Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), announced a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence for September 25, 2017. The referendum will be held in all territory controlled by the KRG, as well as historically Kurdish lands claimed by the Iraqi government.
The overwhelming majority of Kurds want independence. In July 2003, a group of Kurdish intellectuals in Suleimani launched the Kurdistan Referendum Movement. Voters were given two options in an unofficial tally on January 30, 2005. : (1) to stay a part of Iraq, or (2) to be independent. A total of 1,998,061 people participated in the referendum. The pro-independence vote garnered 98.8 percent support.
Kurds moderated their national aspirations, deferring their demand for independence. They supported Iraq’s 2005 constitution, which declared Iraq as a federal, democratic republic.
Despite fraternal talk about “Iraqi brothers,” Kurds are deeply distrustful of Baghdad.
Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution envisioned a referendum on the status of Kirkuk by the end of 2007. However, Baghdad repeatedly missed the deadline. Failure to address Kirkuk’s status has exacerbated other core Kurdish concerns such as the ownership of natural resources, control of oil revenues, and the role of Kurdish militia called “Peshmerga.”
Today Iraq exists in name only. Iraqi Kurdistan exercises all the elements of statehood, except it lacks an international legal personality.
A declaration of independence is meaningless unless other countries are on board. Front-line states predictably disapprove of Barzani’s referendum. However, their objections are less shrill than they might have been.
The Government of Iraq (GoI) objects primarily to the timing of the referendum. It also objects to holding the vote in Kirkuk and other disputed territories.
The GoI needs support from Kurds. It is counting on Kurdish participation in Iraqi provincial elections later this year and parliamentary elections in 2018.
Tehran opposes the referendum. However, its opposition was less strident than expected after the recent terror attack by ISIS. When Iranian officials admonished the Kurds for standing against “the unity” of Iraq, the KRG told them to stop “meddling.”
While Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the referendum “irresponsible,” President Tayyip Erdogan was silent. Erdogan’s view is only one that matters in Turkey. There is more money to be made by Erdogan and his cronies by controlling the transport of oil and gas from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.
Syria is too destroyed to pay more than lip service to events in Iraqi Kurdistan. Though Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds do not get along, Damascus fears that Syrian Kurds in Rojava (Afrin, Kobani, and Jazeera provinces) will also seek independence. Syrian Kurds already exercise a high degree of democratic autonomy.
America’s position is critical. The US and KRG enjoy a strategic partnership. Not only do Iraqi Kurds and Americans share values, there is extensive security cooperation. Peshmerga turned the tide against ISIS. Peshmerga liberated large swaths of territory in Northern Iraq and fought bravely in Mosul.
The Trump administration is trying to be even-handed. It is committed to “a unified, stable, democratic, and a federal Iraq.” At the same time, the State Department expressed understanding for the “legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
America’s top priority is destroying ISIS. For now, the Trump administration is nominally opposed to independence because it fears that independence will distract from the urgent priority to defeat ISIS.
US officials know that Iraqi Kurdistan will be the next newest nation. They do not question whether Iraqi Kurdistan will become independent, but rather when and how.
The KRG needs a plan for the day after its referendum.
KRG officials must not to move precipitously to declare independence. They should negotiate the details of a friendly divorce with Baghdad and work cooperatively on shared problems – the ISIS threat, the return of displaced people, and managing the region’s economic crisis.
I directed Columbia University’s task force on “State-Building in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Iraqi Kurdistan faced a perfect storm of problems in 2015. It was attacked by ISIS. It managed a humanitarian emergency, providing for more than two million internally displaced persons. World oil prices collapsed, and the KRG’s budget shortfall was exacerbated by Baghdad’s pernicious decision to cancel revenue sharing from the sale of existing energy resources.
Today, the situation is more stable.
Announcing a date for the referendum is a big step on the path to independence. Going forward, the KRG should patiently negotiate with Baghdad. However, negotiations must not be open-ended. Twelve months, after the referendum (September 2018), the KRG should declare independence with or without Baghdad’s agreement.
It is never the perfect time to assert one’s right to self-determination. Faced with an inevitable outcome, Baghdad will come around.
Meanwhile, the KRG must get its house in order. It must consolidate democracy, strengthen democratic institutions, and overcome internal divisions. It must recommit itself to minority rights and women’s rights. Ezidis need special privileges and protection. Independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will be a unifying event, helping to overcome factionalism among northerners. Independence will also be an inspirational event, enabling interests solidarity among Kurds across the region.
The US cannot stand on the sideline. There is a Kurdish adage: “Kurds have no friend but the mountains.” In the Arab Middle East, the US has no better friend than the Kurds.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He worked as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau where he worked on the Future of Iraq Project. He has authored many books on Kurdish issues such as Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East, and An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.