On Friday, Kurds living outside of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq can register online to cast a ballot in an independence referendum that could decide the future of the Kurdish people, a vote that some experts and officials have warned has the potential to cause regional upheaval and threaten the campaign against Islamic State.
The land historically known as Kurdistan spread across 190,000 square kilometers in four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – and Kurds are commonly called the largest population in the world without a nation. Since 1992, the Kurdistan Regional Government has controlled one piece of the historic “Kurdistan,” a 79,000 square kilometer area known as Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Region, or simply Southern Kurdistan.
The KRG is the only Kurdish official government in the world, and it controls a small portion of the areas collectively called Kurdistan, whose total population numbers between 30-40 million. Now the 6 million Kurds who live in Iraq will decide if they want to govern themselves as a fully independent, sovereign state.
Diaspora Kurds will vote on September 23 while those living in the Kurdistan Region will vote on September 25. The ballot unveiled by the Department of Foreign Relations last week will ask simply, “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?”
That yes or no question has significant consequences for the region, not least because the “Kurdistani areas” outside the administration of the KRG include disputed places such as Sinjar and oil-rich Kirkuk.
The non-binding referendum was announced by the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by President Masoud Barzani. Prompted in part by disputes with the Iraqi government over the border and budget, the KDP maintains that independence is necessary as Baghdad has not abided by its constitutional obligations to the Kurdistan Region.
Baghdad naturally opposes the move, but the Kurds have found little support from anyone else for the endeavor.
While such a referendum is provided for under international law, so far no would-be ally, including the United States, which relies on Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces for a significant part of its counter-ISIS operations, has welcomed the announcement of Kurdistan referendum.
U.S. Worried About Counter-ISIS Fight
The U.S. Department of State is concerned about the timing of the Kurdistan referendum amid political tensions with Baghdad and the Coalition operations against the Islamic State. U.S. officials are reportedly worried that an independence declaration could cause new regional rifts that threaten the ongoing battle against the terror group.
A State Department spokesperson told The Globe Post that the U.S. supports a “unified, federal, stable, and democratic Iraq.”
While the Department welcomes “the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan … we have expressed our concerns to authorities in the Kurdistan Region that holding a referendum – even this non-binding resolution – at this time will distract from more urgent priorities,” the spokesperson said.
Those priorities, according to the U.S., are the defeat of ISIS, stabilization, and the return of displaced people, management of the Region’s economic crisis and a resolution to its internal political disputes.
“We also encourage the regional authorities to engage with the Government of Iraq on the full range of important issues, including the future of relations between Baghdad and Erbil, on the basis of the Iraqi constitution,” the spokesperson added.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reiterated that position to Mr. Barzani in an August 22 meeting in Erbil, according to the president’s office.
In a Kurdish-language statement translated by Rudaw news agency, Mr. Barzani’s office said Mr. Mattis “noted the concerns and the position of his country with regard to the referendum and stated that the referendum was beyond what his country expected, and the United States is of the view that this process might put obstacles in the war against ISIS and might create problems for the work of both sides in the war against ISIS.”
The Kurdish Peshmerga are an integral part of Coalition forces fighting ISIS in Iraq. The force took heavy casualties during the nine-month Mosul campaign and has continued to lead counter-terror operations as the battle progressed in ISIS-held Tal Afar. On Tuesday, the General Command of the Peshmerga said they killed more than 100 ISIS fighters trying to escape into Syria over the past three days.
Like the State Department, the Pentagon’s readout of the Mattis-Barzani meeting emphasizes Washington’s desire for Erbil and Baghdad to “engage in a sustained dialogue” while focusing on the Coalition’s counter-ISIS campaign.
Mr. Mattis also “congratulated President Barzani on the success in Mosul, and noted the liberation of that city was only possible due to the strong cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil,” according to the Pentagon.
Coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon told The Globe Post that the Kurdistan referendum was an internal decision for the government and people of Iraq. “The Coalition supports the government of Iraq and their focus on defeating ISIS at this time,” he added.
Hanna Bohman, a foreign volunteer with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), a component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told The Globe Post that the Kurdistan referendum is unlikely to disrupt the Coalition operations in Iraq, “as the fight is mainly between ISIS and the Iraqi army now.”
Although a few politicians have given the nod to the Kurds’ aspirations for independence, Europe seems to be taking a hands-off approach at best.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged Mr. Barzani to reconsider, saying “a referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilizing liberated areas and addressing the long-term political issues that led to Daesh’s rise.” Mr. Johnson said the U.K. will continue to support “the Kurdish people … politically, culturally and economically within Iraq.”
Even the U.N. has reservations. After Jan Kubis, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq met Mr. Barzani in June, UNAMI spokesperson Samir F. Ghattas told The Globe Post: “The UNAMI position on the referendum is that we have taken note of the declared intent to hold a referendum and urge Erbil and Baghdad to address this and other issues in a partnership dialogue.”
Dr. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff of the Kurdistan Presidency, said in June that the U.S. asked for the Kurdistan referendum to be delayed, citing concerns it would affect the result of the Iraqi elections.
None of the officials The Globe Post spoke to directly called for the KRG to postpone the Kurdistan referendum, but Reuters news agency reported last month that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked the KRG to postpone the date.
Citing an advisor, Hoshyar Zebari, the report said Mr. Tillerson asked Mr. Barzani in an August 10 phone call to hold off on the vote, which the president declined.
Mr. Barzani’s August 22 statement about his meeting with Mr. Mattis said any request to postpone the Kurdistan referendum should include an alternative “stronger than the tool of the referendum.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Barzani suggested he could postpone the Kurdistan referendum until next year if Baghdad agrees to guarantee the outcome, and the U.S. or U.N. observe the vote.
“Is there a willingness to sign a document that for example on September 25, 2018 to recognize the referendum and accept its results, if the outcome was in support of independence? Such an alternative may be considered if offered,” Mr. Barzani said in an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
He said the U.S., U.N. or another body would have to “give an official guarantee to the people of Kurdistan” that Baghdad would respect the outcome of the referendum.
Kurdistan referendum: Inclusion of disputed regions
The Kurdistan referendum will be held in four regions claimed by both the Kurdistan and Iraqi governments: Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Makhmour, and Sinjar. KRG officials said the disputed areas would be included in the referendum for people to decide whether they want to remain part of the Kurdistan Region. The cities have largely been under Kurdish control since 2014.
An Iraqi member of parliament, Majid Shingali, told Bas News last week that most of the political parties in the diverse Nineveh Plains are seeking to be part of the Kurdistan Region. According to the report, Mr. Shingali said all the components of the ethnically diverse area are willing to join the region controlled by the KRG, not Baghdad.
The Nineveh Plains lie within the governorate of the same name, to the north and east of Mosul. Many of the towns are inhabited by Assyrian Christians, and there have been proposals for them to form their own autonomous region within Iraq.
On Tuesday, the Kirkuk Provincial Council voted to join the referendum. Councillor Hala Nur Eddine said 22 of the 24 members present backed the decision, but the council’s nine Turkmen and six Arab members boycotted the session, according to Al Jazeera. It was unclear why two other lawmakers, both Kurdish, did not attend.
Kurds have accused the central government of trying to dilute the Kurdish population of Kirkuk by resettling Arabs in traditionally Kurdish areas, but the city is home to a diverse population. Kurds also claim the greater Kirkuk province, where some three percent of the world’s oil and gas fields lie.
Kirkuk is the main power base of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which took over control of the state-run North Oil Company in Kirkuk earlier this year.
A spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi decried the inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan referendum, saying the province has no constitutional right to impose such a decision without the support of the federal government in Baghdad. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi called the move “provocative.”
Sinjar, which Kurds call Shingal, is itself contentious within the Kurdistan Region. ISIS captured the city on August 3, 2014 and massacred thousands of civilians – mostly Yazidis – in an extermination campaign the U.N. has called genocide. The Peshmerga have been blamed for failing to defend the Yazidis, and the U.N. estimates ISIS killed at least 2,000 people within the first month of the Sinjar offensive. The town was eventually liberated in November 2015 by a mixture of Peshmerga, U.S. troops, Yazidi fighters, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)’s armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Yazidi rights groups have alleged that Erbil misled them about the threat ISIS posed in Sinjar and for delaying aid to Yazidi women who escaped the terror group.
Sinjar is now controlled by the KDP as well as the PKK, an adversary of the KDP that has waged a 30-year, often violent campaign for autonomy within Turkey. The Popular Mobilization Units, a Shia force supported by the Iraqi government, also have a presence in southern Sinjar.
The Sinjar Council, which is backed by the PKK, has said it won’t allow the referendum to be carried out in areas under its administration. The Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi group aligned with the PKK, have also fought skirmishes with the Peshmerga and warned the KDP not to try to reclaim influence in Sinjar.
Ms. Bohman, the foreign YPJ volunteer, said the Syrian Kurds are not looking for a fight for the Iraqi Kurds, but the “YPG will defend itself,” and both “the YPG and PKK will come to help” the YBS if they’re attacked again in Sinjar.
Complicating matters further, the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Administrative Council on August 21 declared “democratic autonomy.” In a press conference, co-chairs of the council said they wanted “a free and democratic life for all Yazidis” in Sinjar.
The council called for the establishment of a Yazidi autonomy commission under the administration of the U.N., and with representatives from the KRG, Iraqi government, PKK and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – or Rojava, the de facto autonomous region in the mainly-Kurdish north of Syria.
In February, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative to the U.S., said at an event at the Hudson Institute that the KRG is not opposed to autonomy for the Yazidis and Christians, whether in Sinjar or in separate areas under their control.
Ms. Abdul Rahman said at the event that the KRG was “grateful” to the PKK for liberating Sinjar from ISIS, but that the group’s presence there had since become problematic.
Neighboring Turkey views the PKK as an existential threat and has repeatedly threatened to oust the group from Sinjar. In April, Turkey carried out a number of airstrikes against the PKK in Sinjar and northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that Ankara and Tehran are considering joint military action against the PKK.
Risk of Regional Instability
The Kurdistan referendum announcement has raised concerns of regional instability, especially in other nations with large Kurdish populations, particularly Turkey. Ankara’s close ties with the KRG have not stopped it from speaking out strongly against the Kurdistan referendum, possibly due to fears it will inspire Turkish Kurds or embolden neighboring Syrian Kurds to further their own nationalist aspirations.
Ankara may have other reasons for opposing the vote, namely its investments in northern Iraqi oil fields.
On June 27, the Financial Times reported that Turkey could be seeking to develop gas fields in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq. Genel Energy is reportedly in talks with investors to develop the Miran and Bina Bawi fields, located about 350 km from the Turkish border, to boost its lagging share price and reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas.
The KRG began exporting oil through Turkey after the Iraqi government cut its budget in 2014. Exports have reached nearly half a million barrels per day.
The KRG had previously requested Baghdad give the Kurdistan Region an equal share in oil revenues; the demand even was included in a 2002 draft constitution, and the 2005 constitution provides for joint administration of oil and gas fields.
According to the FT, the KRG spent oil revenues on the Peshmerga instead of paying Genel (though they have now been paid for 18 months) and one of Genel’s possible partners in the Miran and Bina Bawi projects is TEC, a state-owned company.
On July 6, the Norwegian oil and gas exporter DNO ASA reported that it received a $40.66 million payment, including $6.56 in arrears, from the KRG. The payment covers April shipments from the Tawke field and funds will be shared with DNO’s partner, Genel. Genel also received a $7.4 million share from a KRG payment for the Taq Taq field.
Baghdad could also be prepared to fight for Kurdistan’s oil. On June 27, the Iraq Oil Ministry said it was ready to challenge the legality of oil shipments from the Kurdistan region. At the ministry’s request, Canada recently seized more than 700,000 barrels shipped from the Kurdistan Region.
Whatever the underlying reasons, Ankara has repeatedly stated its opposition to the independence vote. On July 17, the Turkish National Security Council held a six-hour meeting on the Kurdistan referendum and said in a statement it would create “unwanted consequences.” In an additional press release published on its website, the council said the referendum is a “grave mistake” that threatens Iraq’s political unity.
On August 16, an Erdogan spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, said Ankara opposed the inclusion of Kirkuk in the referendum and will not recognize an independent Kurdistan if it is unilaterally declared.
Mr. Erdogan has personally spoken out against the Kurdistan referendum multiple times, and recently said the KRG will “regret this very much.”
Syria and Iran, the other two regional nations with significant Kurdish populations, have also warned against the vote. Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said on August 24 that the referendum is “in line with U.S. policy of partitioning the region.”
Mr. Jazeyeri’s comments came after his boss, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri, visited Turkey and met with Mr. Erdogan and other officials. Recent meetings and statements from the two nations have indicated Tehran and Ankara may be mending ties as they seek to improve border security and cooperate on counterterror efforts.
On July 20, PUK official Mala Bakhtiar said Tehran warned a visiting PUK delegation that it does not accept the referendum “in any shape or form,” and not to expect “good things” from Iran over the referendum.
Internal political divisions
The Kurds are hardly homogenous – the KDP has been tied to Mr. Erdogan, while the PUK maintains good relations with Iran – and political divisions within the Kurdistan Region have been intensified by the referendum campaign.
The PUK split from the KDP in 1975, and the parties were in opposition – sometimes violently – for decades, even controlling different parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. They aligned in 2003 after the U.S. invaded Iraq and signed a strategic agreement in 2007 that held until 2009 when Movement for Change (Gorran) broke off from the PUK.
Gorran was largely allied with KDP until 2015. Then the two parties fell out over President Barzani’s remaining in office.
First elected in 2005, Mr. Barzani served two four-year terms and his presidency was set to expire in 2013. Parliament extended the second term, and a court further extended it in 2015. Gorran had sought to prevent the 2015 continuance by introducing a number of bills that would impose presidential term limits.
In May 2016, the PUK signed a deal with Gorran, giving the two parties a coalition with more seats in parliament than the KDP, but parliament has been suspended since 2015 when its speaker, Gorran party member Yousif Mohammed, was blocked from entering Erbil. The KDP has agreed to reactivate it only if a Gorran politician is not in charge.
Gorran and Kurdistan Islamic Group were not included in meetings prior to the announcement of the referendum. Gorran has called for parliament to be reactivated and for the status of disputed territories to be determined before the Kurdistan referendum.
For his part, Mr. Barzani has promised to hold elections on November 1. He said neither he nor any member of his family would stand in the election. Mr. Barzani’s son Masrour is head of the Kurdistan Security Council and his nephew Nechirvan is Prime Minister.
On Wednesday, Mr. Barzani went a step further and said he would resign if the Kurdistan referendum fails. “If the people refused independence, I will respect the will of my people and I will devote myself to my private life,” Mr. Barzani told the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
The Future of Kurdistan
The Kurds have a saying, that they have “no friends but the mountains,” which may explain why KRG officials seem undeterred by the fact their project has received so little support from Kurdistan’s would-be allies.
But Falah Mustafa, the KRG foreign minister, told The Globe Post that Kurdistan wants to be a good neighbor. In Part 2, The Globe Post looks at Mr. Mustafa’s aspirations for an independent Kurdish state.