Obliged to be Iraqi: The Kurds After the Referendum


When veteran Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani declared the holding of a referendum to express the Kurds’ desire to secede from Iraq, he exposed not only the yearning of the Kurds across the Middle East to establish a state in which they would be the dominant nation, but also the ability of the state system to preserve the status quo.[1] He mobilized with great exect the passionate and emotive force of one of the two most significant non-state situations in the Middle East – those being the rights to statehood of the Kurds and of the Palestinians – and the counterpoint to this force, that being the inherent ability of extant states to protect their territorial integrity and nationalist projects. Barzani’s initiative also illustrated the inability, or perhaps unwillingness, of Western countries and their powerful non- Western partners to support independence initiatives, either because of self-interest, a lack of capability to support a new state-building project, or a belief that such an initiative was simply being undertaken at an unsuitable moment in time. In the case of the Kurds of Iraq, arguably, all three came together, certainly in the eyes of Western powers. This short piece focuses principally on the aftermath of the referendum for the Iraqi Kurds in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) since the event took place in September 2017, noting that their position in Iraq has once again returned to being of similar status to before the it took place, rather than being weaker, as the KRI, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) reverted back to operating within an accepted framework of being a useful non-state, or unrecognized state, entity that gives opportunities not only for Kurdish leaders to exploit, but for external states to utilise for the promotion of their own state interests.

Kurdish aspirations v. state system integrity

The power of these two countervailing forces that emerged in response to Barzani’s exercise in expressing selfdetermination suggest that the Iraqi Kurdish referendum should not be seen as an interesting if provincial episode in the politics of Iraq. Indeed, Barzani’s initiative saw two dynamics coalesce that were previously viewed as being extremely diycult, if not impossible, to imagine in seemingly disorderly world of Middle East politics and international relations. First, Barzani managed to not only bring the Kurds of Iraq, if not all of their political parties, more or less together in expressing their desire to establish an independent sovereign state; his initiative was also taken on by Kurds in other parts of the Middle East – Iran, Turkey, and Syria – in addition to the sizeable population of Kurds living in the diaspora, as being ‘their’ referendum. Kurds in Turkey, in Iran, and in Syria, as well as beyond, saw Barzani’s initiative as something more than that of the Kurds of Iraq seeking their independence. Rather, they saw it as the beginning of the establishment of a Kurdish nation state and its appeal seemed to transcend location and boundaries. To observers of the usually fractious and fissiparous scene of Kurdish politics, unity among Kurds around one subject of profound importance has proved to be elusive, and Barzani’s initiative stands out as an example of how a non-state peoples can react to the lure of creating a state.

Meanwhile, the counterpoint to this expression of a coherent Kurdish nationalist statement could be heard emanating from the regional capitals of Middle Eastern countries, and especially from Turkey, Iran, and (the rest of) Iraq. Again, coherence among Middle Eastern state-ly actors is arguably as rare as it is among non-state actors, and the Kurds in particular, but on this subject – of possible Kurdish independence – a powerful show of unity was displayed between these three countries (with each having within their borders a significant Kurdish minority population). The fact that the relationships between these countries are complicated, to the point at times of being confrontational, further emphasises the powerful aligning tendency that the emergence of a possible threat to extant state-ly order can generate.

The Referendum and Aftermath

The referendum was held as planned on 25 September 2017 and saw 93% of a 72% turnout say ‘yes’ to the question ‘Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the region to become an independent state?’.[2] But the referendum had gone ahead against the express wishes, demands even, of several governments including the US, UK, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Of these countries, the US and UK had engaged in extensive diplomatic exorts to persuade Barzani and his lieutenants to at least postpone the referendum, in the interests of Iraq unity, with the US promising to support a referendum within two years if US and UK supported negotiations with Baghdad failed.[3] Turkey’s response was blunt, with President Erdogan calling Barzani’s plans ‘illegitimate’.[4] However, while Erdogan’s rhetoric was strong, his actions were more restrained. Perhaps recognizing the extensive transactional relationship that had developed between Ankara and Erbil – the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – in the hydrocarbons and construction sectors, and recognizing Barzani’s own animosity towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – the PKK – that remained the Turkish state’s primary security concern, there was no visible change in the posture of Turkey towards the KRI. The border remained open, commerce and trade still happened, and oil continued to |ow from KRG-controlled fields to Turkish refineries and ports.

Iran’s response was, however, quite dixerent and, from the perspective of the Kurdish leadership, surprisingly so. After initially closing border crossings with the KRI at the request of the government of Iraq, Iran mobilized military forces along the border with the KRI, moving forces from Kurdish-dominant areas of Iran in a clear message to Iran’s own restive Kurds, as well as those of Iraq.[5] But Iran’s real threat was to use its close relationship – even control – of Iraqi Shi’a militia forces of the Hashed al-Sha’bi. With several military units already within striking distance of Kurdish peshmerga controlled territories in Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh provinces – areas taken by the peshmerga in 2014 that lay to the south of the extant KRI – Iran then brought direct pressure to bear on the Kurdish political parties of Iraq, and particularly the traditional counterbalance to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Talabani family-lead Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Following the direct intervention of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Al-Quds Brigade, Lt Gen Qassem Sulaimani, with the rising leadership figure in the PUK, Bafel Talabani – the eldest son of the late Jalal Talabani – parts of the PUK peshmerga force in Kirkuk were stood down as Iranian-commanded Hashed military units moved north on 15 October, retaking the city of Kirkuk before moving against KDP peshmerga lines to the west, in southern Erbil province and into Nineveh. While the KDP peshmerga with parts of the PUK peshmerga commanded by Kosrat Rasoul mounted successful defence to the south of Erbil and Dohuk, it was clear that the situation was untenable.

By November, all the territory held by the Kurds since 2014, in the disputed territories, had been ceded to Iraqi forces and the Kurdish leadership, and especially Barzani, was accused of making dangerously misguided decisions. Massoud Barzani himself did not seek to renew his presidency and in exect ended his term at the end of November. After several rounds of negotiations between the KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, the situation slowly began to normalize. However, it seemed that the initiative of Massoud Barzani had ultimately failed, and nearly catastrophically, as Iraqi government and Shi’a militia forces had been poised to enter the Kurdistan Region itself. Even though this did not happen, the once confident Kurds had now to recognize that they had to rebuild their relationship not only with Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara, but also with Western allies that remained distinctly unimpressed with what was viewed as Kurdish intransigence and stubbornness that had very nearly caused an ethnic civil war in Iraq.

Was Barzani right?

It has proved to be easy for commentators to criticize Massoud Barzani for his decision to go ahead with the referendum. A case can be made that he needed a significant nationalist event to take place to shore up his popular support at a time when his government, and his family, were being accused of financial mismanagement and corruption. He had also been in power for over 25 years and public opinion had begun to be more critical of his own standing. Yet these analysis undervalue the structure challenges that were emerging towards the continuation of the KRI even as an autonomous, non-state, entity in Iraq. With the post-Saddam period being in its second decade, the Kurds were beginning to fear a resumption of ‘business as usual’ within Iraq, of their autonomy being diminished and with their rights being ignored. Compounding this was the clear end of the threat posed by Islamic State. Oddly, the Kurds, in Iraq and in Syria, as has been proven in recent weeks, developed almost a symbiotic relationship with the Islamic State. In exect, as long as Islamic State remained a threat, then Western powers would chose to engage directly and bilaterally with the Kurds of Iraq and Syria. But as soon as this threat ended, then so too would the need to engage with the Kurds. From my own conversations with Barzani, it seems to be clear that this changing security setting weighed heavily upon the calculations as to whether to hold a referendum, or not.

The obliged Iraqis

Now, the Iraqi Kurds are firmly locked into the state of Iraq, as a singular federal unit, with significant amounts of autonomy, but with their being little likelihood that more federal units will develop in the near future. Kurdish leaders have again rebuilt their ties with Baghdad and have been proactive, and pragmatic, in re-establishing links with Tehran and Ankara, and are working closely with Western powers to reform the peshmerga forces, albeit within a framework of integrating them more fully with Iraqi Security Forces. And the KRG has also moved ahead with developing deeper relations with Russia, with a particular focus on the oil and gas sector.

In exect, the Kurds of Iraq are now obliged to be Iraqi – to exist within the state of Iraq, with a dream of being independent that, for now, unless events happen in the rest of Iraq that may collapse the state (such as a new sectarian civil war) have little hope of being realised. But their non-state existence gives them |exibility in their international relations, and opportunities to external powers, that will likely see the Kurds of Iraq further consolidate their state-like institutions and to again resurrect their determination to pursue independence, whether in the next five years or beyond. And so it is in this peculiar setting of being a people without a state, yet with state-like institutions, and engaged in the mechanics and operation of a state (Iraq), that the Kurds in Iraq will continue to exist, for the time being – obliged to be Iraq, but conditioned to pursue their dream.


[1] For recent work on the relationship between non-states, unrecognized states, and de facto states and the international system of states, see Tozun Bahceli, B. Bartman, and H. Srebrnik (eds.) De Facto States: The Quest for Autonomy. London Routledge, 2004; Nina Caspersen and Gareth Stansfield (eds.) Unrecognised States in the International System. London: Routledge, 2011; James Ker-Lindsay and Eiki Berg, ‘Introduction: A conceptual framework for engagement with de facto states.’ Ethnopolitics, 17:4, 335-342.
[2] Bethan McKernan, ‘Kurdistan referendum results: 93% of Iraqi Kurds vote for independence, say reports’. Independent, 27 September 2017.
[3] Loveday Morris, ‘How the Kurdish independence referendum backfired spectacularly.’ The Washington Post, 20 October 2017.
[4] Tulay Karadeniz and Darya Korsunskaya, ‘Turkey’s Erdogan calls Iraqi Kurdish referendum illegitimate.’ Reuters, 28 September 2018.
[5] Farzin Nadimi, ‘Iran |exes its muscles after the Kurdish referendum.’ The Washington Institute Policy Watch, 10 October 2017.

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