What Did the Kurds Get Out of the Referendum?

“For statehood to arise, a people’s right to self-determination and their desire to exercise it must be matched with possibility.”

A man looks at a banner supporting the referendum for independence of Kurdistan
A man looks at a banner supporting the referendum for independence of Kurdistan in Erbil, Iraq on September 24, 2017. (Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters)

On September 25th, the Kurds of Iraq indicated for the second time in 12 years that they wish to be free of the rest of the country. While the final results are not yet in, early indications are that it was an overwhelming victory for “yes.” That sentiment cannot come as a surprise. Feeling cheated out of a state of their own after the World War I, having fought central governments that suppressed their aspirations, and suffering grievously in the process, Kurds understandably see independence as the only viable escape from further such woe.

Yet for statehood to arise, a people’s right to self-determination and their desire to exercise it must be matched with possibility. On this score, the Kurds in Iraq, much less the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, still have a long journey ahead. A “yes” vote in the referendum will not deliver independence; it is designed merely to remind Iraqi leaders in Baghdad that it is the Kurds’ strong wish to split off from a country from which they have always felt alien—to put an end to a forced marriage that was loveless and abusive from the get-go.

Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, must have been keenly aware of the limits on Kurdish aspirations. He repeatedly called for staging a referendum in the past, but did not press the matter. This time he went all the way, extending the prospect of a strengthened hand in independence negotiations with Baghdad as a lure to Kurdish voters. He signally, and wisely, refrained from promising them that independence would be around the corner. The reason why he went ahead this time may lie in his concern that if and when the Islamic State is defeated, U.S. and European military support may dry up, along with the diplomatic leverage that comes with it. In other words, Barzani may believe that the window for Western backing of his independence bid may be closing soon.

But the question is whether Barzani’s leverage vis-à-vis Baghdad will indeed be boosted by the chorus of “yes” voters when he proceeded against the wishes of not only his enemies, such as Iran, but also those of his friends Turkey, the United States, and European states. He might have earned international backing in his independence talks with Baghdad if he had settled for a deal with his Western allies to defer the referendum, as they had urged him to do. That chance now looks remote. Yet he must have been aware of this scenario as well, and prepared for it.

For a long time, Barzani made his bid for a referendum seem more like a bargaining strategy rather than an immutable promise to actually hold one. The time between the announcement of the vote and the event itself certainly saw intensive bargaining, as well as a good deal of threats and intimidation. Barzani took an uncompromising position, saying he would accept nothing less than guaranteed international support in negotiations with Baghdad leading to independence within a period of two years or so. But all that the United States and the Kurds’ other friends were willing to offer was their support for Kurdish leaders’ negotiations with Baghdad over the terms of their future relationship, not the terms of separation. The fact remains that no one, apart from the majority of Kurds themselves, as well as Israel (which needs the Kurds for its own geo-strategic considerations), supports Kurdish independence. The post-Ottoman borders remain sacrosanct for fear that a single change will trigger many more.

Yet Barzani can rightly argue that even if he fails to make tangible progress on statehood now, he still accomplished a great deal. He can assert that the Kurds have taken one step forward towards independence. Barzani himself, the son of Mustafa Barzani, the founder of the Kurdish national movement, can claim that he has gone further than his father, whose own effort failed dismally beyond building the movement that his son inherited. Masoud Barzani can now bequeath this legacy upon his own son, Masrour, who may complete the project of creating the Kurdish state should the regional balance of forces tilt in the Kurds’ favor.

Perhaps as importantly, Barzani bolstered his own tenuous domestic position as Kurdish president by mobilizing the popular “yes” vote and sowing disarray among the opposition. His detractors in Suleimaniya, in particular, who support Kurdish independence in principle, but oppose it if it delivers a Barzani-led state, told their supporters that they would be free to cast their vote. Barzani’s move also allowed the reopening of parliament, which he shuttered two years ago after the opposition refused to extend his tenure for another two years, without an election. The main opposition party, Gorran, decided to stay out, resulting in a more pliant parliament for Barzani.

Without Gorran providing a critical counterweight, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) can strike a deal with its partner in rampant, party-based corruption, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to extend the life of parliament, and with it once again Barzani’s tenure as president without an election. Additional time is an advantage for the Kurds in a deeply unstable region constantly in flux. Perhaps two more years in power will also be enough for Barzani to perpetuate autocratic rule without major opposition. Beyond that, given the record so far, he may believe that another solution may present itself to extend it even further.

These gains are important, but they may still be undermined by Iraq, Iran, and Turkey in the coming days. They have made a series of threats to close the Kurdish region’s borders and airspace, and may make good on some of them. Because the Kurdish region is landlocked, it is vulnerable to economic embargoes. Yet none of these countries are overly worried that the Kurds will become independent anytime soon. They hold preponderant regional power, and know that they have the United States and Europe on their side regarding the independence issue. They could, however, all agree to a new round of negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil over the terms of their mutual relationship and especially the boundary of the Kurdish entity, whatever its formal status. (It currently is a federal region in Iraq.)

The border question has bedeviled relations between Baghdad and Erbil since 2003 (and indeed has a much longer history); its non-resolution has fed frustrations that brought Barzani to the point of organizing a referendum. It concerns what are referred to in the Iraqi constitution (at the Kurds’ insistence) as the “disputed territories,” which for all practical purposes are territories to which the Kurds lay claim. They were subject to “Arabization” under Iraqi regimes from the 1960s onward (when the Kurdish national movement got underway inside Iraq under Mustafa Barzani and set its sights on Kirkuk), but this large area, stretching from the Iranian to the Syrian border and incorporating four of Iraq’s 18 provinces in whole or in part, historically has had an ethnically and religiously mixed population; it also happens to be rich in oil.

Even those Iraqi leaders who are sympathetic to the notion of Kurdish independence—many fought alongside the Kurds against Saddam Hussein—refuse to contemplate giving Kirkuk to the Kurds. In their view, a Kurdish state would have to exclude the oil-bearing areas, especially the super-giant Kirkuk oil field, in order to benefit from oil revenues and also to keep a Kurdish state weak. As for the Kurds, they want to annex the disputed territories to the Kurdish region (and future state) in order to have maximum economic leverage vis-à-vis its neighbors, given its landlocked status.

The KDP and PUK have controlled the Kirkuk oil fields (both the main one and some others) since the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the Islamic State in June 2014. Baghdad wants them back, and is threatening to retake them by force. The looming threat of armed conflict suggests that the time may be ripe for a mediated solution in which both sides share in Kirkuk’s administration and revenue.

This is far from a new idea. When an earlier effort to resolve the question of the disputed territories floundered on a combination of Baghdad’s inertia (it was strongly dysfunctional and buffeted by insurgency and sectarian war following the U.S. invasion) and the Kurdish parties’ unilateral moves to seize these areas, the United Nations began laying the foundation for a negotiated outcome. The result was a detailed district-by-district study of the administrative, legal, economic, and political history of the disputed territories. The implicit aim was to suggest on which side of the line a given district would most likely end up. For Kirkuk, the study proposed a power-sharing arrangement for an interim period, to be followed by a referendum, consistent with the constitution.

The UN’s final report was never published, only released to the main stakeholders. It remains a hugely impressive document and a critically important resource, however, one that, if updated (it was completed some eight years ago), could be the basis for renewed negotiations over the status of the disputed territories and, therefore, a fair demarcation of the Kurdish region.

Perhaps the current crisis will present a new opportunity to return to the negotiating table, if both sides approach it in good faith, or can be persuaded to do so by their respective international friends. What should be clear from the outset is that Baghdad will not allow the Kurds to press for independence if their future state is meant to include Kirkuk, and Barzani will accept nothing less. The only viable discussion, therefore, can only be about boundary demarcation and revenue sharing. The United States and Europe, with the support of Turkey and Iran, should press for a reinvigorated mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq focused singularly on this matter. The alternative can only be more of the same: a never-ending cycle of frustration, conflict, and suffering.