Iraqi Kurds may need Ankara in referendum's aftermath

The fallout from the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum is still being felt after the vote on Sept. 25, 2017. Instead of achieving the Kurdish dream of statehood, the vote resulted in a backlash, which was particularly strong from the central government in Baghdad.

Baghdad’s severe response to the move by the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) included a military campaign to retake much of the “disputed areas”, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, that had been under Kurdish control since the emergence of ISIS in 2014, as well as shutting down the two international airports in Erbil and Sulaimani.

These punitive steps were followed swiftly by harsh rhetoric from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who went as far as demanding that Erbil hand over control of the KRG’s border crossings with Iran and Turkey to the central government.

Baghdad’s condescending approach to the KRG in the past few months has only increased tensions with the Kurds.

Economic and political activities, such as exporting oil and administering a separate visa requirement system for foreign nationals, that were once thought to be taken for granted by the KRG, are now seen by the Iraqi government as excessive privileges that it intends to expropriate as much as it can.

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who marshalled the independence campaign, had a lucid desire to end his political career by declaring an independent Kurdish state; a goal he often described as his never-ending dream.

But apparently Barzani miscalculated his push and didn’t realize how polarised the local Kurdish population is. This polarisation had also engulfed the KRG's system of government. The parliament was almost defunct for nearly two years, until Barzani himself succeeded in reopening it with some last-minute, ad hoc arrangements.

On the regional and international level, the KRG had set a risky path in marketing its bid for independence. It later became clear how “risky” the plan really was. However, the KRG genuinely believed that the impressive victories of its Peshmarge forces in the war on ISIS would garner enough support from its international allies, who were not short in praising the Kurdish fighters over the last few years.

Barzani knew that the U.S. would not stick with him all the way in his bid for an independent Kurdistan. But he took his chances, thinking that Washington would come to terms with a de facto situation brought about by an overwhelming Kurdish vote in favour of seceding from Iraq.

But the Trump Administration was clear that such a move by the KRG would exacerbate the already-deteriorating relationship with Baghdad, and thus distract all sides involved in defeating ISIS.

Turkey too expressed fierce opposition to the referendum's outcome, despite being a close ally of Barzani and his ruling party. Matching its decades-old stance, the Turkish government feared that the birth of a Kurdish entity in the region would only empower its own restive Kurdish population. On the other side of this geopolitical equation, Iran’s stance toward Erbil was similar: it naturally sided with its allies in Baghdad.


Internally, social and economic grievances have not been addressed properly by Erbil. Those grievances, which subsequently led largely to the popular protests that swept across the Sulaimani province –  a traditional opposition stronghold to Barzani and his ruling KDP –  showed that getting an overwhelming majority vote in the referendum didn’t necessarily mean a similar proportion of the population was content with the KRG's policies.

After Barzani announced that he was stepping down from the presidency in late October, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani – his nephew – took charge of the region. The younger Barzani is known to be a pragmatist. His governing record proves that he is capable of getting things done quickly, whether with regard to local political forces or Baghdad.

Nechirvan Barzani said recently that the referendum was now in the past and that the KRG needed to look forward to a new beginning.

So perhaps he needs to reconsider the current dynamics in a way that can ensure that the Kurds are in a better position when it comes to negotiations with Baghdad regarding the KRG budget and other outstanding issues, some of which have re-emerged in the aftermath of referendum.

Barzani should also accelerate the process of rebuilding the “Kurdish house” from within. This should include an economic reform package that makes serving the people its top priority and ends an epidemic of corruption that has crippled the system.

But can the KRG do this alone? Definitely not. Therefore, Mr. Barzani may need some help from his Turkish allies. Being the KRG’s largest trading partner since 2003, Ankara still has a huge interest in remaining relevant there – despite its negative attitude towards the independence referendum. Even amid political tensions over the referendum, the only border crossing between the two sides remained open. But at this point, it’s the KRG that needs Turkey the most. So restoring relations with Ankara, at least economically, could be already on Barzani’s agenda for the next phase.

For the KRG, having robust relations with Turkey will not only help it recover from its economic recession, but also give it a boost when going back to the negotiating table with Baghdad.

Regardless of how things have unfolded in the past few months, one thing remains crystal clear: the Iraqi Kurdish quest for independence will continue and flourish when the circumstances are better.