As ISIS is hammered on all fronts in Iraq and Syria and ceases to exist as a viable territorial and economic entity, joint counterterrorism operations could potentially be undermined and affect regional security with the reopening of the Iraqi Kurdistan question through an independence referendum to be held on September 25. The boss of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), President Masoud Barzani has, in spite of international pleas and criticism from the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, decided to proceed with a controversial referendum on Kurdish separation from the Iraqi state. The Iraqi government in Baghdad has understandably decried the move as unconstitutional and a threat to Iraqi unity and national security. The opportunistic referendum is not inclusive of the diverse Iraqi society, be they the Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian, Sunni or Shia communities, all of which populate Iraqi Kurdistan and broad swathes of disputed territory the KRG seeks to incorporate in an independent Kurdistan.
The Iraqi parliament and Haider (al Abadi’s ruling cabinet) have unanimously come out in opposition to Barzani’s proposed referendum declaring there would be unintended consequences and that the Kurdish authorities were “playing with fire” if they thought the referendum would be greeted with international praise and recognition. The prime minister, Iraqi officials and the Supreme Court of Iraq have even said in no uncertain terms that the government would enforce counter-measures against the KRG in the event of a unilateral secession from Iraq. Indeed, the UNSecretary-Generall has also criticized the upcoming vote as highly provocative and hampering the joint battle against ISIS in addition to reaffirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. The United States, which does not oppose a Kurdish state and merely prefers a postponement, has long stoked Kurdish separatist pretensions as leverage against the vulnerable though defiant Baghdad government; the U.S. has also advised against a drastic referendum that could splinter Iraq and plunge it deeper into an irreversible sectarian morass. Israel, through its extensive economic, diplomatic and intelligence contacts with the ruling Barzani clan, is seemingly the only nation that unequivocally supports the creation of an independent Kurdistan not just in Iraq but in the entire Middle East. The nation that has historically has sought to drive an irreconcilable wedge between Muslims is now revealingly, dead-set on a Kurdistan as it would, according to Netanyahu, be beneficial to US and Israeli interests. Although such statements come off as harmless, the flippant Israeli leader’s expressed concerns for Kurdish national aspirations betray the loaded geopolitical implications such support would entail in Israel’s life and death struggle for regional supremacy with Iran and its allies. These geopolitical manoeuvres and pivots are not lost on increasingly influential Iran, which has stated bluntly in its Expediency Council that the eventuation of an independent Kurdistan would only benefit the United States and the “Zionist regime of Israel”, both of whom seek to “colonize and dominate” the Middle East. In light of this, Iran has cautioned that such a situation would cut all available roadways to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish government of Erdogan, which is in the midst of a counter insurgency war against the Kurdish PKK in Turkey and has earned a reputation as virulently anti-Kurdish, is also taking preemptive steps against the referendum by amassing large convoys of tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery in Sirnak province, near the border with Iraq. Out of all the regional players, Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish diaspora and is nonetheless adamant that they will not allow any Kurdish state to arise on its borders, in fear that it may wake the restive Kurdish population as evidenced by their illegal meddling and occupation in Syria and Iraq, two states embroiled in a battle against terrorism. Similarly, the pro-Iranian Shiite dominated Iraqi government will not tolerate the establishment of “another Israel” in northern Iraq as was said vehemently by Iraqi Vice President Nouri Maliki to the US ambassador in Iraq. This reveals the Iraqi government’s legitimate fears that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with an entrenched Zionist presence and emboldened political clout may be converted into a hostile Israeli listening post against its strategic partner: Iran.
Another fundamental issue is how the sectarian, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional state of Iraq distributes its administrative duties, natural resources and essential apparatuses of the state in a manner that is equitable and inclusive for its people. Thus far, such an equilibrium has not existed between the squabbling Baghdad government and Erbil centred Kurdish government, primarily on matters related to the ownership of oil and gas reserves, allotment of revenues and self-governance. Since the first Gulf War a revamped Iraqi constitution granted the Kurds their own autonomous region and secured their own judiciary, economy, law enforcement and parliament. Being conveniently located on the country’s most vast oil reserves, Kurdistan has been selling half a million barrels of crude oil a day to Israel and Turkey (via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline) at extremely low prices on the international market often without the knowledge and approval of the Iraqi federal government. Disagreements with the Iraqi government on the distribution of the federal budget, of which Kurdistan is formally entitled to 17% and the stake of all regions of Iraq in oil profits, have left Kurdistan strapped with an unsustainable debt of roughly $32 billion USD to international oil companies, civil servants, local banks and financial institutions. However, a notable bone of contention that will have to be resolved with the defeat of ISIS are the disputed territories in the Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salah ad Din and Diyala provinces that the Peshmerga seized from ISIS in 2014 when the government forces were weakened and retreated en masse. To understand the timing of this referendum and the risks the Barzani clan is willing to take in spite of horrible consequences, an analysis of the mindset and intentions of President Barzani is needed. The Kirkuk governorate, which accounts for about 40% of Iraq’s oil production, is currently under the control of the Kurdish authorities who have under their jurisdiction large segments of the Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian population. Baghdad realizes that without the full incorporation of the territories it has seized, especially the oil rich province of Kirkuk, any Kurdistan will flounder as an independent state and will be isolated from its hostile neighbours who could easily enforce punitive blockades and suffocate Kurdish society. For this reason, Barzani has called a hasty referendum and strengthened the troop presence in Kirkuk not from a position of strength but from a position of weakness and desperation, knowing the opportunity to carve out a separate state is expiring and is unpopular among the majority of Iraqis. The odds are stacked against the creation of an independent Kurdistan because its regional neighbours oppose a separatist precedent set in Iraq. Therefore, it is to be hoped that the KRG will heed the warnings of the international community and embark upon the conciliatory path of constructive national dialogue.