Why the Iraqi Kurdish vote was problematic — and what can be done about it

Wisam Salih argues foreign governments should wait to support an independent Iraqi Kurdistan and outlines the steps Kurdish leaders need to take to gain legitimacy.

By: /
October 6, 2017
Iraq Kurdistan
A woman casts her vote during Kurds independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

When Iraqi Kurds took to the voting booths on September 25, the results were seemingly decisive: With nearly 3.1 million votes cast, 93 percent voted in favour of independence.

While President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq Masoud Barzani has declared the results not immediately binding, the vote was intended to spark negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad on the eventual separation and independence of a Kurdish state.

The response of the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, as well as the international community, has been to overwhelmingly oppose the referendum and the idea of an independent Kurdistan.

However, many Middle East and Iraq watchers have cautioned Western governments not to denounce the referendum so quickly, and instead either champion Kurdish independence or appreciate the complexities of the issue. In a piece published just days before September 25, Kurdish journalist Noreldin Waisy made the case for why the United Kingdom should recognize a Kurdish state. Earlier this year on this very site, writer Michael Petrou argued that Canada has already inadvertently taken steps to aide the creation of a Kurdish state and should adjust its policy accordingly. The Guardian asked “if not now, when?” There are many other examples.

While it is true that the Kurds — particularly the Iraqi Kurds — have suffered immensely at the hands of brutal dictatorship and discriminatory policies, Western governments, including Canada’s, should indeed be cautious about jumping on the Kurdish bandwagon. Here are three reasons to give pause: 

1. Kurdish democracy has expired.

Barzani, who is the chief driver behind the referendum, has been ruling on a democratic mandate that expired over two years ago. In fact, the last presidential election took place in 2013. He received a two-year extension from parliament, but that has expired now too. (An election has recently been called for Nov. 1 but that should have been done long ago.) A referendum that has been initiated and driven by a president without a democratic mandate is incredibly problematic. As it stands, Barzani does not have the legitimacy to carry out such a costly decision. 

2. Displacement complicates the understanding of Kurdistan’s rightful residents.

There has been much debate over the so-called disputed areas of Northern Iraq. A series of ethnically motivated reallocations due to successive Arab governments in Baghdad over the last 10 years, as well as the more recent ISIS conflict, has led to a number of areas that do not have their original inhabitants. For this reason, a referendum on the future of Northern Iraq is incredibly problematic.

The city of Kirkuk is a prime example. The city suffered from brutal Arabization policies led by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party in the 1970s and 1980s that led to Kurdish villages, including Kirkuk, being repopulated by ethnic Arab peoples. In 2014, the city fell to ISIS militants as Iraqi Army personnel fled their posts. In turn, the Kurdish Peshmerga forcibly took control of the city, forcibly displacing hundreds of Arab families. In some cases, the homes of Arab residents have been intentionally demolished by Kurdish forces in an attempt to both reverse the effects of decades-long Arabization policies and crudely reshape the future of these disputed areas.

While the Iraqi constitution explicitly instructed Baghdad and Erbil to peacefully negotiate the future of such disputed territories by the end of 2007, reconciliation never took place. Given that there have been so many internally displaced people in these areas due to the presence of ISIS, a referendum on the future of these regions does not take into account the large number of displaced people who have not yet been able to return to their homes. 

3. The ongoing fight against ISIS means the timing is not right.

The timing of this referendum is important to consider. Iraqi forces, in concert with the Kurdish Peshmerga, have been fighting, at times side-by-side, to retake territory that was lost to ISIS. While major cities have already been retaken by Iraqi security forces, there are still pockets of resistance held by ISIS fighters, and almost daily attacks against civilians continue throughout the country. Since 2014, the fight to reclaim Iraqi soil from ISIS has been proven very difficult and will certainly require a concerted effort, not only between the KRG and Baghdad, but also regional actors, such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In this light, taking steps toward independence would certainly lead to more instability. Likewise, divisive talks around separation of a Kurdish state will likely only weaken efforts to defeat ISIS. 

Where to go from here?

Iraqi Kurdish desires for autonomy are well within the right of the Kurdish people. This is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, of which Iraq is a member country. In this light, it is important to keep in mind that although it may not be realistic in the short term, an independent Kurdish state may be inevitable. If that is the case, there are a few things to be done going forward.

First, the KRG should work with Baghdad, as they have in recent months to continue to eliminate ISIS from Iraqi territory. The International Organization for Migration in Iraq estimates that there have been approximately three million people that have been internally displaced in Iraq as a result of ongoing conflict. Not only do the violent clashes need to end, but displaced people must be able to return to their homes and rebuild their lives in order to have a census conducted — a necessary step before independence. Any referendum in the KRG, in particular in the disputed areas, will not include people who have traditionally occupied the land that is in question.

Second, operational cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi security forces must continue. Not only will this work to eliminate ISIS pockets of resistance, but it will help develop a security framework to enforce any future political settlement between Erbil and Baghdad. Without basic security, peace can be hard to achieve, as violent clashes are sure to breakout between rival Kurdish and Arab militias.

Third, democracy must be restored in the KRG. Barzani must step down from power and there must be new presidential elections for the KRG. (The Nov. 1 elections have already proven to be problematic — the opposition candidate has already been eliminated.) If the international community takes the desire of the Kurds for their own state seriously, there must be a fresh democratic mandate from the residents of Iraqi Kurdistan. The idea of a Kurdish independent state must be made into a central election issue. If Barzani is intent on giving birth to a truly democratic Kurdish state, he must be willing to relinquish power in order to restore the damage done to Kurdish democratic institutions.

In short, the recent referendum that took place should serve as a stark reminder to the international community and the central government in Baghdad that the unity of Iraq should not be taken for granted. With that being said, the way in which the referendum took place, and under the fraught circumstances of domestic politics within Iraq, the KRG has a long way to go before it can count on the support of the international community for recognition of a Kurdish independent state.

It is one thing for countries such as Canada to support a peoples' right to self-determination, but in this case, even supporting the outcome of the referendum is incredibly problematic. With fresh, legitimate elections, restored security over ISIS-held territory, and strong military cooperation between the Kurds and Iraqi security forces, Canada and other Western governments will be better positioned to re-evaluate their Kurdish policy. Having that support would benefit both the Kurds and Iraqi stability in the long run.