Analysis: Kurdish region in turmoil
31 October 2017

There is uncertainty in Iraq's Kurdish Region after President Barzani's independence gamble misfires. Dr Benyamin Poghosyan reviews the events of the last weeks, and their likely consequences, in this analysis for

On September 25, 2017 Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), held an independence referendum, with the overwhelming majority voting in favour of independence. The referendum was organized despite strong opposition from neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraq's central Government  which called  it illegal.   Iraqi Kurdistan's decision to hold the referendum also in disputed territories, including the oil rich city of Kirkuk, which have been under Kurdish control after the Iraqi army abandoned those territories as a result of ISIS advancements, caused further irritation in Baghdad.

The US advised the KRG to postpone the referendum, proposing to facilitate the launch of negotiations between the KRG and the Iraqi authorities. In   a letter sent by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to KRG President Barzani just two days before referendum, the US suggested the postponement of the referendum followed by U.S. and U.N. support for a one-year dialogue between the Kurds and the government of Baghdad to address a number of outstanding issues. Tillerson mentioned the status of the Kurdish militias, sharing national oil revenues, the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk and diplomatic representation of Barzani's diplomats in foreign capitals as possible key points of future talks. The letter said that if the negotiations fail because of bad faith from Baghdad, the US would recognize the need for a referendum.

 The Iraqi Kurdish leadership never meant to declare independence immediately after the vote. They hoped to use the referendum results as a trump card in future negotiations with the Iraqi central government, probably pushing for greater autonomy with the possible transformation of Iraq into a confederation. The US proposal of a period of one year of negotiations was perceived as a tacit support to the idea of Iraqi Kurdistan's independence. Given the significant role of the Kurdish peshmerga in the US led fight against ISIS, the Kurdish leadership was confident that the US will not allow Iraqi government to use force against the KRG. As for Turkey, the multibillion Turkish investments in the KRG, and vested interests of influential Turkish businessman and politicians including the inner circle of President Erdogan, with businesses there,  were viewed as a guarantee that Turkey will avoid tough measures  over the issue.

Another incentive to launch the referendum was domestic politics. Barzani's second presidential term   expired in 2013. The Kurdish Parliament extended his authority for another two years, and in August 2015 his term was once more extended by court decision until such time as elections are held. However, since 2015 Barzani's legitimacy as KRG President was disputed by different Kurdish forces. In July 2017 Barzani set November 1, 2017 as the date for both Parliamentary and Presidential elections. The last Parliamentary elections were held in 2013. 
Following those elections, Gorran (Change) movement established in 2009, joined the Barzani led Kurdistan Democtaic Party (KDP) government, holding a number of key posts including that of parliament speaker. In 2015, following days of protests and rising tensions   between KDP and Gorran concerning the decision to extend Barzani's term as President, the KDP sacked the Gorran ministers, and in October 2015 blocked the Speaker from returning to the parliament building. The work of the Kurdistan Parliament was suspended, and it restored its activities only just before the September 25 referendum.

 It was assumed that the successful conduct of an independence referendum would boost the popularity of Barzani among the KRG population, securing for him the position of national hero, and strengthening the position of KDP in  its struggle with other political forces, such as Gorran and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

KDP is generally seen as having   strong ties with Turkey, while PUK and Gorran are closer to Iran. Nevertheless, it seems that the KRG leadership underestimated the potential threat  an independent Kurdistan  caused to the vital interests of Iraq, Iran and Turkey and their capacities to put aside disagreements and jointly thwart any potential move towards Kurdistan independence. On September 29 Iraq imposed a flight ban on Iraqi Kurdistan and moved forward to regain control over the disputed territories. The Iraqi army and the mainly Shia Popular Mobilization Units (Hash al Shaabi), which were trained and are partially controlled by Iranian special forces, were deployed along the boundaries of the disputed territories.  On October 15 these units started a military offensive, and encountering almost no resistance took control of city Kirkuk and some other disputed territories. There are wide spread allegations that the commander of the Iranian elite Quds force, General Qasem Soleimani,,inked a deal with PUK to allow the Iraqi army and PMU units to enter the disputed territories during his October 14 visit to the PUK stronghold of Suleimanie. During this visit he also paid respect to the tomb of former Iraqi president and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party leader Jalal Talabani, who died on October 3.  

The loss of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields was a serious blow to Iraqi Kurdistan, and personally to President Barzani. Oil is the main source of income for the KRG, and without the Kirkuk oil fields it will face tough economic challenges. Simultaneously, the retreat of the Kurdish forces raised questions on the expediency of the referendum, and the failure of President Barzani to calculate all options before moving forward. Thus, Barzani and his KDP found themselves under growing criticism as the main culprits for Kurdish losses. The tough criticism of Turkey towards Barzani for his decision to hold the referendum, and Turkey's tacit approval to the advance of the Iraqi army and PMU units into Kirkuk created additional difficulties for the KRG President. Barzani effectively lost Turkey's support, which deprived him from the possibility to play Turkey against Iraq and Iran.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi army and PMU continue their advance, and now demand control over the KRG border crossings with Turkey and Syria. These border crossings are within undisputed KRG territory recognized, by the Iraqi constitution, and controlled by Kurds since 1991 when the US and its allies established a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq.  Control of the border crossings by Iraqi forces constitutes a serious blow for Iraqi Kurds, and   cuts back their achievements in the last 25 years. In an apparent move to ease tensions, on October 25 the KRG leadership proposed an immediate ceasefire, a suspension of the referendum result, and the start of an open dialogue with the federal government based on the Iraqi constitution, but this call was rejected by Baghdad. Meanwhile, the KRG Parliament postponed   presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for November 1 due to the domestic and external security situation.

Facing growing domestic and external security challenges, Barzani decided not to accept an extension of his term after November 1. In his October 28 letter to the KRG Parliament Barzani stated that he refuses to continue in the position of president of the Region after November 1, 2017, advising the parliament to decide how to distribute the duties and powers of the president to ensure there is no legal vacuum. Meanwhile, according to President's senior assistant Hemin Hawrami, Barzani was planning to remain in Kurdish politics as the leader of the High Political Council. It was formed to replace the High Referendum Council to take the lead in the post-referendum phase. During his televised address on October 29, Barzani reiterated that he refuses any extension to his time in office beyond November 1. He mentioned that even if the referendum wasn't held, there was an Iraqi plan to attack Kurdistani areas and destabilize the situation in the Kurdistan Region. Barzani also blamed the quick Kurdish retreat from the majority of the disputed areas  to treason, saying Kirkuk was handed over to the Iraqis. On October 29 KRG parliament approved a bill distributing the president's powers to the prime minister, the presidency of the council of ministers, presidency of the parliament, and to the president of the judicial council. 

The developments in and around KRG since the holding of September 25 referendum have proved that the KRG leadership underestimated the potential ramifications of such move. Tough response and actions of Iran and Iraq, with the tacit support of Turkey, caught the KRG by surprise. The Kurds have lost all their territorial gains achieved since 2014, and are now facing hard domestic and external challenges. The loss of the Kirkuk oil fields will put pressure on the KRG budget. The claims of treason, targeted against the PUK have a potential to seriously deteriorate the domestic situation in KRG itself. The news of attacks against PUK and Gorran headquarters in KDP controlled Dohuk province on October 29 increased  concerns about more  intra-Kurdish violence. The resignation of Barzani from the Presidency of the KRG will only add uncertainty, and may cause turmoil.  These intra-Kurdish disagreements make the restoration of the pre-referendum status quo, even without control over disputed territories, a very hard task to achieve.     

Source: Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this analysis to  

photo: Masoud Barzani