Since June 7th, when Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani announced that the region had set September 25th as the date for a referendum on independence, the Kurds in northern Iraq have been on a roller- coaster ride.
On July 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Kurdish TV channel Rudaw that, while the referendum represents the “legitimate aspirations of the Kurds,” they must work within the “framework of existing international legal norms.” The KRG’s closest ally, the US, wants the referendum postponed until after the Iraqi parliamentary elections.
The Kurds face a catch-22. Many states agree that, in theory, they have the right to seek a referendum and independence, but they must seek it within the Iraqi constitution and in agreement with Baghdad. It’s like telling a couple that, although they may seek a divorce, they need the agreement of the other person to do so. This puts all the cards in the hands of Baghdad, and Baghdad opposes not only Kurdish independence, but the referendum itself.
Kurdish politicians and commentators in Erbil say there is something hypocritical in this. Independence referendums have been held in Scotland, Quebec, Southern Sudan and elsewhere. East Timor, Kosovo and other states have successfully sought independence. The Czech Republic and Slovaks divorced in 1993.
In the past, the US and other countries have sanctified the right to “self-determination.” America was even born in a war of independence. But what was right, legitimate and just in 1776 or the 1960s seems to have faded in 2017 into reliance on “frameworks” and a devotion to keeping states intact.
The devotion to Iraqi unity was on display in 2008 when Barzani met with US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and provided him a laundry list of violations by the Iraqi Army in areas disputed with the KRG. Under the post-2003 constitution, the Kurds have a unique form of autonomy, running their own airports and with their own armed forces called the Peshmerga.
There are many regions Kurds claim, such as Kirkuk and Sinjar, whose disputes with Baghdad have never been resolved. One of these concerned the city of Khanaquin near the Iranian border. Crocker warned Barzani that any confrontation with Baghdad could lead to Kurds “losing everything” they had achieved.
This is the general carrot-and-stick approach from Washington. During the war against Islamic State after August 2014, the US deepened its commitments to Erbil, signing direct memorandums for military and financial assistance. The US-led anti-ISIS coalition set up the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center to train Kurdish units directly.
The international community thus recognizes Erbil as separate from Baghdad, but it fears the next step. Turkey, the main economic lifeline of the KRG, has included Kurdish flags at meetings with Kurdish officials – an unprecedented signal of recognition of autonomy – but even Turkey verbally objects to the referendum. Iran, a key ally of Baghdad, has viscerally opposed the referendum and Iraq’s defense minister has warned of confrontation over it.
The first hurdle the Kurds face is internal. The war with ISIS led to the postponement of elections and the parliament has not been reconvened. However, Barzani was joined by members of the other leading parties of the region.
These included his own Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Kurdistan Islamic Union, Kurdistan Islamic Movement and other small parties – including those representing Assyrian and Turkmen minorities – when he announced the referendum.
In Erbil, billboards tout the vote.
According to sources there is still friction with the large Gorran Party over the plans. Gorran wants elections to parliament to coincide with the referendum.
To convince the international community of their right to hold a referendum, the KRG has dispatched diplomats and delegations to sell their case. In Brussels in early July, Barzani said there is no going back on the decision to hold the referendum and asked EU states to remain neutral if they could not openly support the Kurds.
US State Department spokesman Heather Nauert has called the referendum an “internal matter.” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington, laid out the region’s rights to Canadian media last month: “We have done our best to be partners in Iraq. It has not worked. We believe this is the right time to allow the people of Kurdistan to exercise their democratic right, a right that people across the world have to express their right to self-determination.”
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan reportedly said he supports a “unified Iraq” as the best “long-term solution. But ultimately these decisions have to be made by the Iraqi people and the Kurds themselves.”
Swedish Ambassador to the UN Olof Skoog was quoted in Rudaw as saying his country does not support the vote, rather “the country to our mind should stay together.” He also said Iraq should be an inclusive democracy.
The international community’s reaction is predicated on two main narratives. One is that Iraq should remain “unified,” because this is good for stability. Secondly, the vote is an internal matter and Baghdad must agree on the right of Kurds to have the vote.
In conversations with Kurdish insiders (who asked to remain anonymous), they present a series of points to counter this group-think. They say that Kurdistan has tested decentralization, autonomy and federalism in an attempt to be part of Iraq.
However, they argue that after 14 years under this system the same problems that existed under Saddam Hussein exist today, namely authoritarianism in Baghdad. That means Baghdad has cut the budget that is supposed to flow to Erbil and has taken other measures.
The KRG argues that instead of increasing instability, the referendum and independence will bring stability to an unstable Iraq. The Middle East has not seen stability over the hundred years since European colonial powers drew its modern borders on maps.
For the Kurds, that meant being forced into an Iraq they did not want to be part of in the 1920s and suffering genocide under Saddam’s regime in the 1980s in which 180,000 people were killed and 4,500 villages destroyed. Since 2003 Iraq has been rocked by sectarian tensions, terrorism and ISIS.
Today Iranian-backed Shia militias have power in Baghdad and are part of the central government. The Kurds argue that an independent Kurdistan would, in the words of one insider, “stand for democracy, pluralism, power-sharing, an open society, the empowerment of women, respect for religious and ethnic minorities and a strong civil society.”
To get to that point, the KRG says it is continuing major economic and military reforms and overhauling government institutions. This involves streamlining budgets and professionalizing the Peshmerga, as well as reducing the role of political parties in its ranks.
Traditionally, fighting units were often divided along party lines, a legacy from the years of resistance in the 1980s that eventually led to Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. The concept today is to turn the army into a professional one, and the KTCC and international aid has helped to achieve that.
However, critics will argue that the KRG is still very divided on party lines that are geographically and family based. The independence vote, where most Kurds are expected to vote yes, would transcend that, but the question is whether subsequent election and other disputes can overcome these divisions.
Pro-referendum Kurds recall that other new states had growing pains. Iran, Turkey, Baghdad, and other powers have interests in the KRG, including economic interests, and each works through different allied groups. The question for the Kurds is whether they can overcome all the challenges and leverage to the referendum, and show the world they have a right to seek independence.