The Follies and Pitfalls of the Kurdish Referendum

The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masood Barzani, is pressing ahead with a plan to hold a referendum on September 25 on Kurdish independence from Iraq, which is likely to expose Iraq and the region to unwarranted developments. While it remains unclear whether the referendum is going to be held, it has become clear that many among the Kurds, a majority of Iraqis, regional governments, and the international community are opposed to this move. Importantly, many see it as a maneuver on the part of President Barzani to shore up his presidency and establish his supremacy over other Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. So far, two parliamentary blocs, the Gorran (Change) Movement and the Kurdish Islamic Union, have declared their rejection and in fact boycotted the meetings of the Kurdish Regional Parliament to discuss and approve the referendum. Of the 111-member Kurdish parliament, 65 members belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and other smaller parties have approved it.

Barzani has insisted that the referendum is a first step to realizing Kurdish self-determination. But in reality, Iraq is the only state that has recognized the Kurds as a separate ethnic people with political and cultural rights. The 2005 Iraqi Constitution was written with their active participation and codified a federal government, authorized Kurdish autonomy, provided a formula for sharing central government positions and powers, and apportioned 17 percent of the government’s budget to the Kurdish region. On many occasions, the Kurdish parties chose to ally themselves with the Shia parties in parliamentary and municipal elections and in political maneuverings at the expense of the Sunni Arabs who are their immediate neighbors. With Baghdad experiencing numerous territorial, economic, security, social, and political problems, the proposed referendum is likely to severely exacerbate relations between the Kurds and all other political groups in the country.

Internal Kurdish Rivalry

Contrary to popular belief, the Kurds of Iraq––indeed, of the other surrounding states as well––are not a monolith. The topography of their areas, their environment, and the reality of being subjects of different states have produced a varied and plural sociopolitical community, and this has complicated addressing their issues. But what generally governs intra-Kurdish relations in Iraq is a vertical split between eastern and western Iraqi Kurdistan, centered around Sulaimaniyya and Irbil, respectively. This split is also linguistic, folkloric, cultural, and familial. Currently, the division is translated politically into a general allegiance to Iraq’s former president, Jalal Talabani, and his PUK in the southeast, and to Barzani’s KDP in the northwest. A breakaway group from the PUK, Gorran, garnered 22 percent of the Kurdish vote in the last election and became the second most powerful force in the Kurdish parliament. As for the KDP, it came in first in the election.

But what is essential for this analysis is that both regions have support in Iran and Turkey. Iran has profound influence over Sulaimaniyya and over the PUK, Gorran, and the Islamists there. On the other hand, the KDP and its popular base are on good terms with Turkey and have developed intricate economic and political relations with the neighbor to the northwest. The dual affinity and political rivalry have allowed the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) to establish itself in the Qandil Mountains area at the intersection of the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian border. Since the 1990s, the party has led an insurgency against Turkish interests and often conducts operations on Turkish soil. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, currently serves out a life sentence in a Turkish jail. Interestingly, his party has not influenced relations between Turkey and the Barzani faction in Iraqi Kurdistan; instead, only the civilians have suffered as a result of Turkey’s war against the PKK.

In the current machinations ahead of the referendum, the government called the Kurdish parliament into session on September 15. The Gorran Movement and the Islamists, with 34 members, boycotted the meeting, threatening its legality. This made the PUK’s participation essential with its 18 members. In essence, the political maneuvering was for the specific purpose of circumventing any opposition from the new political movements in the region. With representatives from other smaller parties, the pro-referendum groups were able to garner 65 votes to approve going through with the measure.

In addition to these machinations among the Kurds, there was opposition from representatives of minorities in parliament. The Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis in Kurdish areas do not feel comfortable seceding from Iraq and they are overwhelmingly opposed to the referendum. Their relations with Baghdad have always protected their status within the state. These communities understand that if they approve separating from the mother country, they will discover later that they have no recourse or protection. Their economic well-being will also be jeopardized, especially if the referendum passes and Kurdistan truly parts from a unified Iraq.

The Iraqi Domestic Level

Barzani’s call for the referendum has met with unanimous rejection from all sectors of the Iraqi state: governmental, parliamentary, and judicial. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that secession is rejected “now and in the future.” Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd himself, traveled to Sulaimaniyya and Irbil where he met with Barzani and other politicians and proposed postponing the referendum. Iraq’s parliament also rejected the move and actually gave Abadi the authority to prevent it by any means necessary; the Kurdish representatives actually walked out of the session as 204 others voted against the move. Iraq’s supreme court ordered the suspension of all preparations for the referendum. Public opinion in areas outside Iraqi Kurdistan rejected the idea. There has been a coalescence of Arab, Turkmen, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Yazidi rejection and an insistence on the unity of the country. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most powerful formations in the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces, issued a statement against the move, and others rejected ceding any territory to the Kurds.

Kurdish secession, or the preparation for it, involves numerous complications. First, the Iraqi constitution has no provisions allowing for it. In fact, the constitution is clear in its emphasis and insistence on affirming the unity of the state’s territory. It contains no articles specifying a right of separation or how to implement one, except for an article allowing the Kurds to protect their interests by noting that laws and legislation become null and void if they are rejected by three provinces—a direct reference to the three provinces forming the KRG-ruled northern Iraq (Sulaimaniyya, Dohuk, and Irbil). Indeed, the constitution emphasizes the territorial integrity of the country and speaks of “the Iraqi people” as a unified collective.

Second, the territories designated as under the control of the KRG since 1991, when the entity was allowed to exist after the Gulf War against the regime of Saddam Hussein, amounted to only 13 percent of Iraq’s territory. The KRG today, with its peshmerga forces, controls wider areas than the original three provinces. Not only are the areas newly under its authority still disputed between the KRG (which is acting as an occupying power) and the central government, but they are inhabited by large Turkmen and Arab communities that have rejected the referendum. In reality, if the KRG and Barzani want to have a referendum wherever an Iraqi Kurd resides, then the referendum would have to be conducted in areas as far south as Baghdad and beyond.

Third, the purported area for the referendum includes Kirkuk and its environs, which are governed by Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution stipulating that negotiations would decide matters related to these areas. So far, no such negotiations have taken place and the KRG’s presence there is the result of military activities following the Islamic State’s sweep into northern Iraq in 2014. Before that time, the territory was subject to much political wrangling that at different times, from 2009 to 2012, could have led to a clash between the Iraqi Army and the peshmerga. Barzani’s move is thus seen by all opponents of the referendum as a backhanded attempt to secure a de facto acceptance by the central government of the KRG’s control over the area.

Fourth, all Iraqis consider these areas an important link with surrounding countries, specifically Iran and Turkey. The establishment of an independent Kurdish enclave, as a separate state and with its own jurisdiction and laws, would prevent Iraqis from maintaining their traditional relations with the two countries. The enclave would also represent a barrier to trade routes that have crossed northern Iraq for generations to connect the Arabian Peninsula with Europe.

It is still to be seen what last-minute maneuvers may produce before September 25, but two equally possible scenarios may occur. The first is that the referendum goes on as scheduled with all its complications, including the trepidation of the myriad parties concerned. This would undoubtedly bring unforeseen repercussions to the KRG and the Kurdish people in its territories. The second scenario is that the referendum would be postponed, if not fully scrapped. But this postponement would need to be followed by serious negotiations and discussions, first among the Kurds themselves and then between their leaders and Iraq’s elected leaders. These discussions will have to deal with the future of Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with the central government, financial and budgetary issues, the fate of the disputed territories (that is, Article 140 of the constitution), and, more importantly, how to do away with the Kurds’ repeated threat to break away from a unified Iraq.

Regional and International Dimensions

Opposition to the referendum among regional interested states is as vehement as it is inside Iraq. Specifically, Iran and Turkey have voiced their rejection and dire warnings against the move; both have the same potential problem with a sizeable Kurdish minority, although Turkey’s is the largest compared to others. While Iran threatened to close all border crossing points leading to the KRG-controlled areas, Turkey announced that it would conduct military maneuvers close to the border. The Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the United Nations’ 72nd annual meeting in New York and issued a joint communiqué rejecting the move. Similarly, the League of Arab States, of which Iraq is a member, voiced its opposition, as did Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and Arab states individually.

An added wrinkle in this regard is the potential Iranian and Turkish moves if the referendum were to be conducted and approved. Since the times of Imperial Iran and Ottoman Turkey and through the international agreements and treaties governing the countries of the Middle East up to and including the post-WWII era, there have been land swaps and border adjustments that eventually resulted in today’s cartographical configurations of modern Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. It could be argued that were the referendum to be approved, it is conceivable that Iran may again lay claim to territories it ceded to the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, while Turkey may claim Iraq’s Nineveh Province, which had formed the Mosul Governorate under the Ottomans and included today’s Iraqi Kurdistan. In other words, a referendum may reawaken old territorial disputes that no one needs at present.

Internationally, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other states and international bodies have rejected the move, cautioned against it, or offered to mediate between the KRG and the Iraqi central government. Only Israel has voiced its agreement and, in fact, encouraged holding the referendum. Having been the Middle East’s only state to assist the Kurds in maintaining their institutional and military power, and espousing an ideology built on dismembering the Arab region into smaller entities, this is expected. To be sure, many in Iraq and the region reject the referendum idea because they believe it would lead to the creation of another Israel-type state in the Arab Levant.


It is only a few days until the KRG decides to hold, postpone, or scrap the referendum altogether, but what is clear from the outset is that going through with it would create a set of circumstances that are likely to increase instability and chaos in the Middle East. President Barzani’s brinkmanship may indeed be another gamble with the future of the Kurds in Iraq as well as the future of the Iraqi state and society, both of which have endured profound instability since 1990. The referendum represents an attempt to play with the delicate balance of Iraqi and regional politics so that Barzani can shore up his own legitimacy vis-à-vis other competitors in Iraqi Kurdistan. Only a wise course of action can avert what may very well be the final death knell of a unified Iraq.