The Taste of Freedom, But at What Cost for the Kurds?

While the Kurdistani people may have voted for independence, the practical application of the referendum, which was rejected by the Kurdistan region’s neighbors, remains uncertain. Depending on the fallout in the days, weeks, and months to come, the referendum could either prove an opportunity to improve regional relations, or leave a bitter aftertaste for all parties involved.

September 25, 2017, was a historic day for the Kurds. In a referendum, close to 93 percent voted in favor of independence, a long-held dream for most Kurds. However, while many people in Kurdistan celebrated the outcome, the referendum was opposed by Iraq, its neighbors, and the international community. Further, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran responded by threatening to sanction the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq militarily or economically.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced the referendum in June, after several years of voicing intentions to take concrete steps towards independence, including at the Atlantic Council in May 2015. The KRG emphasized that the referendum—and a “yes” result—would not lead to an immediate declaration of independence, but would provide Erbil with the mandate to negotiate a potential peaceful separation from Iraq.

While the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil has had its ups and downs since 2003, things took a turn for the worse in 2014, when Baghdad, led by then-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, cut and later suspended budget payments to the KRG over oil sales disputes, a decision Iraq’s current Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has continued to uphold.

Waging war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and providing refuge for 1.8 million internally displaced people and Syrian refugees exacerbated the KRG’s existing financial burden. As a result, the KRG was occasionally unable to pay its employees for months in a row, forcing it to cut salaries up to 75 percent. The revenue question, along with constitutional violations and the lack of partnership between the central and regional government, led the KRG to decide the time was right to become its own nation.

Achieving independence would allow Erbil to engage and conduct business with the international community on its own terms, while the referendum itself would provide leverage in potential negotiations with Baghdad.

Barzani had waved away calls from neighboring countries and the United States to postpone the referendum. He made it clear that he would only cancel the referendum if guarantees were made that would lead to an independent Kurdistan. Iraq, Turkey, and Iran rejected the referendum, and the United Nations reiterated its concern that a referendum could have “potentially destabilizing effects.” In addition, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that he was “deeply disappointed” in the KRG for holding a vote, but that the referendum would not change the United States’ relationship with the Kurds.

While the day of the referendum was peaceful in Kurdistan and the partaking disputed territories, including Kirkuk, Iraq and Turkey conducted joint military drills near the border, as did Iran. At the request of Baghdad, Iran halted its flights to and from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Al-Abadi announced on September 26 that Erbil has three days to hand back control over the airports to the central government, or Baghdad would close the airports to international flights. Al-Abadi also said  the central government will not engage in any negotiations on the results of the referendum. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the referendum “treachery” and threatened to cut oil exports through the Ceyhan pipeline, blocking Kurdistan’s access from the global energy market. Ankara also stated it would not hesitate to intervene militarily if the Turkmen population were to become a target of violence.

While the next steps after the referendum—and the delicate balance between regional, Iraqi, and Kurdish interests—will be difficult, the results of the referendum should come as no surprise.

These are some key takeaways from the referendum:

  1. It is clear that the Kurdistani people and the disputed territories that partook in the referendum do not believe Kurdistan and Iraq can remain united under current conditions.
  2. Negotiations between the Iraqi government and the KRG will not immediately lead to an independent Kurdistan, and may not lead to statehood at all. However, it forces Baghdad and Erbil to resolve their differences in order to live peacefully as neighbors or together within a confederation.
  3. The referendum does not legitimize the KRG to stay in power without holding elections. If it truly wants statehood and to be seen as a democracy, it needs to remain committed to holding elections and continue to implement its economic reforms to avoid financial dependence on energy resources.

With Iraqi national elections scheduled to be held in April 2018, Al-Abadi and the KRG need each other. Since the first Iraqi election in 2005, no prime minister has taken office in Iraq without the support of the KRG. While Abadi would have wished to enter negotiations without a referendum, his failure to convince Erbil to stop the vote could make him look weak, while a refusal to enter into negotiations with the KRG will likely cause him to lose Kurdish support absent granting concessions. Meanwhile, current Iraqi Vice President Al-Maliki is keen to come back as prime minister, and the referendum works in his favor. He stated that the referendum is “a declaration of war on the unity of the Iraqi people” and that Kurdistan will not become independent.

Erbil, in turn, needs to ensure negotiations begin and reach some sort of agreement with Baghdad prior to the April 2018 elections. While a narrow time frame, the KRG risks losing the opportunity to negotiate or all progress made if someone opposed to negotiations, Al-Maliki, for example, were to win the election.

While negotiations will be difficult, there are many reasons to hope they could be productive. The United States has played the role of a mediator between Baghdad and Erbil before and could do so again. On September 26, the US State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert called Al-Abadi’s announcement to close the airports “not an example of engaging constructively,” and said the US administration believes both parties should come together and move things forward in a constructive manner. If Baghdad and Erbil are unable to come together on their own, the United States—a mutual ally—could exert pressure.

The stability of Iraq and the region at large is at risk due to the threats made and actions taken thus far. The current situation not only raises the stakes, but also distracts from broader cooperation that must continue—for example, fight against ISIS. The mounting rhetoric and escalation of military readiness only fuels the fire of both parties. It is time for Erbil and Baghdad to cooperate once more to negotiate a path forward that is acceptable for all, that includes peace, stability, and prosperity for all, whether as one nation or as neighbors.

Bina Hussein is an associate director with the Global Energy Center’s Energy Diplomacy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. You can follow her on Twitter @BinaHussein.

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Image: Kurds celebrated the outcome of their independence referendum in Duhok, Iraq, on September 26. Close to 93 percent voted for independence. (Reuters/Ari Jalal)