A ‘yes’ vote for Kurdish independence could be ‘very destabilising for Iraq’

The Kurdish independence referendum will almost certainly go ahead. What matters now is what comes next, an expert in Iraqi foreign affairs exclusively tells The National

Iranian Kurds hold Kurdish flags as they take part in a gathering to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in the town of Bahirka, north of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 21, 2017.
The controversial referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is set for September 25. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED
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Despite global opposition, the vote on Kurdish independence looks set to go ahead, and a decision in favour of independence is all but inevitable.

It is an outcome that will have far-reaching consequences for Iraq, says Dr Norman Ricklefs, a former adviser to the secretary general of the Iraqi ministry of defence and  senior advisor to the Iraqi  interior minister, who is about to release a new report on the Iraqi security forces.

Speaking exclusively to The National, Dr Ricklefs, who now runs Middle Eastern consultancy firm NAMEA Group, said: "It is hard to see how the region as a whole could be destabilised any more, but a 'yes' vote could definitely destabilise Iraq. Whether it will have a real impact in places like Syria, I don't really see that — at least, not in the short term. But in Iraq, it could be very destabilising."


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So far, the Kurdish leadership have ignored all calls to suspend the referendum, including an order from the Iraqi Supreme Court and stated opposition from the US, UN and all of Iraq's neighbours.

“If Massoud Barzani’s team are going to listen to anyone, they’re going to listen to Turkey," Dr Ricklefs said. "And the fact that Turkey is very publicly saying ‘stop’ and the Kurds are still going ahead with it tells me that Turkey is not yet prepared to take the hard measures required to stop the referendum.  Kurdistan’s economy is dependent on Turkey, and Turkey’s pressure on Kurdistan could be key to stopping the referendum at this stage.

“Turkey wants to publicly show that it is opposed to Kurdish independence, and opposed to further destabilisation of the region. But Turkey knows that the vote does not mean independence in the short term and it is adopting a behind-the-scenes pragmatic approach to the increasing separation of Kurdistan from Iraq.

“The likelihood is the vote will take place, and what’s more, it is almost certainly going to be a ‘yes’ outcome,” Dr Ricklefs added. “The real question is: what happens next?”

The answer depends very much on how politicians on either side react. “We can either return to the status quo that existed prior to September 25 – which would be to everyone’s benefit. Or you can indulge in short-sighted rhetoric which will lead to conflict. And if that happens, it will undermine both Kurdish aspirations and also Iraq’s security overall.”

There is also a very real risk of provoking further conflict in the country, thereby giving ISIL an opportunity for renewed bloodshed.

“The great fear is that the vote leads to clashes in disputed areas, such as Kirkuk, between Peshmerga (the Kurdish forces), and Shiite and Sunni Arab tribal militias. Such clashes will distract Iraq’s forces from the fight against ISIL. And of course, ISIL will take advantage of its enemies – the Iraqi forces – all of a sudden turning on each other. This would provide an opportunity for them to conduct bombings and other attacks across the country.”


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Any re-emergence of violence could also undermine Iraq’s prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi, Dr Ricklefs argued.

“Abadi has emerged from the last three years of chaos as the victor of Mosul, the man who has returned most of Iraq’s soil to the control of the Iraqi government. So right now, he is riding very high in terms of public opinion. But if there are serious clashes in places like Kirkuk and other disputed areas, as a result of the Kurdish vote, then he’s going to start looking weak. It would undermine his chances of getting a second parliamentary term and create a political crisis in Iraq.”

However, politicians have an opportunity to control the fallout.

Indeed, Mr Barzani has already said that a “yes” vote would not trigger an immediate declaration of independence, but rather, kick-start “serious discussions” with Baghdad. Constructive talks of this kind should be encouraged, Dr Ricklefs suggested, to allow chartering a durable and peaceful secession from Iraq.

“Kurdistan is effectively an independent state already,” he said. “The Kurds have enjoyed de facto independence since 2003, and that’s the important part to take into account when you’re talking about the referendum. However, Kurdistan enjoys great benefits from continuing to have close economic and political ties with the rest of Iraq. A lot of the benefits from Iraq’s economic recovery from 2003 have gone to Kurdistan, a lot of Iraq’s oil wealth has certainly gone north to Erbil. So, Kurdish leaders clearly recognise the benefits from maintaining close relations with Baghdad. If politicians are able to handle this whole issue in a calm way, we can get past this. Baghdad and Erbil need each other.”