In this article, we shall discuss the Kurdish referendum vote in Iraq. We will discuss the history behind the calls for Kurdish independence, the push for a Kurdish referendum vote in the country, arguments made for the referendum vote, and also those that are criticizing Kurdish calls to hold a referendum. We will also examine the implications of the referendum vote, and its impact on international relations, especially with countries such as Iran, Turkey, Israel, and other Middle Eastern states (view our series on the Kurds with the following articles: Kurdish Politics; Kurds in Iraq; Kurds in Turkey; Kurds in Syria).
What Is The Kurdish Referendum?
The Kurdish Referendum vote in Iraq was a vote held by the those living in the Kurdish regional autonomous region of Iraq. The vote took place on September 25th, 2017, and was to see whether the Kurds in Iraq supported the notion of independence from the Iraqi state. The Kurds have a population of roughly 30 million persons in the Middle East, and 6 million in Iraq. This is roughly 20 percent of Iraqi’s entire population (Arraf, 2017) (see our article on the history of the Kurds in Iraq). 92 percent of those who voted chose to vote “yes” for Kurdish independence in Iraq (Chulov, 2017).
This was not the first Kurdish referendum held. Rather, one also took place in 2005. During that referendum, 90 percent of all voters (two million voted) supported Kurdish independence (Collin, 2017).
Why was the Kurdish Referendum held?
One of the questions that many have asked is “Why was the Kurdish Referendum held?” The Kurds have demanded an independent state throughout history, but such a state has not materialized. For the Kurds, they feel that they are not fully protected in these different country (such as Iraq), and thus the calls for independence. Much of this has to do with how the Kurds were treated by Saddam Hussein and his loyalists in Iraq. As Arraf (2017) notes, “From 1986 to 1988, Iraqi forces destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages in a campaign by Saddam’s Arab Socialist Baath party to “Arabize” northern Iraq. At a conservative estimate, more than 100,000 Kurds were killed. Chemical gas attacks in the town of Halabja in 1988 killed thousands of women and children” (Arraf, 2017).
The Kurds have long demanded the ability to have their own state, where they can express their own culture and traditions without discrimination. Again, the Kurdish referendum for independence in Iraq needs to be understood within the context of the Kurds in Turkey and The Kurds in Syria as well. In the case of Turkey, there is a long history of mass discrimination against the Kurdish populations. Five thousands Kurds lost their lives from the gassing carried out during the Saddam Hussein regime, and many more continue to suffer from the atrocities (Jalabi & Georgy, 2017).
Others, such as Deputy Prime Minister Qubud Talabani referenced Islamic State actions against the Yezidi in 2014, in which he said “Every Kurd around the world shook with fear and indignation at the predicament of our brothers and sisters on the top of Mount Sinjar in 2014. The wounds of past persecution and genocide are fresh in our hearts and minds” (in Rubin, 2017). Having their own state, the Kurds believe that this will be the only way to guarantee them freedom and safety as a people; there is a concern that the situation will continue to be a dangerous one for the Kurds outside of Kurdistan.
The Kurdish leadership in Iraq (namely Barzani) has argued that the reason that the referendum was held was because of the “failed partnership” with the government in Iraq (Chmaytelli, 2017). The Kurds have continued to try to establish more power (political and economic), but have received pushback by some in Baghdad.
A possibility is that this referendum could give the leadership more leverage in negotiating with Baghdad over domestic issues (Al-Monitor, 2017).
Another major reason for the Kurdish independence vote in Iraq has to do with economics, and more specifically, the ability to control oil profits in the country. The Kurds, in Northern Iraq, already have had control of the oil of the country. However, the Kurds in Iraq were able to take control of even more of the oil production during the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. As Arraf (2017) notes, “When ISIS attacked three years ago, Iraqi forces refused to fight. Kurdish fighters moved in to push ISIS back and took control of some of the biggest northern oil fields, as well as the disputed city of Kirkuk.”
In addition, we also have to look at internal Kurdish politics to better understand the timing of the vote. In fact, some such as Collin (2017) argue that “The domestic politics of the KRG may be the primary driver of the timing of the referendum. The KRG government has gone through a prolonged crisis of legitimacy. The KRG’s parliament was elected in 2013, but has not met in close to two years. The president of the regional government, Masoud Barzani, was re-elected in 2009, and his mandate expired in 2013. His presidential term has been extended twice, but the period expired in 2015.” Why does this matter?
There are thoughts that Barzani, who is the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is using this referendum as a way to show that he is able to bring independence to the Kurds. He is also watching rivals the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran (Movement for Change) following
Again, the vote itself is not legally binding. However, that does not mean that there are no political implications for holding this Kurdish independence vote. The Kurds have advocated for independence from Iraq, as well as from neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
Baghdad’s Reaction to the Kurdish Referendum
The Iraqi government in Baghdad urged the Kurdish Regional Government to not hold the referendum. However, it was to no avail, since the referendum was held. The Iraqi government is worried that the Kurdish referendum will lead to additional instability in the country. They came out with a number of statements on the Kurdish referendum. For example, the Iraqi Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jubouri said that ““We are keen on keeping the Kurds in our one homeland,” and also that “The unity of Iraq is our main concern and we will not give it up”” (Yusuf & Jawad, 2017). He also added that the tensions in the country were due to “wrong policies,” and also said that “The referendum will affect the upcoming election and will drag the country in a new phase” (Yusuf & Jawad, 2017).
They are also concerned about the economic effects that this will have.
Interestingly, “Iraq’s central government in Baghdad ordered the country’s Kurdish region to hand over all border crossings and airports to federal government control late Sunday night” (Abdul-Zahra, 2017) (before the referendum election commenced). They worried in part that the Kurds would use those areas for their own economic gain, circumventing the national government with regards to selling oil without letting the government in Baghdad know what they were doing.
International Reactions to the Kurdish Independence Referendum
There were many differing attitudes with regards to the Kurdish independence vote in Iraq.
Turkey and the Kurdish Referendum
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey was one of the most outspoken with regards to the Kurdish referendum vote in Iraq. As we have written here in our discussion on the Kurds in Turkey, the Turkish government has had a history of violating the rights of the Kurds. However, Ergodan and the AK Party has not let up on their conflict with the Kurds in the southern part of the country, and have been direct in their criticism of this vote. In fact, speaking about the referendum, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was quoted as saying that “Turkey will never ever tolerate any status change or any new formations on its southern borders”. He went on to add, “The KRG will be responsible for the probable developments after this referendum” (Chmaytelli & Butler, 2017).
Moreover, “Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said in Ankara next Monday’s vote posed a major risk and Turkey would take “every step” needed to thwart any similar steps in its mainly Kurdish southeast” (Reuters, 2017). He also said that “A change that will mean the violation of Iraq’s territorial integrity poses a major risk for Turkey,” and also that. “The disruption of Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity will ignite a bigger, global conflict with an unseen end”” (Reuters, 2017).
Interestingly, “Turkey renewed a bill on Saturday allowing the military to intervene in Iraq and Syria if faced with national security threats, a move seen as a final warning to Iraqi Kurds” (Abdul-Zahra, 2017). They moved troops to the southern border of the country, with attention and focus on Iraq (Reuters, 2017).
Then, on Monday, September 25th, 2017, the day of the Kurdish independence vote, Turkish Foreign Ministry came out with a statement against the referendum, saying:
“The referendum… in the KRG, is null and void in terms of its consequences.
“We do not recognize this initiative, which lacks legal basis and legitimacy with regard to the international law and the Iraqi constitution.
“We are dismayed by this attempt, which is far from common sense, undertaken by the KRG leadership who insisted on holding the referendum despite all the warnings of Turkey and of the international community and thereby endangered the peace and stability not only of Iraq, but also that of the region” (Bulur, 2017).
The Ministry also said,
“Turkey has stressed on every occasion that the grave mistake committed by the KRG will have a price and within this framework has identified the sanctions that will be levied against the KRG in the National Security Council meeting, which was held on Sept. 22, 2017, and in the Council of Ministers meeting that followed.
“It is important that the international community and particularly the regional countries should maintain the consistent approach they displayed with regard to the referendum and should refrain from recognizing the consequences of this illegitimate endeavor.
“In the subsequent process, it is a fundamental necessity that the KRG leadership should restore common sense and should adopt a policy that serves the long-term peace and prosperity of the whole of the Iraqi people, rather than seeking short-term political interests and utopian aspirations.
“We stress one more time that we will take every measure that emanates from the international law and from the authority granted by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, in the event that some radical elements and terrorists, which may seek to exploit the circumstances that will emerge following the referendum, attempt to carry out acts that target our national security” (Bulur, 2017).
In addition to these statements, Turkey also placed a travel ban on people in a number of Kurdish provinces in Iraq that includes Erbil, Dohuk, as well as the Sulaymaniyah (Bulur, 2017).
Moreover, Erdogan also suggested the possibility of economic punishment for the decision to hold the Kurdish referendum. On Monday, September 25th, 2017, he was quoted as saying ““After this, let’s see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it,” he said in a speech. “We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done”” (Bektas & Toksabay, 2017).
On Tuesday September 26th, 2017, the day after the Kurdish Referendum was held, Erdogan was quoted as saying ““Until the very last moment, we weren’t expecting Barzani to make such a mistake as holding the referendum, apparently we were wrong,” and went on to add, ““This referendum decision, which has been taken without any consultation, is treachery” (Reuters, 2017). A couple of days later, on the 28th of September, Erdogan said, ““The Kurdish referendum has no legitimacy in terms of the Iraqi constitution and international laws,” and added, ““No one has the right to throw our region in the fire. In this delicate period after the referendum, we have to prevent the Kurdish Regional Government from making bigger mistakes” (Karadeniz & Korsunskaya, 2017).
Iran and the Kurdish Referendum
Another country opposed to the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq is Iran. The government in Iran is a close ally to the leadership in Baghdad, and thus, came out against the idea of a referendum. Along with wanting to see Iraq stay unified, Iran also has a Kurdish population in the country, and an independence in Iraq could bring about similar demands elsewhere. So, “Iranian authorities stopped air traffic to the international airports of Erbil and Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, on a request from Baghdad, Fars News Agency said” (in Chmaytelli, 2017).
Moreover, “Nahwi Saeed writes that Iran unambiguously opposes to the referendum. “In a move that coincided with preparing for the referendum,” Saeed writes, “Iran cut water flow from the Little Zab River to Kurdistan. Iranian officials have recently told a high-ranking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) delegation, ‘If you hold a referendum, do not expect anything good from us.’ More recently, the Iranian defense minister has threatened that the separatist movements in Iraq will not be tolerated. In short, Iran is unequivocally against the Kurdish referendum and will try to prevent it from taking place” (Al-Monitor, 2017).
It is also important to note that “Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard also launched a military exercise in its northwestern Kurdish region, in a sign of Tehran’s concerns over the vote. Iranian Kurdish lawmakers condemned the independence referendum in a statement Sunday and insisted that Iraq maintain its territorial integrity, reported Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency” (Abdul-Zahra, 2017).
Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish Referendum
Saudi Arabia also spoke out against the Kurdish referendum. This is particularly interesting given the Iran-Saudi Arabian rivalry. Saudi Arabia spoke about what the Kurdish independence referendum could do regarding another crisis (Vahdat, 2017).
Other countries and the Kurdish Referendum
Many other states also expressed concern about the Kurdish referendum vote. Countries like the United States and also the United Kingdom expressed concern over the Kurdish independence vote. As Chulov & Johnson (2017) explain, “Washington and London remain invested in the unity of post-Saddam Iraq, which has largely been unable to assert itself in the face of regional patrons in the past 14 years. Both Baghdad and Erbil almost fell to the so-called Islamic State terror group in August 2014 – sharply exposing the dysfunction in both governments. The three painful years since have partially restored authority in both capitals and have led both to consolidate their respective power bases.”
In the case of the United States,
“…successive U.S. administrations have stopped just short of backing Kurdistan’s ultimate goal, full independence, typically arguing that the time is not right for the break-up of Iraq. After Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visited the White House in 2015, for instance, the Obama White House affirmed its support for a “united federal and democratic Iraq.” The Trump administration has maintained a similar position, urging Kurdistan to delay its referendum until after the final defeat of ISIS in Iraq. “We strongly oppose the planned September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence,” State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez told me in an emailed statement. “We urge Baghdad and Erbil to continue their cooperation to defeat ISIS, which has led to the liberation of Mosul and other areas” (Keating, 2017).
On September 21st, 2017, the United Nations Security Council also released a statement on the Kurdish referendum in Iraq. The statement read:
The following Security Council press statement was issued today by Council President Tekeda Alemu (Ethiopia):
The members of the Security Council expressed concern over the potentially destabilizing impact of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s plans to unilaterally hold a referendum next week.
Council members note that the planned referendum is scheduled to be held while counter-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) operations — in which Kurdish forces have played a critical role — are ongoing, and could detract from efforts to ensure the safe, voluntary return of over 3 million refugees and internally displaced persons.
Council members expressed their continuing respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity of Iraq and urged all outstanding issues between the federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to be resolved, in accordance with the provisions of the Iraqi Constitution, through structured dialogue and compromise supported by the international community. Council members expressed full support for United Nations efforts to facilitate dialogue between Iraqi stakeholders.
Differences Within the Kurds on the Referendum
While the vast majority of Kurds want independence, there are many Kurds that question the specific approach taken with regards to the referendum in Iraq, specifically the timing of the Kurdish independence vote. It is not that many of the Kurds in this position feel that there shouldn’t be independence, but rather, they are questioning the time of the referendum. Thus, there has been a “No, Not Now” movement.
The divisions within the Kurdish leadership has also led to inefficiencies with regards to governance. It is for this reason that some Kurds in the country “…wonder whether feuding Kurdish political parties can deliver on promises of a viable independent state when basic needs such as specialized medical care, jobs and infrastructure have not been met” (Jalabi & Georgy, 2017).
Could The Kurdish Referendum Hurt The Independence Movement?
There are questions as to whether this Kurdish independence vote will actually lead to independence, or if it will merely hurt the stabilization efforts in Iraq (Apostolou, 2017). What makes matters even more difficult for actually using this Kurdish referendum to establish independence is not only that it is not legally binding, but the Kurdish government does not have the powers to do much with this vote outcome.
As Apostolou (2017), “Part of the difficulty is that there is no KRG constitution. The Kurdish parliament did vote for a constitution in 2009, but it is not in force because it was never approved by a referendum. The 2009 constitution in theory grants Kurdistan the right to hold a vote in line with a referendum law. However, the Kurdish parliament never passed a referendum law. Nor will it. Parliament stopped functioning in October 2015 following conflict between Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG and the opposition. Thus, while Barzani has made it seem that this vote will be what all Kurdish leaders will have to work from, “without a constitution and a referendum law, there is no obligation for future governments to do anything” (Apostolou, 2017). Moreover, there is not policy plans for how to move forward following the independence referendum. This is different than other areas, like Scotland, who had a plan in place if independence was voted for (Apostolou, 2017).
Increased Tensions in Iraq
There are also concerns that this vote will cause greater tensions between the Kurds and Sunni and Shia leaders, and also Iraqis. There is a concern that the Kurdish independence vote will only bring existing troubles further to the surface. For example, one of the troubled regions is Kirkuk. As mentioned earlier, both Iraqi forces and the Kurds each are laying claim to the area, which is predominantly Kurdish. But there are non-Kurdish settlers in the area. While they were able to vote in the Kurdish independence referendum, there are concerns that the Kurds will want non-Kurds out of Kirkuk upon an independent Kurdistan (Apostolou, 2017).
Iraqi leaders in Baghdad spoke out against the Kurdish referendum vote. For example, Haider al-Abadi went on television the day before the referendum vote and said, among other things, that the referendum ”could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing (the Iraqis) to disastrous dangers that only God knows” (Chmaytelli, 2017).
Kurdish Referendum References
Abdul-Zahra, Q. (2017). Baghdad orders Kurdistan region to hand over borders, ports. ABC News. Available Online: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/kurdish-president-partnership-iraq-50057107
Al-Monitor (2017). Iraqi Kurdistan’s risky independence referendum. Al-Monitor, August 6, 2017. Available Online: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/iraq-kurdistan-region-independence-referendum-turkey-iran.html
Apostolou, A. (2017). Could the Kurdish Referendum Derail Statehood? The Washington Post. August 25, 2017. Available Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/08/25/could-the-kurdish-referendum-derail-statehood/?utm_term=.0285d10851d9
Arraf, J. (2017). What To Know About The Independence Referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. NPR. September 22nd, 2017. Available Online: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/09/22/552571060/what-to-know-about-the-independence-referendum-in-iraqi-kurdistan
Bulur, M. (2017). Kurdish referendum results ‘null and void’: Turkey” Anadolu Agency, 25 September 2017. Available Online: http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/kurdish-referendum-results-null-and-void-turkey/918559
Chmaytelli, M. & Butler, D. (2017). Kurds stick with independence vote, ‘never going back to Baghdad’: Barzani. Reuters, in Yahoo. September 24, 2017. Available Online: https://ca.news.yahoo.com/kurds-stick-independence-vote-never-going-back-baghdad-195640981.html
Chulov, M. & Johnson, P. (2017). Fearful neighbors look on as Iraq’s Kurds stake claim to nationhood. The Guardian, 23 September, 2017. Available Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/23/kurds-kurdish-referendum-independence-poll-iraq
Collin, K. (2017). The Kurdish referendum won’t deliver independence–here’s why it matters anyway. Brookings Institute. September 19, 2017. Available Online: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/09/19/the-kurdish-referendum-wont-deliver-independence-heres-why-it-matters-anyway/
Jalabi, R. & Georgy, M. (2017). Kurdish city gassed by Saddam hopes referendum heralds better days. Reuters, September 24th, 2017. Available Online: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum-halab/kurdish-city-gassed-by-saddam-hopes-referendum-heralds-better-days-idUSKCN1BZ0AT
Keating, J. (2017). Iraqi Kurdistan on the cusp on independence. What next? Slate, September 23, 2017. Available Online: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/09/iraqi_kurdistan_on_the_cusp_on_independence_what_next.html
Reuters (2017). Turkey warns of global conflict if Iraq or Syria break up. Reuters, September 19, 2017. Available Online: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-kurds-turkey/turkey-warns-of-global-conflict-if-iraq-or-syria-break-up-idUSKCN1BU19S
Rubin, M. (2017). Will the Kurdish referendum be followed by Christian and Yezidi referenda? Washington Examiner, 25 September 2017. Available Online: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/will-the-kurdish-referendum-be-followed-by-christian-and-yezidi-referenda/article/2635441
United Nations (2017). Security Council Press Statement on Iraq. UN Security Council, SC/13002, 21 September 2017. Available Online: https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc13002.doc.htm
Vahdat, A. (2017). Iranian Guard drills near Iraq ahead of Kurdish referendum. ABC, September 24, 2017. Available Online: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/iranian-guard-drills-iraq-ahead-kurdish-referendum-50054623
Yusuf, A. & Jawad, A. (2017). Kurdish referendum not legally binding: Iraqi speaker. Anadolu Agency, 25 September 2017. Available Online: http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/kurdish-referendum-not-legally-binding-iraqi-speaker/918724