How the Kurdish Independence Referendum Could Spark a Civil War or Worse

Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region has finished voting on a controversial referendum that could potentially lead to a new independent country. It is a goal that Kurds around the world have long pushed for, but it potentially touch off a broader conflict involving Iran, Turkey, and Syria, as well as test loyalties and allegiances between the Kurds and dozens of nations and ethnic groups throughout the Middle East and beyond.

On June 7, 2017, President Masoud Barzani, the present head of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), met with various parties and formally announced the date for the non-binding poll as Sept. 25, 2017. Barzani, who has been president of the KRG since 2005, had initially called for the vote in 2014, following the meteoric rise of ISIS in Iraq following the spectacular collapse of the Iraq’s national army in the face of the terrorist group, but delayed it due to apparent international pressure. With ISIS in retreat and the situation stabilizing, it has been harder to argue for further delays.

Nothing is simple in Iraqi Kurdistan 

“When the referendum is held and the people made their decision, what alternative and decision can disregard the decision of those people?” Barzani posed as a rhetorical question during a press conference ahead of the referendum on Sept. 24, 2017. “No, there is no alternative. The only exception is if they make the road shorter, they come two days from now and say that ‘you don’t need two years. Let’s reach an agreement within two months, and become good neighbors.’ This will be much better. But there is nothing they can offer to bring us back to failed partnership [with Iraq].”

But the surety of Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is unfortunately not necessarily reflective of the actual situation. Underscoring the very real complexities of the political landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s meeting in June 2017 included representatives, from his KDP, the main opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, two Kurdish Islamist parties, three Kurdish Communist parties, three ethnic Turkmen parties, a single ethnic Armenian party, and two Assyrian Christian parties.

A vendor in Erbil sells KRG flags along with KDP banners, including some showing President Massoud Barzani., Sputnik  via AP

Whether or not the KDP even truly represents the interests of all Kurds in Iraq is a serious question, as its leadership is largely members of the Barzani tribe and its allies. This has led to serious and sometimes violent political confrontations with the PUK and other groups. All of this exists in an area with just approximately 5.3 million people, roughly a quarter of the population of the state of New York.

In the rest of Iraq, the opinions are more clear cut. Iraq’s central government had effectively rejected the results of the referendum before the voting even began. Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has taken a largely inflexible position to the territorial integrity of his country and made it clear that he plans to use his full power, including the use of force, to keep the KRG for splitting away. 

Iraqis and Kurds prepare for a fight 

On Sept. 24, 2017, Abadi’s office released a statement called on all foreign governments to deal exclusively with authorities in Baghdad over oil and other trade issues, clearly hoping to cut off the KRG’s financial lifelines. Oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan generate approximately 650,000 barrels of crude oil a day, according to Reuters.

On Sept. 25, 2017, the Iraqi parliament adopted a resolution demanding that Abadi order the Iraqi military into Iraqi Kurdistan to prevent any attempts by the Kurds to break away. The Iraqi president subsequently authorized the deployments. In particularly, Iraq’s central authorities dispute the KRG’s control over the Kirkuk governorate and its immense oil resources, as well as parts of the Nineveh, Diyala, and Salaheddin governorates.

At the same time, observers have seen Shia militia rushing into the area and there are reports of Turkmen armed groups massing for a possible confrontation. There are reports suggesting that non-Kurdish ethic groups had largely boycotted the polls in protest of the referendum. Adding to the concerns, Najmiddin Karim, a member of the PUK and governor of Kirkuk, reportedly said that Kurds should refrain from any celebratory gunfire and save their ammunition for when it was necessary to defend the city.

There is a very real potential for skirmishes and possibly even an outright civil conflict. It would not be the first time the Kurds have come to blows with other ethnic groups, especially over control of Kirkuk. After ISIS surged into Iraq in 2014, Turkmen and Shia Arab militias formed increasingly strong bonds to try and keep Kurdish aspirations in check, reflecting a new chapter in the already complicated history between Iraqi Kurds and the rest the country.

Since World War I, many Kurds, a majority-Sunni Muslim non-Arab ethnic group, have increasingly agitated for greater autonomy within or outright independence from the countries they reside in, with some arguing for the creation of a Kurdistan state that would span all the regions they occupy. In some cases, this has taken the form of armed resistance. Majority groups have generally met these aspirations with violent resistance of their own.

During the 1980s, the struggle in Iraq became particularly infamous when then dictator Saddam Hussein decided to launch a genocidal campaign in the country’s northern Kurdish region near the tail-end of the Iran-Iraq War and immediately afterwards. With support from Iran, Kurdish rebel groups had seized on the chaos of the conflict to make a renewed push for autonomy.

A morgue worker looks over coffins holding remains from a mass grave Iraqi officials discovered in 2008 that likely contained remains of Kurds who died at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. , AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani

Between 1986 and 1989, Iraqi troops and militias killed between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds, including innocent civilians. The so-called Al Anfal campaign saw the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, most notably during the massacre in the city of Halabja in 1988.

After the first Gulf War, the United States and its allies shielded Iraqi Kurdistan from Saddam’s government with a no-fly zone, leading to a growing sense of de facto independence, with the Kurds there establishing the KRG in 1992. After the U.S.-backed invasion that overthrew the Iraqi dictatorship in 2003, the regional authority’s power and influence continued to grow.

Iraqi Kurdish has since developed a reputation for relative safety and stability compared to the rest of Iraq, along with a more cosmopolitan atmosphere less subject to the sectarian skirmishes of groups in the rest of the country. In particular, modern leisure attractions, including amusement parks and ski resorts have come to symbolize this development.

Outside observers generally view its largely independent security forces, the Peshmerga, as competent and professional. The Kurdish forces were the first to reliably stand up to ISIS and the United States quickly rushed to send arms and equipment, as well as advisers, to bolster their defenses. On top of that, the U.S. government actively helped solicit, deliver, or facilitate the delivery of supplies from other allies.

In the subsequent U.S.-led campaign against the terrorists, the KRG capital Erbil has also become an important hub for American and coalition operations, including the activities of the secretive task force from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) hunting the group’s leadership. The airport there has hosted a variety of specialized American aircraft, including a pair of modified OV-10G+ Bronco light attack planes, and has been a key emergency landing site for coalition tactical aircraft operating over Iraq. 

“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s [independence] our goal,” Barzani said in July 2014, as ISIS ravaged the Iraqi countryside, contesting the key KRG city of Kirkuk and looking like it could threaten more of the region. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living?”

A coalition adviser trains Peshmerga troops in January 2017., US Army

A potential for regional conflict 

However, the Kurds in Iraq are just one part of a larger community that exists as a significant ethnic minority in that country, as well as Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There is also a significant Kurdish diaspora elsewhere in the world, particularly in Germany. As such, there could be far wider reaching impacts of the referendum, whatever the actual results, many of which could lead to deadly fighting.

Turkey, which has spent decades fighting a domestic Kurdish insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, is particularly concerned by the vote. Though the Turkish government has developed strong ties with the KRG, it sees an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as lending credibility to the notion of a similarly separate Turkish Kurdistan.

Protesters in Beirut, Lebanon call for Turkish authorities to release Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK seen on the banner, on Sept. 24, 2017., AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

“Our military is not there [at the border] for nothing,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sept. 25, 2017, referring to ongoing military exercises near the Turkey-Iraq frontier. “We could arrive suddenly one night.”

It’s not a hollow threat. In 2008, Turkish forces moved into Iraq ostensibly to attack PKK positions. Since 2014, Turkey has conducted a number of punitive operations and strikes against the group and other Kurdish forces it says are aligned with them in both Iraq and Syria.

Turkish tanks and armored vehicles on drills near the Habur border gate on Sept. 25, 2017., DHA-Depo Photos via AP

In his latest remarks, Erdogan also threatened to shut down an oil pipeline that runs into his country from the KRG and shut down a major border crossing. Though the Turkish president said that preventing the creation of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan was a “matter of survival,” the country’s authorities denied they had preemptively stopped traffic at the Habur gate.

This economic blockade could easily become a regional affair, akin to what has happened to Qatar. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has echoed Turkish and Iraqi sentiments, no doubt worried about the stability of his own country’s Kurdish region in the event that the KRG declares independence. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it had met with its counterparts in both Iraq and Iran to coordinate a unified response to the referendum. There are reports that its could include cutting internet and other media services within Iraqi Kurdistan.

Strained loyalties 

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, nephew to the KRG president, tried to downplayed these concerns saying that even if Iraqi Kurdistan voted for independence, the process would not be immediate. He also dismissed the suggestion that the referendum would have any bearing on the Kurdish regions in other countries.

However, the KRG faces an increasingly diverse coalition, though. In addition to Iran, Iraq, and Turkey forming a unified front, the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad similarly rejected the polls as invalid. Syria’s Russian allies have also come out strongly in favor of a unified Iraq. Israel, which initially appeared to offer its support for Kurdish self-determination, has since adopted a reported policy of not commenting on the polls.

All of this puts the U.S.-led coalition fighting the terrorists, and the United States in particular, in an uncomfortable political position. In addition to actively supporting the Peshmerga and the KRG as part of the campaign, to the ire of both Syrian and Turkish authorities, the United States and other coalition partners have been arming Kurdish groups in Syria and working with them directly.

A Syrian Kurdish fighter looks out over the city of Kobani in 2015., AP

And while many see the U.S. government as a stable and long-standing supporter of the Kurds and their ultimate aspirations of greater autonomy or independence, the KRG doesn’t necessarily see this as the case. They see a history of broken promises and betrayals, including turning a blind eye to Saddam’s atrocities in the 1980s and a refusal to support a push for independence after fighting alongside the Peshmerga to liberate Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003. In the 1960s, the U.S. military secretly supported the Shah of Iran to suppress a Kurdish rebellion, as well, according to an official U.S. Air Force history.

The U.S. government’s refusal to support the referendum probably hasn’t help change the views of Iraqi Kurds who see it as an ultimately unreliable partner or make them any more inclined to respond to American political pressure. On Sept. 14, 2017, Heather Nauert made it clear that the United States wouldn’t support the present poll, saying it “takes the eye off the ball of ISIS.” On Sept. 21, 2017, U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the top spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition similarly referred to the referendum as a “distraction” from what he suggested should be the main goal of all parties, defeating the terrorists.  

On Sept. 25, 2017, Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State, took to Twitter to espouse a similar view. “I urge all parties to remain calm & work together to defeat Daesh,” he Tweeted, using another name for ISIS. “Iraq’s future lies in dialogue. UK ready to help.”

So, its not surprising that there are already signs that some Kurdish groups in Syria have come to doubt the U.S.-led coalition’s long term plans in the region and are beginning to consider the shelter of the Assad regime. In August 2017, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, struck a deal with Russian forces to provide a buffer between then and Turkish troops in and around the northwestern city of Afrin.

These could lead to Kurdish groups taking differing sides on the issue, something that has happened before with Barzani himself allying with Saddam for a time, further complicating the situation, and making it more difficult to avoid potential conflicts. With the vote already done, it seems even more unlikely that the United States and other western powers will be able to stop the push and any potential backlash.

If the referendum does pass, the United States could then find itself compelled to take a position on Kurdish self-determination and the future of the region, whether it wants to or not, even if only tacitly. Facing a unified front from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, with even Israel staying silent, the U.S. government may feel it has little option but to turn on the Kurds once again or risk getting embroiled in a major conflict it has no desire to be a part of, at least according to the past statements from the State Department and the Pentagon.

Iraqi Shia militiamen train near Baghdad., AP

Without American support, there’s a real question about whether the KRG could reasonably hope to survive the economic or military pressure from the forces already converging on it. In addition, not supporting the Kurds, might embolden the United States’ opponents and give the appearance that the U.S. government is unwilling to challenge Russian and Iranian hegemony in Iraq, which would be politically problematic at home.  

It is possible that Iraqi Kurdish officials could follow Nechirvan Barzani’s statements and say that the referendum doesn’t automatically mean there will be a declaration of independence, but only that there is a desire for statehood at some indeterminate point in the future. This could give both the Kurds and their U.S. allies space to smooth over the obvious tensions. The United states has similar downplayed the situation over Qatar as it tries to work to end that crisis.

Still, with so many actors and agendas at play, it may be hard to prevent the referendum’s outcome, whatever it is, from sparking a broader and potentially violent crisis throughout the region. 

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.