament established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk. When, in the post-invasion political arrangements, Iraq’s three Kurdish governorates formally became an autonomous region, this state-in-waiting took a step toward actual “state-ness.”

The postwar KRG enjoyed similar attributes of statehood as before the invasion — a parliament, presidency, ministries and an army — but with the American takedown of Saddam, Kurdish independence seemed more plausible. Still, there were benefits to quasi-statehood. For example, Iraqi Kurdish leaders enjoy all the trappings of independence without the full responsibility that comes with governing. KRG President Massoud Barzani, who is not much of a democrat, can claim credit for the KRG’s achievements but has a ready foil in the central government in Baghdad that can be blamed when things get tough. This quasi-statehood has also allowed the Kurds to build an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with largesse from the central government, all the while maintaining that Kurds will not be the ones to precipitate the breakup of Iraq.

This arrangement has its limits. From the perspective of the Kurds, the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad is determined to keep the KRG weak. In Iraq’s system of spoils, the Kurds are supposed to receive 17 percent of government revenues. According to officials in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, Baghdad has consistently shortchanged the Kurds of this constitutionally mandated share of government revenues. This accounting spat has exasperated both Kurds and Arabs and has compelled Kurds themselves to ignore agreements with Baghdad as they see fit. The best example of this is the Kurdish decision to sell oil independent of the Iraqi government. At one point in 2014, the fight over the KRG’s proposed oil trade required then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to intercede. American officials helped negotiate an agreement in December 2015, but that quickly faltered, leading the Kurds to sell oil without the consent of Baghdad in 2015. Then, of course, there was the Islamic State’s invasion and the performance of the Iraqi security forces, which convinced Kurdish leaders that Iraq was irredeemably broken.

In addition to the mutual frustrations and recriminations is the very fact that there is finally popular support among Iraq’s Kurds to go their own way. Young Kurds, in particular, know nothing about their fellow Iraqis, and have little in common with them. Their national myths are Kurdish myths, not Iraqi legends. In January 2005, something called the Kurdistan Referendum Movement conducted an informal referendum on independence at the same time that Iraqis were voting in the first post-Saddam parliamentary elections. A mere 98.8 percent of the Kurds who took part voted in favor. That exercise was informal, though. The referendum in a few weeks is far more consequential for the stability and unity of Iraq.

In between the KRG and Baghdad is the United States, which, under the Trump administration, is opposed to the timing of the referendum and has leaned heavily (to no avail) on Barzani for a delay. This is consistent with Washington’s kick-the-can-down-the-road-ism on this issue over the previous decade or so. Folks inside the Beltway love the Kurds but hate the idea of Kurdish independence, all the while declaring solemnly that a Kurdish state is “inevitable.” The argument hinges on the KRG’s economy — it being possibly “not viable”; the difficulties associated with Kirkuk, which Baghdad does not want to lose to a Kurdish state; Turkish and Iranian opposition; Baghdad’s rejection of the idea; and the American commitment to the unity of Iraq.

These claims often come with a whiff of cynical dismissiveness among some commentators and analysts who argue that Barzani is merely engaged in brinksmanship with his domestic opponents — he and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have dedicated competitors — and Baghdad in the service of a better deal. As a result, they have argued the referendum will not happen and even if it does, it will not mean much. Apparently for some, everything in the Middle East goes back to the bazaar.

As sound as the reasons for American opposition to the timing of the Kurdish referendum may be, they lack a certain amount of both imagination and reality. For example, even if Barzani is engaged in some type of gambit to give himself leverage with Baghdad over his share of government revenues and has no real intention of leaving Iraq, the likely overwhelming popular vote for a “KRGexit” may very well create domestic political pressures that force the Kurdish leader down that road. It is certainly true that low oil prices have revealed Erbil’s claims about building a dynamic economy to be hollow, but economic viability is hardly a disqualification for statehood.

The Turks are opposed to KRG independence because they are worried about Syrian Kurdish independence and they are currently engaged in a fight with the separatists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist group. Yet Turkey is also the KRG’s largest investor, and Barzani’s KDP has developed strong ties to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. The Kurds are hoping that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appropriation of the anti-Kurdish nationalist right will not affect their aspirations to statehood. Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, it is hard to imagine the Turkish military invading Iraq to snuff out Kurdish independence there. Its foray into Syria has demonstrated the limits of a military that seems far less fearsome than many imagined from the second largest army in NATO.

The real problems the Kurds have lie in Tehran and Baghdad. The Iranians are opposed to the referendum for similar reasons as the Turks. They have their own Kurdish population that exists uneasily within the dominant Persian political and cultural milieu. The Iranians have more of a capacity to make mischief for the Kurds, which is why officials in Erbil are angry that the United States has counseled a referendum delay. They believe this has only emboldened the Iranians to threaten the Kurds. From their perspective, the American position is bewildering. The Trump administration was supposed to roll back Tehran’s influence, not enable bad Iranian behavior.

By far, however, the toughest issue for the Kurds is the Iraqi leadership’s opposition. Last Friday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned Kurds not to go down a “dark tunnel.” This does not bode well for the amicable divorce the Kurds are seeking. Abadi is clearly concerned about the precedent that might set for other regions, like Anbar province, which was never incorporated into Iraq in a way that made sense to the people there, or the south, whose people seethe over a Baghdad that takes more from them than it gives back.

It does not seem that Iraq will ever offer its people or Americans a respite. Just as the existential threat that the Islamic State once was has receded, the Kurds have made it clear that the opportunity for their exit is here. It is likely that the media will largely ignore it, but the next chapter in Iraq’s internal struggle is upon us.


By Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook's day job is as a foreign policy analyst in Washington, DC. His most recent book, "False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East," was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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Foreign Policy Iran Iraq Iraq War Kurdish Kurdistan Kurds Middle East Trump Foreign Policy Turkey