The Iraqi Kurdistan vote for independence last Monday held four glaring flaws. It points to either a gross political miscalculation, or a lack of concern about ramifications on the part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The referendum drew at least 73% of eligible voters, and they voted overwhelmingly in favor independence by 93%. The flaws lie in the KRG itself, lack of support from its neighbors, and no significant international support.
First, the KRG government has been dysfunctional since at least 2009 when they failed to ratify a Constitution. It passed in parliament, but a referendum to approve the constitution never materialized. As of 2015, the parliament has not been in session. This is largely due to a spat between President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its opposition the Goran Movement. The main issue of contention is Barzani’s continued role as president, which legally ended two years ago.
In relation to the independence referendum, there is no legal backing to it. Despite Barzani’s statements that it will hold all future governments to move towards independence, there’s no Constitution or referendum law to enforce the referendum. Future KRG governments can do anything they want after the poll.
Second, Iraqi Kurdistan is land-locked and has to depend on its neighbors to trade with the world. There are roughly 30 million Kurds living in the region, and a large portion of them live outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds form a minority population inside four countries in the region: 10% in Syria, 19% in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, and nearly 10% in Iran. Each of these countries has their own Kurdish nationalist movements.
Both Turkey and Iran have come out against the referendum. Israel is the lone voice of approval for the referendum. For both Turkey and Iran, it is logical that they would voice opposition, as previously discussed they have Kurdish populations inside their borders and believe the referendum will incite more action from them. Both Iran and Turkey have sent their military to the Iraq/Kurdistan borders.
On Saturday, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan stated the Iraqi Kurdish authorities would pay the price for the independence referendum. Erdogan also said Turkey will no longer deal with Erbil authorities and will deal directly with Baghdad.
Prior to the vote last Monday, Turkey threatened to cut-off the KRG’s access to the world’s oil markets by stopping the oil pipeline. In addition to stopping the flow of oil, Turkey also promised economic sanctions that would target Barzani and his allies.
Third, Baghdad never gave permission for the KRG to hold a referendum on independence. The response from Baghdad thus far has been a staunch reminder to the KRG on where it stands in the relationship.
Before the vote, Iraq’s Supreme Court issued a suspension order for the referendum. The court received two lawsuits against the referendum. The first came from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the second from two Iraqi parliamentarians. They argued the referendum violated the Iraqi Constitution.
On Friday, the Iraqi Defense Minister said Iraq would take control of the borders in coordination with Iran and Turkey. This was followed by an international flight ban and also a threat to close the borders between the Kurdistan region and Iraq. In addition, Baghdad said it would send Troops to Kirkuk, one of the disputed areas between Baghdad and the KRG and also oil rich. It’s also important to note, within Kirkuk, the Arabs and Turkmen boycotted the referendum.
Outside of the region, support for the referendum has been next to non-existent. France is the only country to offer any amount of support after initially coming out in opposition. Even then, their support amounted to simply stating they would not stand in the way of the vote. The UN called for an open and constructive dialogue with compromise to move towards independence. The UN, US, and regional actors say the vote will take the focus away from the fight against the Islamic State.
Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, issued a statement over the weekend calling the referendum illegitimate. This comes on the heels of a concerted effort to sway opinion in the United States to recognize Kurdish independence. For a while now, the KRG has paid millions to Washington, D.C. lobbying firms connected to both Democrats and Republicans to build bipartisan support for Kurdish independence. The KRG also courted independent scholars at think tanks to continue building on that support.
They even hired Paul Manafort to aid in gaining support from the West towards their independence and recognition of their new status as an independent state. He was specifically hired, because of his connection to Trump.
The result of the referendum as it stands right now is an incredibly expensive poll on something the leadership of the KRG already knew. In the end, the referendum also could have set them back decades economically and politically in the region. The KRG should avoid any further provocation. They are surrounded by governments that do not want to see an independent Kurdish state on their doorstep. It holds the capacity to ignite another conflict in the region.