By Professor Mahmood Monshipouri

The Kurdish referendum: What comes next?

September 27, 2017

The underlying tension in many post-colonial states between the right to self-determination and the principle of territorial integrity is once again manifested in the new move by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to go from autonomy to outright independence. 

The same can be said about the October 1, 2017, Catalonia’s vote on independence from Spain.  There is a need to find appropriate mechanisms that could peacefully and justly marry these two rights: the state rights to sovereignty and territorial integrity on the one hand and the rights of domestic ethnic groups to autonomy and self-determination on the other. 

Although the Kurdish referendum in the KRG is not equivalent of a declaration of independence—at least its results are not legally binding—it is a move to alter the balance of power on the ground between Irbil—the capital of KRG—and the central government in the capital, Baghdad. Far from establishing a legal recourse to change the borders of the country, the vote is nevertheless more than symbolic.  It is bound to undermine the Iraqi central government’s efforts to exercise full sovereignty and control over the country.

Given that the referendum is being held prior to the April 2018 Iraqi national elections, the Kurds seem determined to change the balance of power in the nation’s national politics.  The divisions within the Kurds in northern Iraq is likely to complicate—if not disrupt entirely— governance in Iraq in the coming months and years. While the decision is supported by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), it is only conditionally espoused by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Other parties, like Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, seem to be against the way the vote is cast—absent the Kurdistan Parliament that has been inactive for virtually past two years. Reportedly, the opposing parties would like to see that the vote is coordinated through a new Kurdistan Parliament.

The question persists: What are the implication of this vote?  Will we witness growing unity among the Kurds around the Middle East?  Will we see an independent Kurdistan seceding from Iraq?  Should we expect violence at the end of the road?  Baghdad sees the vote as yet another tactical ploy by the Kurds who are determined to break away from the country, which raises legitimate concerns on the part of the Iraqi central government about the prospects of fragmentation and brewing irredentist tendencies. Turkey and Iran have strongly expressed their collective concern over the possible breakup, fearing that this move will trigger similar political trajectory in their countries.  The world’s great powers, including the United States, oppose changing the current borders in the Middle East (The New York Times, 9/24/2017). 

The Kurdish referendum holds the possibility of affecting the balance of leverage between Irbil, Baghdad, and the surrounding regional powers, as well as sending internal Kurdish politics into a new round of uncertainty with emergent conflicting agendas. With control over disputed territories highlighted in the referendum results, the Kurds are making a move that could purportedly prepare the way to potential independence over the horizon. This does not represent a declaration of independence—but it sends a strong signal about where the focal point of Kurdish politics in the future lies.

While there is a broad agreement on the possibility of independence, the consensus on the viability of the State of Kurdistan breaks down. The risk factor here is the shape of the future Kurdish state that the KRG hopes to establish.  If this vision includes Kirkuk, then the next logical question is whether and to what extent Iraq’s central government will be willing to relinquish its sovereignty over Kirkuk—an oil rich part of northern Iraq without which the newly established state cannot be sustained and also home to Arabs and Turkmens, who reportedly (The New York Times, 9/25/2017) feel threatened by possible inclusion in an independent Kurdistan.   Will the results of this referendum spark ethnic violence, expedite the partition of Iraq, and/or undercut the coalition forged so painstakingly against the ISIS (Daesh)?  There are some real reasons for being skeptical about such a move.  What can we expect other than that violence will ineluctably occur?  

Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD., teaches Middle Eastern Politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

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