As Kurdish independence referendum starts Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad move to limit its impact
This analysis was part of Prime Source's Weekly Regional Assessment
Recent Development: On September 25, residents of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq participated in a landmark referendum on Kurdish independence with initial reports suggesting the turnout stands at 72%. Voters had to answer the question: "Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside KRG to become an independent country?". In the lead up and during the referendum, several governments warned of upcoming sanctions against the autonomous region, as the KRG's head Masoud Barzani pledged to move ahead despite international pressure.
Most significantly, on September 18, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the Iraqi central government would intervene militarily should the Kurdish independence referendum devolve in violence and unrest. Earlier, two Kurds had been killed when gunshots were fired by unknown gunmen at a local Turkmen party headquarters in the city of Kirkuk, where the referendum is slated to be held. On September 25, the Iraqi Parliament voted to deploy troops to
Turkey threatened to impose sanctions against the KRG, with growing speculations that Ankara could temporarily shut down the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline in Turkey through which the Kurds export 85% of their oil. Turkish armed forces are further holding a large military exercise along the border with the KRG. On September 25, Turkey closed part of its land border with the KRG.
Additionally, Iran threatened to close all of its border with the KRG and implement additional economic sanctions. On September 25, Tehran shut all air traffic from Iran to the KRG.
In a related development, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slated to visit Iran on October 4 to discuss the Kurdish referendum, while the Iraqi Chief of Staff already visited Ankara on September 24 to discuss the issue. This led to the participation of Iraqi forces to the ongoing Turkish exercise along the border.
Meanwhile, on September 21, days after Iraqi officials announced the beginning of the offensive, Iraqi forces finally launched the militarily campaign to retake the ISIS-held enclave of Hawija south of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk. Dozens of villages were captured as pro-government forces moved toward the city of Hawija. While the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs – a coalition of mostly Shiite militias) are participating in the attack, the Kurdish Peshmerga have stated they would not be involved.
Analysis: Disregarding significant international pressure, including a last-ditch UN effort to secure the postponement of the referendum, KRG’s President Masoud Barzani decided to move ahead with the vote. Despite the international uproar and - thus far rhetorical - "drums of war," the day after the vote will not mark the emergence of an independent Kurdish State. On multiple occasions Barzani stated that the referendum would be followed by negotiations with Baghdad on several key issues including regarding the country's future border with Iraq. Still, while being largely consultative, the vote can and will be used as leverage by the KRG during these future negotiation, partly explaining why Barzani decided to hold the referendum before reaching an agreement with Baghdad. This is particularly the case when it comes to the borders of a future Kurdish state. Should residents of disputed areas such as the city of Kirkuk vote massively in favor of the referendum, Erbil will have a legitimate claim over these key areas - including the various oil fields surrounding the city.
Beyond that, Barzani’s decision to maintain the vote has much to do with the domestic Kurdish political scene. By adopting a more nationalistic line, Barzani seeks to sideline his political opponents and capitalize on the anticipated success of the referendum to consolidate his own position in the KRG's upcoming general elections slated to be held in November. Turning back would, in that sense, have amounted to a political suicide. Several of his political rivals including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) made this argument and came out in support of the postponement of the referendum in a bid to differentiate themselves from the KRG's head. While segments of the population do support such a stance, the majority sees the Kurds’ involvement in the anti-ISIS fight as a unique opportunity to advance towards independence, the overall result of the vote - a resounding "yes" - being relatively clear.
On the opposite side, while often depicted as Erbil’s best shot at obtaining an amicable deal with Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi has taken a notably tough stance regarding the referendum. He himself is feeling the pressure from the Iranian-backed segment of the Shiite bloc, including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has more overtly threatened to intervene should the referendum be maintained. As various Shiite figures vie for prominence ahead of next year's election, seeking a compromise with Erbil would most certainly disqualify Abadi in the eyes of a growingly nationalistic Shiite public. This pressure will not disappear after the vote. Despite the consultative nature of the Kurdish vote, internal political pressure encourages a less conciliatory stance. Abadi’s recent threat to intervene should the referendum devolve into violence will further be seen by Iranian-backed militias as an incentive to prompt such violence, should it not errupt by itself. After the completion of the Hawija offensive, the PMUs will further be conveniently close to disputed areas and within striking distance of Kirkuk.
Regardless of whether Abadi approves an intervention in disputed areas or not, part of PMUs will likely act unilaterally, reflecting Iran’s staunch opposition to the creation of a Kurdish State along its own borders. Despite Ankara's outcry, Tehran may indeed be Erbil’s staunchest opponent. While Ankara has voiced significant concerns and threatened sanctions, Erdogan has an interest in keeping relatively good relations with Barzani and his party, as Barzani's party serves as a counterweight to the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish party and associated militant group operating in Turkey. The KRG will further be isolated after the vote thus increasing Ankara’s leverage over the Kurdish entity and decreasing the risk of a unilateral declaration of independence, which is what Turkey seeks to prevent.
For Iran, on the other hand, the creation of an independent Kurdish state is much more of a threat in the long term, while also being an opportunity in the short term. Beyond the fact that Iran faces its own Kurdish insurgency, the long-term possibility of closer relations between Israel and a future Kurdish State - to counter-balance Iran's own expansionist policy- is taken seriously by Tehran. Furthermore, in the short-term, the crisis surrounding the referendum represents in the eyes of Iran a unique opportunity to consolidate its grip over the Iraqi political landscape and get rid of the more moderate figures opposing its influence over the country. By encouraging a PMU-led intervention to prevent the Kurds from “stealing Iraqi soil” – namely the disputed areas controlled by the Kurds – Iran consolidate the influence of its own proxies in Iraq, at a time when the future of the country is at stake and ahead of an important electoral year. This also partly explains Washington's opposition to the referendum, which will be used by Iran to boost its influence in Iraq and sideline moderate figures such as al-Abadi.
All in all, this means that chances for the situation to return to a "status quo" where opponents to the referendum simply ignore it, are low. This in turn decreases the chance of a negotiated solution to the Kurdish crisis, carrying with it the risk of devolving into an protracted crisis where short burst of violence are likely to be recorded.