Kurdish authorities announced on Wednesday that Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favour of a split from Iraq, with 92.7 percent of voters casting their vote in favour of Kurdistan’s independence. However, practical considerations and the non-binding nature of the vote mean the victory of the yes’ camp is at most likely to lead to the negotiation of a new political deal on Kurdish regional autonomy, or a future independence framework.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence on 25 September, not only within the Kurdish legal boundaries, but also in areas that the Peshmerga, the region’s well-trained militia, seized from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) forces. Known as the disputed territories, these areas contain an ethnically mixed population and are claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad.
The referendum: “Provocative and destabilizing”
The KRG emphasizes that Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution allows the people of the disputed areas to take their fate into their own hands through a referendum. On Tuesday, KRG President Masoud Barzani urged Baghdad to start “serious negotiations,” and asked the central government to “respect the will of the people of Kurdistan.” Mr. Barzani asserted that the referendum will provide his administration with a clear mandate to initiate an independent process leading to the emergence of a Kurdish State.
However, Baghdad has condemned the vote, saying that it was illegal and unconstitutional. The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi filed a complaint against the referendum on constitutional grounds, as well as Iraq’s supreme court, which ordered the suspension of the ballot a week before the referendum. The vote has been almost unanimously condemned by the international community.
The White House called it “provocative and destabilizing,” while United Nations secretary general António Guterres warned that it could undermine the fight against ISIS. Iran threatened to block its border with region if the vote was maintained, and Turkey warned that it would ‘close the valves’ on oil exports. Therefore, if Erbil was to declare unilaterally its separation from the federal structure of Iraq, the new country would be extremely isolated on the international stage.
Economic incentives for independence
At first glance, it would appear that the KRG has every reason to choose the road toward independence. As an autonomous region, Iraqi Kurdistan already possesses most of the characteristics of a state, including its own security forces, flag, and foreign representation. The Iraqi Kurdish population and government have long aspired to independence, after decades of discrimination, displacement and ethnic cleansing within Iraq. More recently, the KRG’s relationship with the Iraqi central government continued to be contentious, as highlighted by the ongoing antagonism over the oil revenue-sharing question.
Should Kurdistan’s oil reserves be put to good use, the KRG could produce more than 600,000 barrels of oil a day by the end of the year. Kurdish independence would lead to the annexation of the oil-rich disputed area of Kirkuk, which could boost even more its oil production. These volumes would put Kurdistan on par with OPEC’s Ecuador and Qatar, thus illustrating the region’s economic potential.
Major practical obstacles
Yet even with this resounding “yes” vote, the Kurdish government still faces significant obstacles to secession, including opposition from its neighbors, diplomatic isolation, economic sanction, and possibly military intervention and civil war. In the light of Turkey’s threat to implement a trade embargo over the KRG’s exports, the future independent State of Kurdistan, as a landlocked region, would not be able to fully exploit its economic potential, since it would find itself without any means of exporting its oil production.
Considering that the KRG is already facing some significant economic problems and is struggling to pay the wages of its public employees, a ban on its oil exports would bring the region on the brink of bankruptcy. Moreover, Iran could increase pressure on the KRG by closing off water supplies from the Little Zab River, Kurdistan’s major water source. Similar economic and political sanctions would be imposed by the Iraqi central government.
Moreover, independence is not supported by the entire Kurdish population. There were calls for the postponement of the referendum from Gorran and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), two of the most important political parties of the region. Certain ethnic groups in Kurdistan are strongly opposed to the emergence of an independent Kurdish State, including Arabs, Turkmens, Christians, and Yezidis. These populations form a sizeable minority in the strategic zones of Erbil, Sulymaniyah and Kirkuk.
At this time, it seems unlikely that the Kurdish government will pursue secession, and the independence referendum will probably be part of a wider strategy to gain concessions from the central government. The KRG will likely use the referendum as political leverage to cement its autonomous status over several critical issues, such as oil rights, a share of the federal budget, and the disputed territories. In the short-term, the victory of the yes’ camp will consolidate President Barzani’s political capital, leading him to attempt to extend his rule over the region.