Contentious borders: Iraqi Kurdistan after the independence referendum

Johannes Jüde

Kurdish Peshmerga troops patrol the Iraqi city of Sinjar after its recapture from ISIS in 2015. Credit: NurPhoto via Getty.

The question raised was simple: ‘Do you want the Kurdistan region and areas lying outside its regional administration to become an independent state?’ Last Monday, in a referendum the Iraqi Kurds clearly and unequivocally answered yes. The overwhelming result — 93% in favour — had been anticipated and does not trigger any move towards independence. Thus, the motivation for holding the referendum was not to attain a swift ‘Kexit’, but rather the strategic calculus of President Masoud Barzani. Due to the demise of the common threat of ISIS, legitimacy deficits that have long troubled statehood in the Middle East come again to the forefront both in Iraqi Kurdistan and its parent state Iraq.

For two years the Kurdish de-facto state has faced a political crisis that has increased fragmentary tendencies. Strategically organized before the November elections, the referendum served the purpose of consolidating the rule of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) by forcing the opposition to fall in line behind the nationalist cause. Meanwhile, in wider Iraq, the power structure of the heterogenous state will again be up for debate once ISIS is completely defeated. The referendum also aimed at bolstering the Kurdish position in such future negotiations. Currently, it appears that Barzani succeeded in enhancing Kurdish unity, but is unlikely to attain his second goal as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has come under increased pressure during the past week.

The internal Kurdish dimension…

The Iraqi Kurdistan region has been shaped for decades by the rivalry between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). However, after the end of Kurdish civil war in 1998, the two principal parties coalesced to build the Kurdish de-facto state in northern Iraq. Yet, Kurdish internal affairs became more complicated when ‘Gorran’ emerged, a third major party that particularly harmed the PUK in elections. Kurdish cooperation broke down in 2015, when a conflict over the extension of Barzani’s presidential term escalated. As a result the Iraqi Kurdish parliament did not reconvene for two years and Gorran and the PUK formed an alliance against the powerful KDP which dominates the KRG. However, in the run-up to the ballot the former partners, got closer again and the PUK cooperated with the KDP in its preparation. This culminated in the reopening of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament in September which endorsed the referendum. Gorran, in contrast, did not support the vote and boycotted the parliamentary session as it disagrees with its timing. Yet, the party could not fully escape the nationalist verve and told their supporters on the eve of the referendum they were free to vote. Barzani, thus, succeeded not only in boosting his personal popularity by pushing for the ballot, but also in sowing disarray among the opposition and in re-establishing links with its former partner the PUK. Improving domestic Kurdish unity is an accomplishment considering that Iran, which maintains close ties with the PUK and Gorran, used its influence to prevent the referendum.

…and its external impact

As Iraqi Kurdish ranks have closed behind the vote, so have the ranks of external opponents against it. Apart from Israel no one has backed the Iraqi Kurdish referendum. The Iraqi government in Baghdad fiercely opposes any steps furthering a Kexit, while major regional and international powers have consistently reaffirmed the territorial integrity of Iraq. The strong disapproval expressed by close partners of the KRG, like the US or Turkey, came as a surprise for many Kurds and makes it improbable that the referendum is beneficial for their political objectives.

Fierce opposition from Baghdad

While independent statehood is the ultimate goal of the Iraqi Kurds, the more short-term objective of the referendum was improving the Kurds’ bargaining position. While the KRG might aim for a confederal Iraq with increased Kurdish autonomy, they are determined to keep the disputed areas that the peshmerga forces conquered from ISIS which lie beyond the region’s borders. The inclusion of these territories in the referendum to create facts on the ground has been a major provocation for Baghdad. Most valuable is the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, which is paramount for the Iraqi Kurdish economy. Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a largely Shiite Iraqi militia with ties to Iran, have already announced that they will not tolerate a Kurdish land grab. Moreover, the Iraqi parliament has asked the government to mobilize troops to secure Kirkuk and other disputed areas. This conflict could therefore become a flashpoint in the coming weeks and a violent escalation is possible. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has previously tried to accommodate Kurdish wishes, has shifted to a hard-liner position by now. Al-Abadi faces upcoming elections and domestic pressure from more radical Shiite fractions not to concede to the Kurds. For now, al-Abadi’s government ordered the KRG to return the control of its two international airports and its borders. As Irbil refused to comply, the last international flights left Iraqi Kurdistan Friday evening, when Baghdad imposed a flight ban. Moreover, al-Abadi’s government sent troops to control the Iraqi Kurdish land borders from both the Turkish and the Iranian side.

Mounting pressure by foreign powers

In the past years, the KRG has been able to act largely independently and often against Baghdad’s prerogatives due to its close relations with Ankara providing the infrastructure for Kurdish oil exports to generate revenue autonomously. Apart from economic gain, Turkey pursued this policy due to its rivalry with Iran and diverging interests with both Tehran and Baghdad. However, since the referendum the three governments have acted in a newfound alignment driven by fear from domestic Kurdish nationalism. The landlocked Iraqi Kurds therefore face a difficult situation. It is hard to imagine that the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan will be closed, or the Kirkuk — Ceyhan pipeline will be shut-down. A longer blockade would also harm Turkey’s recovering economy, as trade totals about $10 billion a year. But nevertheless, these commercial ties give Turkey considerable leverage, and it has announced a trilateral summit with the Iraqi and Iranian governments to discuss sanctions. In this tense situation, the Iraqi Kurds hope for support from their international partners. The KRG’s allies in Washington tried to prevent the referendum so as not to jeopardise the re-election of the Iraqi prime minister and the continuing struggle against ISIS. By the same token, however, after the referendum Iraqi Kurdistan remains an important actor in this struggle. Russia, while upholding the unity of Iraq, has also expressed respect for the national aspirations of the Kurds. Recently it invested around $4 billion in Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and natural gas sector and it has no interest in an economic blockade. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the newfound alliance between Turkey, Iran and Iraq remains stable. Conflicting interests that prevented this cooperation before the referendum have not vanished, and shared interests between the KRG and Turkey persist. A collapse of Iraqi Kurdistan might for example provide opportunity for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) to expand in northern Iraq.

So what next?

The Kurds still hold some cards, and as yet there is no sign that they will bow to the concerted pressure. It is, however, doubtful that the result of the referendum has improved the KRG’s bargaining position in the longer run. So far the Iraqi government has rejected talks as long as the referendum is not annulled. When negotiations between Irbil and Baghdad finally take place, it could well be that Iraqi Kurdistan loses some of the extensive autonomy that it has gained in recent years. Due to external support the Kurds have been able to act beyond the limits that the Iraqi constitution allows. The independence referendum might therefore backfire by reminding foreign powers to keep the Kurdish aspirations better in check. As the referendum raised high hopes among the population, a failure by Barzani to get something out of it could easily backfire on his government. The increased cohesion among the Iraqi Kurds that evolved due to referendum might then vanish as well.

Johannes Jüde is a Researcher at the Department of Political & Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. His research interests include the comparative study of dynamics of state formation and state decay in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

His recent article is titled ‘Contesting borders? The formation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s de facto state’. It can be accessed here.

It appeared in the July issue of International Affairs, a special issue titled Contentious borders in the Middle East and North Africa post-2011.

Read the special issue here.

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