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Opinion: Kurdish referendum has wide regional implications
28 September 2017

The 25 September referendum in the Kurdish region may not lead to Kurdish independence any time soon, says Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed, but neighbouring countries are apprehensive.

On September 25, 2017 the long-anticipated independence referendum took place in the region administered by the Kurdistan  Regional Government (KRG), and  other mainly Kurdish populated disputed areas of Iraq. Those areas are outside of KRG administered boundaries defined by the Iraqi constitution, but currently are under control of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. According to preliminary official results voting turnout was 72 percent and approximately 93 percent of participants voted for independence. In the weeks leading to the September 25 voting major international actors including the US, as well as KRG neighboring states Turkey and Iran expressed their concerns and urged the KRG leadership to postpone the referendum. The only regional power publicly supporting the Kurdish bid for independence was Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu made several statements endorsing the Kurds' aspirations. On its part, the Iraqi government was in vocal opposition to the referendum.

On September 20, the Iraqi Supreme Court ordered a suspension of the referendum in response to at least two lawsuits against the move.  It is worth mentioning that one of lawsuits was filed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. Prior to the referendum   Iranian and Turkish military forces launched large scale exercises along the borders of KRG, and Turkey's President Erdogan threatened to cut off oil shipments via the Kirkuk-Jeyhan pipeline. Immediately after the referendum the Iraqi parliament called on nations to withdraw their missions from the KRG capital Erbil, and for Iraqi forces to be deployed to the disputed areas which came under Peshmerga control during the fight against the "Islamic State". The Iraqi National Security Council decided to close the airspace of the Kurdish Region, and demanded a halt to international flights to Erbil and Suleymania international airports.

The KRG independence referendum does not necessarily mean the emergence of an independent Kurdish state any time soon. The KRG itself is in political crisis; President Barzani's mandate expired in 2015, and the KRG Parliament is largely dysfunctional. The internal fight between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Goran movement has the potential to throw the KRG into severe political crisis.  Given the level of influence which external actors, in particular Turkey and Iran, have over Kurdish political parties, they have chances to manipulate domestic developments within the Kurdish region. Turkey has close relations with KDP led by President Barzani, while Iran maintains connections with PUK. Even geographically Turkey and Iran have their own zones of influence. Turkey is strongly anchored in Dohuk and partly in Erbil, and Iran is influential in Suleymania. Iran is the only state which has a Consulate-General, not only in Erbil but also in Suleymania.  On its part Turkey has a strong position as regards the KRG economy, with more than one thousand Turkish firms operating there, with billions of USD investments.

Another potential headache for the KRG is the fate of disputed territories, and in particular Kirkuk with its huge oil and gas reserves. The ethnic diversity of these territories with Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans living side by side, creates potential for disagreements and conflict. These factors may well complicate any efforts by the KRG to solidify its control over these territories, and to include them in any future independent Kurdish state.

The existence of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases in the Qandil Mountains can provide another pretext for Turkey to launch a large-scale military intervention into KRG territory under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Thus, both Iran and Turkey have several leverages against the KRG, and if absolutely necessary they can effectively create chaos within its territory.

In these circumstances the most likely scenario is that the KRG leadership will use the referendum results in its negotiations with the Iraqi government to gain more concessions. The short term KRG goals may be the resumption by the Iraqi government of the payments of 17% of Iraq's oil profits to the KRG, as is stipulated by the Iraqi constitution. The long-term perspective could be the launch of negotiations to change the Iraqi constitution and establish a confederation instead of a federal republic, though this option seems less likely. The referendum will definitely strengthen President Barzani's positions in domestic politics as a national hero who made a significant step towards the realization of Kurdish independence dreams.

Armenia has limited interactions with the KRG. In November 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister of Armenia visited Erbil as a Co-chair of the Armenia - Iraq intergovernmental commission. He met with President Barzani and discussed possibilities to increase economic cooperation between Armenia and the KRG. In February2015 the Armenian Foreign Minister met with President Barzani on the sidelines of Munich Security Conference. The Armenian President made a decision to open a Consulate-General in Erbil in March 2017, though consulate is not yet operational. Due to instability in Iraq, many Iraqi Armenians moved to the territories administered by the KRG from different Iraqi regions in recent years, and they have one Armenian MP in the KRG Parliament. Nevertheless, Armenia - KRG relations are developing, mainly in the economic sphere, and Armenian companies have recently started large scale exports of alcohol beverages and cigarettes to the KRG. Another factor influencing Armenia-KRG relations are the Kurdish (approximately 2500) and Yazidi (approximately 35000) communities of Armenia which had their representatives elected in the Armenian Parliament in April 2017.

Armenia is not interested in instability near its borders. In the case of a downward spiral in Iraq - KRG relations this may further complicate the situation in the Middle East, which potentially may have an indirect impact on Armenia. It may result in a decline of Armenian exports, as well as negatively influence the Armenian community in KRG administered region. On September 27, 2017, the Armenian Foreign Minister expressed his hope that the Iraqi and KRG authorities will find ways to avoid increased tensions. However, in the short-term the situation in the KRG will not have a direct impact on Armenia's national security.

Source: Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this op-ed to commonspace.eu

photo: Kurds celebrating the results of the independence referendum (picture courtesy of al Jazeera.

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