Looking to the Impending Kurdish Referendum

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

September 21, 2017

Masoud Barzani, leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, announced on June 7 that the Iraqi Kurds would hold a referendum on September 25 on the question of independence. Regional observers and government officials have frequently wrung their hands over the possibility and consequences of such a move. As the referendum approaches, such concern is only becoming louder. Despite receiving vocal support from Israel and tacit support from some Gulf countries, the overwhelming mood in the region is one of either outright rejection or fear of what the independence bid may mean for Iraq and the overall balance of power in the region.


The Kurdish bid for independence has received support from some in the region. Writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Sinem Cengiz suggests that the claims of the Iraqi Kurds are likely to receive the backing of Gulf countries wary of increased Iranian influence in the region: “The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad, and the subsequent rise of a Shiite-dominated government, raised concerns in Gulf capitals about Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq and the region. The need to contain this influence pushed Gulf countries to enhance relations with local actors in the post-Saddam era. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is the only regionally and internationally recognized Kurdish entity, appeared as a viable option for this objective. Recent years have seen Gulf-KRG ties deepen…. Time will tell whether an independent Kurdish state will serve the GCC’s long-term economic and strategic interests in the region.”

Celalettin Kartal, in a recent op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, makes the case that, as a matter of international law, the Kurds deserve a vote on the matter: “The right to self-determination of peoples is an imperative right. It says that every nation has the right to freely decide its political status, its form of government and its economic, social and cultural development. All members of the international community have undertaken to respect and recognize this right as part of international law. It is thus for the people of Kurdistan alone to decide how they want to exercise their right of self-determination.”

Iran, conversely, has condemned the referendum, making clear that it values Iraq’s “territorial integrity”: “’The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a friend and ally to the Kurdish brothers who have stood beside them in the most difficult time, does not assess referendum as beneficial to the Kurdistan region and is against the move’, the top security official noted…. Shamkhani attached great importance to necessity of protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq, saying any move in line with disintegrating Iraq will make Iran to review its policies on cooperation with the Kurdistan region. He also warned that agreements on border areas will not be ‘valid’ if the Kurdistan region is split from the mainland.”

These political statements are backed by the threat of force, as Iraq News’ Mohamed Mostafa points out in his reporting on statements coming from Iranian-backed paramilitary forces in Iraq: “A senior Iraqi paramilitary leader said Thursday that civil war would become ‘inevitable’ in Iraq if Kurdistan Region’s government proceeds with a planned referendum on independence from Iraq. Hadi al-Ameri, secretary-general of Badr Organization, was quoted by Rudaw network on Thursday saying during a festival in Najaf province that civil war would occur ‘if escalation continues on the same rate regarding the issue of Kurdistan Region’s referendum’ …. Since it declared the date of the referendum, the Kurdish government has defied calls from Baghdad to postpone the measure. Baghdad has maintained that the planned poll was unconstitutional, and a political crisis erupted when Kurds included oil-rich Kirkuk, a disputed territory, as a voting constituency.”

Considering the large Kurdish minority living within its own borders, the government of Turkey has been cool to the idea of an independent Kurdistan. As Times of Israel’s Sue Surkes writes, Turkish nationalist groups have protested in front of the Israeli embassy in Ankara, which they see as a supporter of the initiative: “The Israeli Embassy in Ankara was evacuated on Friday as supporters of an ultra-nationalist party demonstrated outside against what they called plans to create a ‘second Israel’ in Iraqi Kurdistan. Utku Reyhan, secretary-general of the Homeland Party, said in a press statement that a unilateral independence referendum called for September 25 by the Kurdistan Regional Government was a ‘declaration of war by US imperialism and Israeli Zionism against countries in the region’.”

Murat Yetkin, in an op-ed for the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News, suggests that Israel’s support for the independence bid will have important geopolitical implications for the region and may even push Turkey and Syria closer together: “it is safe to say that the statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sept. 14 that Israel ‘supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state’ ramped up the already flammable situation in the region…. Israel has actually never hidden the fact that it favors a non-Arab, Muslim but secular state as a buffer zone with Iran, while also making Iran’s access to Israel’s neighbors Syria and Lebanon more difficult…. It is too early to say that this has brought Erdoğan and al-Assad closer together, but some people are drawing a link between U.S.-backed efforts of the PKK to establish Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Israel-backed efforts of the KDP to claim Kurdish independence in Iraq.”

Finally, Daily Sabah’s Yahya Bostan considers other ramifications of a possible declaration of independence on the part of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government, not least of which being a bloody conflict over Kirkuk: “the most prominent outcome of Irbil’s push for independence could be Kirkuk’s takeover by the Iraqi military and Shiite militias – which would mean that yet another major Iraqi city would find itself under Iranian influence. Of course, Kirkuk isn’t just important for Irbil and Baghdad. In light of past agreements and their historical/cultural ties to the city, the Turks deeply care about the future of Kirkuk. If the city’s legal status changes, Turkey would become directly involved in the situation. Simply put, the situation in Kirkuk is seen by Turkey as a matter of national security and Mr. Barzani’s reckless decision has raised deep concerns in the Turkish capital Ankara…. the Iraqi Kurdish leader’s irresponsible actions place Turkish interests, along with his political future, at risk.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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