Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has declared to hold a non-binding referendum on September 25. As the date comes closer, more elements add to the great puzzle unfolding in the Levant. Great powers like US and UK that set the scene for the fragmentation of the country with invasion in 2003 urge Barzani to postpone the referendum. In the same vein, neighboring states with sizeable Kurdish origins, namely Turkey, Syria and Iran threaten with reprisal, holding a set of options including military one.  Amidst this mist and haze, last week, Russian energy firm Rosneft declared to have inked a deal with KRG that has the potential to change the energy landscape in favor of the Kurds. So, what is happening?

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Why the referendum is now?

The widespread rhetoric regarding Barzani’s intention to make the referendum -“to extricate himself from the internal political dilemmas or his ambition to secure the position of leadership for all the Kurds” would be oversimplification of the situation. Despite his increasingly autocratic rule and willingness to gain political supremacy for his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over two other parties, namely Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Goran Party, there is a more detailed and sophisticated set of calculations. One should keep in mind that this is not the first time that Kurds try to go for referendum for independence. Barzani had attempted to hold a similar referendum in 2014 which did not take place.

As part of a grand strategy targeting to attain total independence, Kurds have been carving a gradually expanding autonomy by aligning themselves with US and other major forces since the Gulf War. Especially after the fall of Mosul on June 9, 2014 where 30.000 Iraqi soldiers ran from 800 ISIS soldiers, those efforts took a new turn. Taking an essential role in the struggle against ISIL, they obtained incredible Western support. To illustrate the volume of the support, US alone has made military aid worth $1.4 billion for the Kurdish Peshmerga in addition to training and equipping more than 22,000 Kurdish fighters since 2015.[1] Thanks to this wide international support, Peshmerga added settlements recaptured from ISIS to Kurdish territory while transforming into a trained regular armed force. The capture of disputed territories including Kirkuk, which is a major gas field of Iraq, has resulted in a 40% increase in land and a better economical prospect for the Kurdistan Region. [2]

Barzani’s persistence on referandum despite the strong opposition from both regional and global powers requires a closer look into the objectives and timing. Those objectives pursued by Barzani might be:

  1. To show the international community and especially the newly formed counter-block consisting of the Central Government, Iran, Turkey and Syria that Kurds have resolve and courage to determine their own fate. The strategic message that conforms with the general perception is that “the Kurds are ready to pay the price for independence as they did their share during their fight against ISIL.”
  2. To communicate the ideal of a free Kurdish state among Kurds more strongly both within and outside Iraq to accelerate the process and create a rally around the flag effect. This move acts as a catalyst to synchronize efforts of the Kurds especially in Syria and creates a wider vision for all Kurds transcending the borders of the countries they live.
  3. To prepare international audience to the idea of an independent Kurdish state, a first of its kind in human history and also to provide an opportunity to see international stance towards such notion.
  4. To legitimize Kurdish hold on disputed territories, including contested multiethnic entities like Kirkuk. Peshmerga had reverted to violent methods like forced displacement and large-scale destruction of homes in villages and towns to change ethnic composition. [3]  One humanitarian organization, Amnesty International had documented such efforts by Peshmerga.  By adding those disputed territories, Barzani wants to legitimize Kurdish hold on them.  

Coming to the calculations, it is obvious that Barzani and his staff has made a meticulous study on when to conduct referendum. Although there is no disclosure on those motives it is probable to assume that the date has been intentionally picked shortly after the liberation of Mosul (10 July) to ascertain that neither referendum nor -if they choose to go down that path- independence is based on foiling efforts to defeat ISIL. As UK and US think that such a move will create a new brawl in the region to distract attention and focus away from ISIL their general stance is in fact different. UK is for Kurdish independence when conditions are ripe whereas US is for the integrity of Iraq for the fear of a new Arab-Kurd conflict revolving around disputed territories. Countries like France and some other Western Powers have shown a conditional support with the hope that it does not create further tensions with the Central Government or neighboring countries and that it should be held only if it conforms to international norms. What’s more, those norms favor Central Government. Having inked a $ 1 billion energy deal with KRG to transfer gas to Turkey and Europe and also to expand its oil infrastructure through its energy giant Rosneft, Russia has made ambivalent remarks hinting the support for referendum. All three neighbors and as well as Central Government have threatened Barzani with use of force in case the referendum takes place. In a joint press statement released last Thursday, foreign ministers of Iraq, Turkey and Iran warned KRG to cancel this decision and revert to dialogue. In the statement, it was indicated that this would weaken the struggle against ISIL and could spur new conflicts. So far only one country, Israel has shown unconditional support to the Kurdish endeavor.

A defying Barzani, leading a landlocked autonomous area with around $ 20 billions debt persist in holding the referendum. The author of this article does not assess that Barzani will go down the path of declaring independence. However, he will most probably use the results as a basis of legitimacy for a later independence bid and his control over disputed territories.

What Will Happen?

It is really hard to guess if this referendum will take place in the first place when faced with pressure from all sides. Barzani’s dismissal of any threats as unimportant and the destructive effect of cancelling the referendum on the credibility of the cause, it is possible to say that it will take place. In this case, the question is what is the take of Barzani and his staff on the probable repercussions? A systematic analysis of external and internal factors is necessary for a better insight.

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From an external standpoint, it is probable to say that Barzani does not expect any harsh reaction from great powers, including Russia, operating in the region. Most probably all will follow a “wait and see” policy to interfere only if the referendum spurs a violent fight. In case of the latter, they will interfere to revert back to the former situation. The question is will there be a violent fight?

The reaction of the Central Government which is heavily aligned with Iran, Syria and just recently with Turkey will be critical.  In the last two weeks, Chiefs of General Staff of Iran and Turkey, yesterday of Iraq and Turkey held talks on probable actions provided that the referendum takes place. Whether this is a move to show resolve or a serious planning effort is yet to be seen. However, Barzani, who has so far proved to be instrumental in defeating ISIL may have assessed that US which holds a great clout on Central Government will not allow any such move to form. One reason is that currently Peshmerga together with Shiite militia are preparing for an attack to recapture Hawija, the last territorial hold of ISIL. To counter a probable reaction from Iran which has major effect on the behavior of both Central Government and Syria, Barzani may be depending on Russian support. Russia has the ability and influence on both states to prevent any such action. Yet, a news published on the website of Turkish Star newspaper reported based on a news in NRT that a delegation that set out from Tehran to arrive Arbil gave three final options to Barzani. Those are “to hold referendum in declared areas to include disputed territories and accept a war”, “To hold referendum just in the areas under direct control of KRG to exclude disputed territories” and last “to postpone-cancel referendum”. [4] If the news is correct, Iran directly or with its proxies may create disturbance within the region.

Another important element in this calculation is Turkey. Turkey has been staging show of force in Silopi, a town bordering both Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, two days ago National Security Council which convened under the leadership of President Erdogan declared that Turkey would exert its rights should Iraqi Kurds go ahead with the referendum despite Turkey’s “warnings.”[5] Yesterday, a mandate to allow Turkish troops to be deployed abroad was prolonged another year by Grand National Council with a change in the text to allow foreign troops also to be deployed in its homeland. A mandate allowing the latter is a first of its kind for Turkey.

For Erdogan, the referendum is simply just another chance to consolidate his support base against yet another “existential threat”. Having seen the benefits of increased violence towards Kurds to get more nationalist votes in Turkey after his first major election defeat in 2015, Erdogan wouldn’t miss a second to grab the opportunity of waging another war against the Kurds.

Furthermore, he would be able to use the allegory of the “grand commander” freeing Kirkuk, a city engraved as a Turkish city that had to be left to Iraq in the aftermath of the Great War after long discussions with United Kingdom and allegedly contrary to ceasefire agreements. This way, not only will he have increased support from his die heart supporters, but also, he will soothe the traditional Kemalist and Nationalist groups’ anxieties and silence them. As a dilemma, albeit Turkish government rejection to an independent Kurdish state, the construction of the new pipeline complicate calculations.

The real predicament regarding Turkey’s Kurdish question is hardly the referendum and Erdogan knows that. However, by opposing the referendum as hardly as he did, he increases the pitch in his divide and conquer politics among already highly polarized Turkish society. He tries to have another chance to sweep the Kurdish question under the rug, albeit a little longer. Having failed massively in almost all aspects of the Kurdish question, from the miscarried peace talks with the PKK to botched efforts to mingle in Syria and preventing PYD gain legitimacy or colossal discontent among his own Kurdish people, Turkey is going towards a train wreck. It is only a matter of time when the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kurds who were forced to leave their destroyed homes and destructed cities in the southeastern part of Turkey start raising their voices again. As many Kurdish politicians are put behind bars by the regime, the remaining ones feel the risk of sharing the same fate. As such, there is little political opportunity for Kurds who are left with the only other option: Violence. This will undoubtedly coincide with YPG’s consolidation of power in Northern Syria, especially after Raqqa, which will enable the PKK to switch focus to Turkey, this time with much better weapons and a lot of experience. On the other hand, Turkish Security Establishment is almost totally defunct and prospect of success against a potential PKK insurgency is close to zero.

Getting back to the matter at hand, in a latest statement Barzani openly addressed Turkey and rejected to cancel referendum. One of the reasons may be Barzani’s conception about Turkish Army. After a major crackdown on military following the controlled coup attempt last summer, more than 90 percent of “planners” or general staff officers and majority of fighter pilots with “Western orientation” were purged to create an Army loyal to Erdogan and his Islamist ideals.

Yet, the vacuum of those officers has not been filled and there is no such a hope in any near future based on the fact that Erdogan does not have such cadres. This became crystal clear in the latest Operation Euphrates Shield replete with incompetent command and with no clear objectives. This may have given Barzani a hint about the impacts of probable Turkish incursion.  Barzani further complicates his move by combining it with signature of an energy deal which will create dependence on Kurdish gas and economic incentives based on transit fees when realized.[6]

There is a very short time to see if Kurds’ referendum decision will spur a chain of new conflicts in the region. But it is certain that a new chapter of turbulent times approaches.

Turning to domestic dimension of this issue, the result of the referendum is going to be an overwhelming “yes”, without a doubt. However, whether this will actually lead to the independence of the Kurdish region is a completely different story. The biggest obstacle against a Kurdish independence is not the opposition from the external powers but the fragmented nature of the Kurds themselves. Be it the competition between Barzani and Talabani families or the PKK factor, there is very little chance of a unified Kurdish State if any. What’s more, increasingly authoritarian rule of Barzani and weak institutions to support any such bid for independence might be the real purpose behind US and UK warnings.

Based on all those, it is arguable that there will be no declaration of independence in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. A military action by Central Government pose low risk based on US clout and utility of Peshmerga in the war against ISIL. As this removes pretext for military intervention by Iran, Syria and Turkey, any intervention effort disregarding international law will be prevented by global powers. Whether independence comes now, later, or never, it is clear that in addition to external actors’ involvement, lack of institutionalization of national unity and promotion of good governance, and growing infighting among Kurdish factions are likely to be biggest obstacles that Barzani must overcome.




[1] http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/28/with-referendum-approaching-kurds-wait-for-more-u-s-military-aid/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/world/middleeast/iraqi-kurds-independence-vote.html

[3] https://www.amnestyusa.org/reports/banished-and-dispossessed-forced-displacement-and-deliberate-destruction-in-northern-iraq/

[4] http://www.star.com.tr/dunya/barzaniye-referandum-oncesi-son-teklif-ya-iptal-ya-savas-haber-1257889/

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-latest-kurd-leader-says-referendum-will-go-forward/2017/09/22/0fe57970-9fac-11e7-b2a7-bc70b6f98089_story.html?utm_term=.972feae0440a

[6] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kurdistan-rosneft/russias-rosneft-clinches-gas-pipeline-deal-with-iraqs-kurdistan-idUSKCN1BT0MQ