The Kurdish Conundrum
By Kamran Bokhari
The Kurdish bid for independence in Iraq comes at a particularly troubling time for the Middle East. States are fragmenting, and multiple conflicts are weakening the region. With ever-increasing intra-communal differences and strong opposition from almost all quarters, Kurdish secession from Iraq would create an entity that would be politically and economically unviable. In fact, an independent Kurdistan would exacerbate the already deteriorating security situation in the Middle East and add to the litany of problems the United States has to deal with in the region – an outcome that would be detrimental to the interests of Iraq’s Kurdish population itself.
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), insists on holding an independence referendum on September 25. His nephew, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, said on September 18 that the plebiscite would not define the borders of the Kurds’ envisioned polity and that the boundaries of an independent Kurdistan seceding from Iraq would be finalized via negotiations with the Shia-dominated Iraqi central government. Baghdad, however, is in no mood to negotiate and has denounced the referendum. Ammar al-Hakim, a key leader of the ruling Iraqi National Alliance, called the vote unconstitutional and demanded that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi take steps to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity.
Unlike many other cases of secession around the world, the Kurdish independence bid is not simply a domestic political squabble. On the contrary, the Kurdish desire to secede from Iraq has serious geopolitical consequences for the region as a whole; in particular, for the Kurds in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Syria and Iran. Each of these states has been struggling with its own Kurdish separatist movements. In short, this issue is not about one Kurdistan, but many Kurdistans, because of the Kurdish communities in these four countries and their intra-communal differences. Should they succeed, the Iraqi Kurdish struggle for self-determination will embolden their counterparts in the three neighboring countries and further destabilize the region.
Regional Opposition to Kurdish Independence
It is no surprise that Turkey and Iran have been the most vociferous international actors in opposing the Iraqi Kurdish independence ballot. In a September 19 statement, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said his country would “not allow fait accompli in northern Iraq,” which he warned would “ruin regional security and will shatter comfort, peace and stability.” Iran’s top military commander, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, warned that the move would lead to a regional war. Separately, Iran’s national security chief, Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, threatened that Iran would shut down its border with Iraq’s Kurdish region if it held the referendum.
Ironically, Kurdistan’s independence is an area where the United States and Iran are in agreement. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said September 15 that Washington did not support the vote and called on the KRG to cancel the referendum. The spokeswoman for President Donald Trump said that the separatist bid undermines the fight against Daesh, also known as ISIS, and the efforts to stabilize areas liberated from the jihadist movement.
This is not just rhetoric coming from the Trump administration. Within Iraq, Kurdish independence could lead to a complex conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG, and among the broader Sunni and Kurdish communities. The Sunnis are already quite disenfranchised and still in the process of being liberated from Daesh control. Therefore, they cannot afford to have the Kurds encroaching into their lands. These tensions could create the exact conditions for a Daesh revival.
Moreover, it was only weeks ago that Mosul was liberated from Daesh fighters, and the battle to take control of other neighboring areas continues. At the same time, we now have clashes taking place between Kurds and Turkmen in the oil-rich disputed city of Kirkuk in response to the referendum bid. (The KRG is not holding the referendum in only Dohuk, Irbil and Suleimaniyeh, the three provinces that come under its jurisdiction. The vote will be conducted in areas of the three adjacent provinces — Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala — that have increasingly fallen under the control of the Peshmerga forces.)
Despite the KRG’s attempt to expand the frontiers of its envisioned Kurdistan southward, there is one unmistakable reality: If and when Kurdistan is formed, it will be landlocked and surrounded by hostile forces — Turkey, Iran and Iraq. This will affect the Kurdish economy, which depends heavily upon hydrocarbon exports — a major point of contention between Irbil and Baghdad. Turkey had served as the only transit state that could help ferry oil produced by the KRG to the world markets. A declaration of independence will eliminate that option, given that Turkey will not accept an independent Kurdistan.
Turkey has the largest Kurdish population and a very robust armed separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). An independent Kurdistan will energize the PKK insurgency, which enjoys sanctuary in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq. Ankara will not simply sit on the sidelines. The Turkish government will provide significant military support to Sunni and Turkmen forces in Iraq against those of the KRG.
Turkey also feels threatened by Kurdish self-rule in an enclave in northeastern Syria. While Ankara has thus far had a working relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, it has always viewed the Syrian Kurds as cousins of the PKK. It considers the main Syrian Kurdish movement, the Democratic Union Party (DUP), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (PPU), as a terrorist organization. This is why the U.S. decision to align with the DUP and the PPU to dismantle Daesh’s core turf in Syria led U.S.-Turkish relations to deteriorate so seriously.
Meanwhile, Iran has its own large Kurdish minority that poses a twin threat. Tehran, like Ankara, faces the threat of Kurdish separatism from groups like Kurdistan Free Life Party. A secession from Iraq would create an intolerable situation for the Iranians, who not only have a Kurdish minority in the northwest on the border with KRG territory but also have restive ethnic minorities elsewhere in the country, like Arabs in the southwest and Baluch in the southeast. Furthermore, Salafist and jihadist tendencies have grown among Iranian Kurds in recent years as is evident by the recent Daesh attacks in the Iranian capital. Thus, Iran can be expected to align with its allies dominating the central government in Baghdad to counter any move by the KRG to secede.
A Broader View of Kurdish Independence
There are three geopolitical drivers shaping the regional context of the KRG’s independence referendum: (1) weakening autocratic regimes, (2) jihadism, and (3) the Sunni-Shia geosectarian conflict. These three trends took off with the 2003 overthrow of the Baathist regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but they strengthened exponentially during the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Matters have come to a point where the Syrian and Iraqi nation-states (as we have known them since their emergence as sovereign entities in the first half of the last century) are shattered and beyond restoration.
In some ways, the Iraqi Kurdish move toward self-determination is a logical course of action, given that Iraq is broken (especially in the wake of the Daesh takeover of Mosul) and is unlikely to regain any real coherence in the near future. In addition, the KRG has long struggled to reach a power-sharing deal with the Iraqi central government regarding its autonomous status within the framework of a federal Iraqi state. A key part of the KRG’s frustration has been the continuing disagreements over control of energy resources. The Iraqi Kurds would like to secure their national interests from the growing chaos in the region and see independence as a way to do that.
However, they are cognizant of the arrestors in their path and how difficult it will be to realize their national aspirations. Even if they somehow manage to succeed, they will be faced with an impossible task of maintaining security and stability as they fight a multi-front war. Therefore, the Kurds may, in fact, be using the referendum to strengthen their bargaining position and, by extension, their status within the framework of a federal Iraq.
The risk of such a strategy is that a mobilization of the masses can take on a life of its own and lead to further chaos in the country. The elite may not be pushing for full sovereignty; however, public expectations certainly demand it. When negotiations break down, especially in an environment of intense conflict, the elite may have no choice but to seriously push for independence. Therefore, even if the threat to secede may not be a serious one, it could have costly unintended consequences.
The Iraqi Kurdish drive for independence is especially important because so many different players are impacted by the outcome. It is therefore critical for the United States to actively use its diplomatic tools to mediate between Irbil and Baghdad. Since American, Turkish and Iranian interests converge on this issue it would be helpful if Washington worked with both Ankara and Tehran in this regard. The key will be using the current climate after the liberation of Mosul to try to bring Iraq’s three main communal groups together to work on a new power-sharing agreement, which will be an incentive for the Kurds to steer clear of independence. This will not be easy to accomplish but it does provide a mechanism to avoid further chaos in the region. The Trump administration will need to work with Turkey and Iran in order to steer the Kurds, Shia and the Sunnis to negotiate with one another towards a mutually acceptable power-sharing arrangement, which will be a critical component in our efforts to defeat Daesh.