Into the Furnace: Harsh Realities of the Kurdish Referendum

September 24, 2017

Into the Furnace: Harsh Realities of the Kurdish Referendum

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By Alex Rand

​Part 3: Political, Diplomatic, and Military Realities

Should Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum succeed the next set of hurdles facing the KRG center around a number of serious issues they must address; political disunity, lack of diplomatic recognition or support and military realities which they may have to face. Each of these alone could represent a serious threat to Kurdish independence, but all three have converged to create a daunting challenge.

Political Disunity

By the author’s count, there are more than 40 Kurdish political parties operating throughout the Kurdish regions of the Middle East, with more than 10 in Iraqi Kurdistan alone. While this would appear to be a positive marker of healthy political diversity, it represents more of a problem than one would initially think. Many of these parties hold contradicting and intense viewpoints on Kurdish issues and often fight one another for influence and control, sometimes violently. This is particularly true in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party or KDP. This is the party of the president Masoud Barzani, who has been in that position since 2005 when the region gained official autonomy. They have long held a majority in the Kurdish parliament. The second most powerful party in Iraqi Kurdistan is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.

These two political parties have often been at loggerheads with one another. While these disagreements tend to resolve peacefully, the two groups did fight a war against one another in the Kurdish Civil War of 1994-1997, which also drew in the PKK from neighboring Turkey (#1). While the wounds have mostly healed, the parties can still be found at each other’s throats from time to time, in particular, over oil production (#2). These political rivals could present an independent Kurdistan with a very real internal threat should they come to blows in the future.

"KDP and PUK Controlled Areas of Kurdistan" by Kermanashani, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Haider Khezri, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University foresees political disunity playing an important role in both the upcoming referendum and in the broader question of Kurdish independence movements. “It will be difficult for Kurdish political factions to move simultaneously toward independence,” Mr. Khezri noted, further stating that “It is more likely for KRG to move toward independence and for Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish Kurds to watch how that goes before deciding if and how to separate from their current host countries.” The tone that the Iraqi referendum sets could very well be the blue print by which other Kurds either succeed, or fail, to achieve their own independce.

Diplomatic Cold Shoulder

Iraqi Kurdistan’s most pressing dilemma is acquiring international support for their bid for independence. In the time since the referendum was announced, many countries around the world have voiced their opposition. Objections range from the timing of the referendum to the potential compromising of the territorial integrity of Iraq.

While Iraq Kurdistan is host to dozens of consulates, consulate-generals, and representative offices from around the world they have very little in the way of a diplomatic corps outside of Kurdistan. A diplomatic corps, which is crucial for a state seeking independence, does not exist. Were a widely dispersed diplomatic corps in place perhaps the Kurds could allay some of their allies’ fears. Alas, this has not happened and even Iraqi Kurdistan’s allies are opposed to the referendum.

The United States, UK, Germany, and a myriad of other western nations oppose the referendum. Even the UN has told the KRG to postpone the referendum (#3). The overarching argument from this group is that the referendum and ensuing spat between the central government and the KRG would detract from the fight against ISIS. To Erbil, they are owed a debt of gratitude from both the west and the rest of Iraq and view the referendum, and potential independence, as their repayment.

It's important to pause and make note of the US’s response to the referendum. For a country that has supported the Kurds both in Iraq and Syria, why does Washington seem to balk at the referendum? Mr. Khezri points out that the US wants the region to remain stable and that any move that would upset the current equilibrium is not in America’s short-term interests. However, Mr. Khezri thinks the US recognizes an independent KRG “as an eventual inevitability” in the long term and will look to support them. To back this up, he notes the construction of a 200,000sq/m complex being built not far from Erbil as a sort of “proto-Embassy”. Mr. Khezri makes the argument that the US is protesting the referendum to keep relations with Baghdad, Ankara and Damascus calmer.

Iran and Turkey object to the referendum for obvious reasons. They see the establishment of a Kurdish state as a threat to their territorial integrity. Should Iraqi Kurdistan successfully secede they fear it will whip their own Kurdish populations into a separatist frenzy. As stated in a previous article, Turkey takes a more nuanced view of the situation since it has close political and economic ties with the KRG. Iran, on the other hand, is likely to respond with force should they face any concerted separatist efforts. Saudi Arabia has even come forward to urge the KRG to scrap the referendum in order to “avoid new crises” (#4).

An unusual source of support for the Kurdish referendum has surfaced from an unexpected quarter; Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu has expressed his support for the Kurdish independence referendum. The understanding behind this position from Israel is relatively simple to grasp. Israel has been trying to find and support non-Arab allies and they see a potentially independent Kurdistan as a very valuable potential ally (#5).

Despite the mounting pressure from regional and international sources, president Barzani has so far ignored their calls for scrapping the referendum and says it will continue as planned.

Military Realities

The Kurdish Peshmerga, who gained renown for fighting ISIS, constitute the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan and operate separately from the central government’s security forces. They function like a regular national military and are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with superior adversaries. They played a key role in halting the ISIS spring offensive of 2014 and in the subsequent offensives to recapture Iraqi territory from the terrorist group.

One issue that has haunted the Peshmerga, however, has been a lack of supplies. During the ISIS offensive in northern Iraq in the spring of 2014 the Kurds regularly faced a lack of ammunition and adequate small arms. Part of this stemmed from the central government’s inability to supply them and this has been a sticking point since. Baghdad doesn’t have an interest in having Iraqi Kurdistan being their military equal, or potential superior. Until the supply issue is solved the armed forces of Kurdistan are weakened. The Peshmerga may be brave and resourceful fighters, it is difficult to fight a modern war with no ammunition and outdated weaponry.

Another military reality is that of a potential Iraqi invasion should they secede. Iraq made a veiled threat to this effect when they stated that they would intervene militarily if the referendum resulted in any violence (#6). Additionally, given that Kirkuk, a majority Arab province, is in Kurdish possession and included in the referendum it could well give Iraq an excuse to intervene militarily to protect what it sees as its own sovereign territory. With a lack of international recognition and limited military supplies, Iraqi Kurdistan can ill-afford to have an extended military confrontation with the Iraqi army, which has grown more powerful in recent years.

But the Iraqi military is not the only adversary that could go to war with a potentially independent Kurdistan. Several Shi’ite militias, part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have openly stated that they will attack Iraqi Kurdistan if they try to take Kirkuk from Iraq (#7). The PMU militias were raised with Iranian support to turn the tide against ISIS and were a considerable force in the drive to Mosul. Given Iran’s staunch opposition to an independent Kurdish state, and one being courted by Israel at that, could easily result in the PMU militias getting an unofficial greenlight from Iran to launch an attack on the Kurds in Kirkuk, further complicating and already widely complex situation.

When taken together, these various diplomatic, political, and military decisions will weigh heavily on the Kurdish independence referendum. Despite a desire to become independent, it is necessary for the KRG to weigh its options carefully before it makes another move for independence.

​Continue to part 4 here

​A special thanks to the insights of Mr. Haidar Khezri, adjunct professor of the Department of Eurasian Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University.



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