The Referendum: Drives & implications

Interview with Al-Sharq. 21 September 2017

Q: What are the Main Drivers Behind the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Decision to Hold an Independence Referendum on September 25, 2017?

A: There are numerous drivers: some relate to the inherent Kurdish desire and struggle for sovereignty, akin to all other nations in the region, and others relate to Iraq’s failure to invest in state-building, nation-building, the rule of law and good governance.

The Kurds were denied statehood a century ago, on the expectation that their host states would become their natural homes. Iraq later became a threat to the Kurds’ very existence. The use of chemical weapons, the campaigns of genocide and the Arabization policies pursued by the Ba’athists against the Kurds caused irreparable damage.

After regime change happened in 2003, the Kurds became even more disappointed by the policies of marginalization carried out by the new ruling elite. Critics would say that the Kurds did not invest enough in the new Iraq either, which is correct, but Baghdad’s sectarian and authoritarian policies diverged Iraq’s component parts (Shiites, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and others) beyond the point of no return. Taking all these thingstogether, most Kurds became convinced that Iraq would never be their natural home.

Q: How Will the Referendum Result Impact Intra-Kurdish Relations Ahead of the Upcoming Local Elections in the KRG?

A: When the referendum was announced back in June, KRG politics was in a two-year deadlock. The parliament was suspended and the coalition government weakened. However, the referendum became a catalyst for the reactivation of the parliament, albeit not yet its full resumption. Opposition parties are yet to re-join the parliament, but I believe it is only a matter of time.

The Kurdistan Region has presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 1 November. This has already started to change the political landscape. New alliances are forming and new entities are emerging. These have already focused politicians’ minds and will reenergise politics in the KRG.

Q: How Will Relations Between the KRG and Baghdad be Shaped by the Referendum Result?

A: If the KRG postpones the referendum, relations will continue unabated but with new debates on how to make relations work again and how to find a new mutually-rewarding formula for coexistence.

If the KRG goes ahead with the referendum, we should expect tensions and a period of strained relations to say the least. Remember, Iraq and the KRI are preparing for general elections, and politicians have their eyes on their constituencies: i.e. populism is prevailing at the expense of logic. In today’s Iraq, every community is over-militarized, and every military group is highly politicized. Political tensions can translate into security tensions, even though leaders know that violence will serve no purpose. In the long term, there will be protracted disputes over borders, natural resources and a range of other issues that will generate conflicts of interests.

Q: What are the Potential Impacts of the Referendum Result on the KRG’s Ties with Ankara and Tehran?

A: The KRG will intensify its efforts to engage and reassure both Ankara and Tehran, emphasizing the value of ongoing partnerships and neighborly relations which willbest serve mutual interests. However, Ankara and Tehran willnot necessarily share the KRG’s enthusiasm and may not reciprocate. They will be unhappy about the referendum, particularly if it translates into an expedited process leading to independence.

Ankara and Tehran flank the KRG with great leverage over its vital economic and security interests. At the moment, they are flexing their muscles and playing tough. However, they may find it inappropriate to act directly and violently against the KRG.

Turkey and Iran will find it difficult to share a vision or agree upon a unified strategy against the Kurds. Iran has many more tools at its disposal than Turkey to put pressure on the KRG, especially indirectly via its numerous proxies in Iraq. This is easier said than done, because the consequences of mobilizing proxies against the Kurds can have unintended consequences and may not necessarily prove wise.

Remember, with so many global, regional and local powers and so many state and non-state actors present on the ground, it is in no one’s interest to add another layer of crisis on top of the existing ones.

Q: What are the Geoeconomic Implications of the Referendum Result for the KRG and Middle East at Large?

A: Many policy makers fear that KRG independence may encourage others and cascade into the dismemberment of many more countries. However, this is most unlikely, because apart for the Kurds, there are no other communities or entities in the Middle East that can be considered candidates for independence.

Plus, among the Kurds, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is the only entity that has evolved to maturity and has enjoyed a high enough degree of self-rule that it is clearly ready to step up to independence. If Turkey and Iran eventually solve their Kurdish issues through constitutional reforms and further democratization, they willhave little to worry aboutwith regard to the KRG’s independence.