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Thoughts on the Kurdish Independence Referendum


I am really bad at writing about things as they happen. Perhaps it is because I work full-time and don’t get paid to write often enough. But given the happenings in Northern Iraq in the past few weeks, I wanted to get down a few thoughts.

A little on my background – I wrote my Masters thesis on the Kurdish military – the Peshmerga – of Northern Iraq. I then worked for US Central Command, supporting the command that supported operations in Iraq. A few years following that, I helped teach classes for the Joint Special Operations University on Irregular Warfare with a focus on state and non-state actors in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

Quick synopsis of what happened:

Kurdistan is a land-locked region of Northern Iraq. It is predominately populated by the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnic group that has been pining for their own nation for 100 years. They are currently fighting for independence in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Each nation has Kurds with different aspirations and different political views. For example, the Kurds of Turkey are more left-wing radicals than the Kurds of Northern Iraq, who allied with the United States throughout Operations Desert Storm (1991) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003).

So there are different Kurds in different areas doing different things. Clear?

On September 25, 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq issued a referendum on independence. It was not received well at all by any of the KRG’s neighbors, to include the Government of Iraq. Although it expressed the views of many Kurds, it was a huge political miscalculation. As has been the case for 100 years, no one was willing to cede the Iraqi Kurds the power they desired.

With that in mind, let’s start with the articles I found best describe the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan Was Never Ready for Statehood – Denise Natali, 10/31/2017, Foreign

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Natali a few times and hearing her speak on the Kurds and Kurdistan. I’ve also read a lot of her work. She is an expert on the region. Here, she writes what anyone who follows Kurdistan should have known: that the Kurds were not ready for independence. She cites their severe economic problems, rampant corruption, and internal political division as reasons why independence was not realistic.

The Kurds Are Right Back Where They Started – Joost Hliterman, The Atlantic, 10/31/2017

This article gives a great history of the Kurdish struggle for independence. It also details the many times the Kurds and the United States were allies, either political or military. But as the article points out, the Kurds often misread US intentions. Their latest misread has cost them land and political power.


My Analysis:

I agree with Dr. Natali and Mr. Hilterman. The Kurds severely overplayed their hand. But I think it was necessary. Their system of government and those in charge of Iraqi Kurdistan were not leading the Kurds the right way. They had an over-inflated sense of their own statehood and a misunderstanding of support needed in international forums.

The Iraqi Kurds are predominantly led by two political parties – the KDP and the PUK. The founder of the PUK, Jalal Talabani, passed away earlier this year. The leader of the KDP, Masoud Barzani, stepped down due to the failure of the independence referendum. While their families are still strong in their political parties, this may allow other political parties to win support.

Corruption is also a huge problem in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nepotism and tribalism stand in the way of economic growth. The Iraqi Kurds need to improve their governing mechanisms if they are to reestablish themselves as a valid national-level government.

Too often as well, the Iraqi Kurd military and police are loyal to their political party, not the overall government. I do not see this getting better if the Iraqi government attempts to govern Kurdistan. In the past, Peshmerga were used as border guards of Iraq, especially in the Kurdistan area. If Iraq wants to minimize the Kurds, they shouldn’t allow Peshmerga-only forces. But the Kurdistan Regional Government needs to find a way to pay for their regional Peshmerga.

The subject of income is also a problem for every Kurdish region, but especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG does not have a strong source of income. Dropping oil prices and loosing Kirkuk’ oil fields seriously hampers the KRG’s ability to support itself. That is a big problem for a government that wants to be independent.

The Iraqi Kurds also face a problem with external support.┬áThe Trump administration’s proclivity to engage with nation-states and deal in realism means semi-nations such as Kurdistan are on their own. Because of the Trump Administration’s limited or ignorant diplomatic strategy, the world order led by the United States since the end of the Cold War is dead or dying. This means the Kurds need new allies. However, it will be interesting to see if Kurdish leaders can make inroads with other international powers.

In the 1950s, Soviet Russia hosted the Barzani family and Kurdish freedom fighters. Could the Kurdish government rekindle their alliance with Russia? That is very unlikely given Russia’s alliance with Iran, Turkey, and Syria, nations that do not want to see an independent Kurdistan.

So with a weakened US only dealing with nations and no other powerful friends, do the Kurds have a chance?

Internally, the failed referendum was a band-aid that need to be ripped off so their government could properly heal. They need to consolidate their leadership (something they haven’t done since the 1970s), reduce nepotism, and devise a way to make national income. Until then, they will have a weak case for statehood.

Externally, the failed referendum isolated them and left them without a powerful patron. Perhaps they can ally with China or India, but Russia and the West are no longer options.

The next 5-10 years will be very interesting for the Kurds. Their best bet for independence may no longer be Iraq. It may be in Syria. Or given President Trump’s bellicose stance on Iran, perhaps the Iranian Kurds have the closest path to independence.

In sum, will the Iraqi Kurds be autonomous? Possibly. Will they be weaker than anytime since 1991? Yes. Will they be constantly under threat? Yes. Is there any hope for independence soon? No. Will the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey still fight for independence? Absolutely.