Gamble by the Kurds

Saad Aldouri and Renad Mansour on how a referendum over independence backfired

A Kurdish flag flies at a CONIFA World Cup match between Tamil Eelam and Kurdistan. The competition is for stateless peoples not recognized by FIFA

When the Kurds of northern Iraq called a referendum on independence for September 25, the aim was to strengthen their hand against Baghdad following the defeat of the so-called Islamic State group. It has backfired spectacularly. 

The decision to provoke Baghdad, the neighbouring countries and most of their international allies, has reversed historic gains made by the Kurds towards building their own state. Within three weeks of the vote, they lost a fifth of the territory under their control, including most of their oil and gas fields, as well as control over border checkpoints with Turkey, the lifeline of their landlocked economy. 

Despite the seeming unity on the day of the referendum − the result was 92 per cent in favour of independence − not all Kurdish leaders thought the vote a good idea, given the level of opposition from international allies such as the United States and Turkey. 

The split in opinion was not based on party or tribal lines. Rather it was between pragmatists, who favour a gradual, bottom-up development of elements of statehood based on a sober assessment of the limitations they face, and more radical nationalists, who pursue a top-down, rhetoric-heavy assertion of independence. 

For much of the period since the 2003 invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein, pragmatism has prevailed in the Kurdish state-building project. The fact that the autonomous region’s neighbours all fear the spread of Kurdish nationalism, and its international allies all want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq, has compelled the leadership to act with caution. For the leaders, having a proto-state on the ground was more important than declaring statehood. They preferred to speak of ‘autonomy’ or ‘federalism’ rather than more radical nationalist-loaded words such ‘independence’ or ‘referendum’, to maximize gains in state building and avert any backlash. 

The pragmatist school has pursued two key tactics: influencing Iraq from within and stressing internal cohesion when negotiating with others, be they the federal government in Baghdad or foreign states. 

To influence from within, from 2003 the leadership sent some of their top politicians to Baghdad, including Jalal Talabani, the recently deceased leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party who became Iraq’s president, Hoshyar Zebari, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who became foreign minister, finance minister and deputy prime minister of Iraq, and the PUK’s Barham Salih, who also became deputy prime minister. Having their elite in Baghdad allowed the Kurds to influence the Iraqi state-building project and to have their finger on the pulse of politics throughout the country. 

To ensure unity in Iraqi federal politics, after 2003 the leadership created a single electoral bloc called the Kurdistan List that included the KDP and the PUK, the two parties in the Kurdistan regional government, along with smaller Islamist parties. This tactic allowed the Kurds to play kingmaker in Baghdad, combining their seats at the Iraqi federal parliament to negotiate concessions in return for backing the next prime minister. Even in 2009, when the Goran (Change) party, emerged in Sulaimaniya to challenge the ruling Kurdish elite’s hold on power, its leaders made clear that they were more interested in politics in northern Iraq than in Baghdad. 

‘As a result of the loss of Kirkuk, the regional government  is in a far worse financial position’

By the time of the September 25 referendum, the Kurdish leadership had abandoned both tactics. This trend had begun years earlier: after Islamic State’s advances into Iraq and takeover of Mosul in June 2014, President Massoud Barzani and the Kurdish military forces known as Peshmerga took over the ethnically diverse oil city of Kirkuk to secure it from the Salafi jihadists. 

Barzani’s rhetoric hinted at a new, more radical nationalism based on territorial gains. To the people of Kirkuk, Barzani declared: ‘Today Kurdistan has been achieved and we must protect it.’ The leader went on to tell the people of Kirkuk: ‘I’m ready to carry a gun and defend Kirkuk as a Peshmerga.’ 

Weeks later, in July 2014, Barzani told the BBC that he was preparing for an independence referendum. A spirit of over-confidence took hold of the leadership. Kurdish leaders believed they no longer needed to play politics in Iraq and they stopped sending top politicians to Baghdad. The fact of not having any top Kurdish politicians in the federal capital gave further impetus to the radical wing of the leadership.  The more radical form of nationalism also tackled the issue of unity from a different angle. Rather than attempting to astutely reinforce unity through negotiated agreements such as the Kurdistan List, the leadership sought external threats to bring the community together. For much of the post-2014 period, the external threat was the so-called Islamic State, which created an apparently united Kurdish front against the militant group. 

Whereas the regional government was once dubbed the ‘new Dubai’, by 2014 it was looking more like a failing state, unable to pay government salaries, convene its parliament, or legally extend the term of its president. The regional government was also mired in costly legal disputes with international oil companies, due to its own mismanagement. This political and economic decline was used as an argument by the nationalists to push for a referendum as a catch-all solution. 

After the defeat of Islamic State, and with the failings of the regional government compounding problems, the leaders turned their attention to a new external threat, Baghdad. They played this card with the announcement of a referendum. Strong rhetoric from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and others in response reminded the Kurds of their tragic history of embattled isolation. Many began referring to the old adage: ‘The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.’ 

Yet, this unity was short-lived. The lack of institutional cohesion among the Peshmerga, which had always been primarily party-based, led to the loss of Kirkuk when senior PUK leaders, including Bafel Talabani, son of the late Jalal Talabani, came to an understanding with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to withdraw from Kirkuk as the Kurdish leadership could not agree with the federal government. This manoeuvre undermined Kurdish unity and further delegitimized the leadership of Barzani, who ultimately was not able to keep his 2014 promise to defend Kirkuk.

The more radical nationalist approach has failed. The absence of the Kurds from Baghdad led to less influence on the central government and a loss of awareness of Iraqi politics. Most seriously, the radical nationalist Kurdish leaders failed to comprehend the growing relationship between Abadi and Washington.  As a result of the loss of Kirkuk, the regional government is in a worse financial position and no longer able to export oil and gas independently. Massoud Barzani has stepped down as president, though he maintains informal power as leader of the KDP. Its leaders are facing tough questions at home. 

Lessons can be learnt from the Palestinian case – another nationalist movement seeking statehood in the modern Middle East. Scholars of the Palestinian nationalist movement paint a similar dichotomy between pragmatists and radical nationalists. In 2000, the Palestinian leadership reversed its pursuit of institutional autonomy and de facto statehood when more radical elements launched the second intifada. The Kurds made the same mistake. 

These losses have now provided an opening to more pragmatic voices and shifted the relationship between Kurdish leaders and their foreign backers. Washington and London are now looking to work exclusively with leaders such as the KRG’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, a nephew of the former president who was more wary of the referendum. 

Recent clashes between Peshmerga and Iraqi federal forces for control of the Fishkhabour border with Turkey, where a fifth of Iraq’s oil and gas is exported, encapsulate this new balance of forces among the Kurds. Mansour Barzani, son of the former president, claimed he would ‘fight to the death rather than allow Iraqi federal troops to control the crossings’. At the same time, prime minister Nechirvan Barzani was in daily contact with Baghdad to ‘create more understanding and build confidence.’ 

To seal the defeat of the nationalists, the regional government on November 14 decided to respect the Iraqi Supreme Court’s ruling that prohibits any attempts at Kurdish secession. Clearly, the ascendancy of the more radical nationalists is over, leaving the pragmatists to restore some order to the state-building project.