Iraq

Kurdish referendum for political relevance: Papering over the cracks

The planned independence referendum for the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, argues Denise Natali, not only reflects ongoing tension with Baghdad, but also intra-Kurdish political rivalries that could trigger further conflict

The Iraqi Kurds′ independence referendum, planned for 25 September, reflects unresolved disputes over political authority between Baghdad and Erbil. It is embedded in the ″right to self-determination″ and a salient sense of Kurdish nationalism that has deepened since the campaign against Islamic State (IS). Even if the referendum is non-binding, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will attempt to use the results to leverage the Iraqi government.

One priority is to capitalise on Kurdish territorial gains and enhance KRG influence in the disputed territories, particularly Kirkuk and the Nineveh Plains. This effort requires convincing local communities – Kurds and non-Kurds – that their future will be more promising under the KRG and not Baghdad.

Yet Kurdish self-determination – which may include the referendum exercise – is not only a contestation between Erbil and Baghdad, but among Kurdish factions as well. The first dynamic involves what the Kurds can gain from the Iraqi state. The second is about Kurdish factions′ competition for power, revenue and resources.

Independence a distant hope

Intra-Kurdish competition has increased since the anti-IS campaign began and while the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani is challenged by the Kurdistan Workers′ Party (PKK) and its affiliates, as well as other Iraqi Kurdish groups. The key post-referendum issue is not whether a ″yes″ vote will alter official Iraqi borders or the status quo, but rather how Kurdish parties′ competition for political relevance can incite conflict among Kurds or other sub-state groups.

Map showing main area of Kurdish settlement and Kurdish populations according to country (source: Deutsche Welle)
The Middle East's largest stateless minority: "governments and institutions may affirm the Kurds′ right to self-determination, like all peoples of the world and recognise the significant contributions that the Kurdish peshmerga have made to the fight against Islamic State. Yet they remain committed to Iraq′s territorial integrity and state sovereignty," writes Natali

Most astute observers, as well as Kurdish officials, know that the referendum will not lead to independence. Despite an intense lobbying campaign in Washington, DC and Europe, the KRG has failed to gain key regional and international actors′ official support for the referendum or Kurdish secession.

Governments and institutions may affirm the Kurds′ right to self-determination, like all peoples of the world and recognise the significant contributions that the Kurdish peshmerga have made to the fight against Islamic State. Yet they remain committed to Iraq′s territorial integrity and state sovereignty. Even the U.S. Congress – where Iraqi Kurds enjoy important influence – has conditioned future military support to the Kurdish peshmerga on the KRG remaining part of the Iraqi state.

A unilateral referendum lacking Iraqi and international support is unlikely to alter the status quo in Iraq. Even if the KRG secures a majority ″yes″ vote in the disputed territories, it will remain a de facto authority without official recognition or increased financial support from Baghdad. The absence of a negotiated settlement between the KRG and Baghdad approved by the Iraqi parliament, will also leave KRG claims to oil exports and revenues subject to the same legal and political constraints as they are today.

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