A planned referendum on independence for the northern, Kurdish-majority region of Iraq will go ahead in the coming days despite the fierce opposition voiced by neighbouring nations and many within the international community.
Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), has announced that it will go forward and hold a referendum in the region, allowing residents – both Kurdish and otherwise – to vote on their independence from Baghdad. The referendum is to be held in the northern Iraqi governorates of Duhok, Erbil, Halabja, and Sulaymaniyah, all of which are under the governance of the KRG, as well as parts of the disputed regions of Kirkuk and Nineveh, which had been seized during the conflict with the Islamic State. The KRG has faced many calls to halt the referendum from both allies and traditional rivals since their proclamation of intent in June 2017. Addressing this opposition in a televised address, Barzani stated, “Referendum is no longer in our hands or political parties, it is in the hands of people,” while encouraging his constituents to go and vote “yes” for independence.
This has greatly worried the central government in Baghdad as well as neighbours Turkey, Iran, and Syria, because the referendum may inflame their own significant Kurdish minorities. Turkey is particularly concerned by the KRG’s refusal to halt the referendum, as it has only recently managed to contain a three-decade-long conflict with its own Kurdish population. Attempting to postpone the referendum, Turkish officials have threatened sanctions against the KRG; a threat which carries potentially devastating consequences, because a majority of Kurdish funding comes from the sale of oil to Turkey. In depriving them of this revenue, Ankara has made vulnerable Kurdish borders and removed any semblance of economic stability in the face of external and internal threats.
The central government in Baghdad has stated that the referendum is unconstitutional, and is ready to intervene if national integrity can be maintained. Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, stated that the referendum threatens the “unity of the Iraqi people” and therefore must be halted. However, these threats seem to be a reaction to the inclusion of the contested, oil-rich Kirkuk governorate in the KRG’s polling area. Observers predict that in the event of Iraqi government intervention, Kirkuk will devolve into violence, renewing the cycle of conflict that has plagued the region for decades.
Minorities in the region, Arabs, and Christian Iraqis, have protested the referendum at various polling stations in fear that an independent Kurdistan would lead to further destabilization in the region. Speaking to the Andoulou Agency, an Arab resident in the region stated that, “Those who want to include Mandali [an Arab-majority town] in the referendum seek to embroil the town in the politics of the region, which will only lead to further chaos and instability.” Christians, forced to flee their homes during the IS occupation, oppose the referendum because they have yet to return to the region and as such, have no voice in the future of their home. These groups have stated their intentions to escalate their resistance against the poll, although they refuse to elaborate what this entails.
Kurdish allies in the West have also decried the referendum, with the United States stating it would not recognize an independent Kurdistan. The U.S. has heavily supported the Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, since the outbreak of conflict against IS. A decisive force in combating the extremist group, the U.S. fears that the Kurdish referendum threatens to distract them from this goal. The Peshmerga’s attention may potentially be redirected to the inter-ethnic violence, which seems to be a likely outcome of the referendum.
The Kurdish referendum, despite the likelihood that it will continue, threatens to undermine the stability of the region. While Kurdish officials have attempted to downplay its significance through statements that label it merely “symbolic” or through implications that it will be an impetus for further discussions with the government in Baghdad, political entities in the region view it as a push for segregation. In a time where solidarity is necessary, the destabilizing effect of the recent conflict with IS will remain for years to come. What the region needs, according to both NGOs and inter-governmental organizations such as the Arab League, is cooperation and unity. This referendum should remind governments within the region, particularly those with large minority populations, that their voices must be heard. While this referendum has the potential to spark a new regional conflict, it is hoped that it will instead facilitate increased dialogue between governments and their people.