After a decades-long struggle, Iraqi Kurdistan was under no illusions that the road to self-determination would be easy or quick. But weeks after 93 per cent of voters opted for independence in a referendum, the aspirations of the autonomous region in northern Iraq have hit a roadblock with Baghdad and its neighbours. As diplomacy grinds to a halt, regional geopolitics are descending into an uneasy standoff. Dialogue is now essential to restore relations.
On 11 October, an Iraqi court ordered the arrests of the organisers of the 25 September referendum. Iraq has closed the region’s airspace and threatened to seize border crossings and resource-rich disputed territories such as the oil town of Kirkuk. Iran and Turkey have conducted military exercises on the frontier in a show of strength directed as much at their own restive Kurdish communities as at Erbil. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even threatened the region’s capital with occupation, claiming “our troops could arrive [any] night.”
Iraqi Kurdistan’s western allies in the fight against ISIS have distanced themselves from the referendum result. The United States expressed its “deep disappointment” that the “unilateral” vote had gone ahead, but stressed that America’s “historic relationship with [Kurdistan’s] people” would continue. The United Nations’ envoy in Iraq, Ján Kubiš, offered to mediate in dialogue and help “solve the problem” between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, but little progress has been made.
Leading proponents of Kurdistan’s independence had not expected such a frosty reaction, and this diplomatic reality stands in stark contrast to the Kurdish leadership’s progressive vision to be the world’s newest state.
September’s referendum, presented as a clear public mandate to negotiate a new relationship with Baghdad rather than grounds for an immediate divorce, catalysed and amplified a groundswell of public support for a Kurdish state in the north of Iraq. The independence cause has even unified a political system long divided between the Sulaimani-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, whose stronghold is Erbil.
In conversations in the region’s capital around the time of the vote, senior figures presented a progressive vision of federal institutions, power sharing, and consensus, balancing a multi-ethnic identity and full citizenship for minorities – promises that they felt Iraq had failed to deliver on.
What would the Kurdish governance model be? State-building projects over the last quarter of a century range in success from Slovenia to South Sudan. Some have compared Kurdistan’s situation with that of Kosovo, whose independence was pursued after international intervention and a period of stabilisation. The parallel with Israel, which carved out a pro-Western homeland in a region dominated by difficult neighbours, is pragmatically skirted by Kurdish policymakers given the friction this comparison could cause, even as the similarity is celebrated by the population, who flew Israeli flags alongside Kurdish ones during referendum-day festivities.
Central in the referendum campaign was an emphasis on promoting governance reform, including by eliminating corruption. At the same time, the Kurdistan Regional Government has focused efforts on diversifying and promoting international investment in an oil-dependent economy that has been hammered by three years of intense conflict against ISIS, as well as Baghdad’s failure to pay civil servants’ salaries in full for years.
Drawing on a litany of historical injustice, Erbil has always stressed Kurds’ cultural and linguistic differences from their Arab, Turkic, and Persian neighbours, a distinction rooted in Kurdistan’s view of itself as the world’s largest nation without a state. But as Western diplomats urged a two-year delay on a referendum until ISIS was completely destroyed and the regional refugee crisis resolved, a more pressing question about independence is: why now?
There is a strong sense of capitalising on the momentum of Kurdistan’s front-line role in the fight against ISIS. The region has shown itself to be an effective counter-extremism force and a proven ally in the battle against militancy, not just militarily (1,800 Peshmerga fighters have been killed and over 10,000 injured according to front-line sources), but also through Kurdistan’s emphasis on tolerance and community co-existence. Channelling this reputation internationally has been a major pillar of Kurdistan’s effort to communicate an image of a state that can handle its own affairs and even act as a model for its neighbours.
Another major driver is a perception of unrepresentative rule in Baghdad. In private interviews, senior Kurdish policymakers painted a picture of an Iraqi government dominated by sectarian interests and Iranian-sponsored Islamism, with legislative racism and block voting reflecting a Shia-dominated agenda. Referring to the desertion of Iraqi garrisons during ISIS’ rapid advance across northern Iraq in 2014, one senior military official painted the relationship as the worst of both worlds: dependence and abandonment.
Increasing tension between Peshmerga fighters and Shia militia forces in areas liberated from ISIS has raised the threat of violence. The more fervent wings of the Popular Mobilisation Forces militias that now dominate swathes of Iraq in the wake of ISIS have prompted warnings from former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger of an emergent “radical Iranian empire” facilitated by the regional proliferation of groups such as Hizbullah and other militias backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Amid this climate of heightened concern over sectarian violence, a major factor cited by leaders in Kurdistan was the additional international protection that statehood brings. Whereas the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the Anfal genocide of the 1980s led to the introduction of a US- and UK-led no-fly zone, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait ushered in a full international intervention.
With such parallels felt keenly in the region, immediate de-escalation of tensions is crucial. This includes an end to the collective punishment from Baghdad and its neighbours that disproportionately affects the Kurdish populace, which is still recovering from sustaining a 1,000-kilometre front with ISIS for three years. Regardless of whether independence is on the table, dialogue with the Iraqi government is essential to rebuild relationships left in tatters by an unprecedented regional crisis, and to establish a road map to address the underlying conditions that could lead another ISIS to emerge from the ashes of the last.