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Kurdexit: More Trouble than it’s Worth?

A yes vote in the Kurdish independence referendum might bring more trouble to the region.

When on June 7 Masoud Barzani, Kurdistan’s incumbent president, announced a referendum on independence from Iraq for September 25, a wave of internal backlashes followed, questioning Barzani’s legitimacy and this unilateral decision. External pressures have instigated fear, highlighting the possibility of closing the borders and imposing sanctions on the import of food, medical supplies and electricity. The suspension of the Kurdish pipeline through Turkey’s Ceyhan port is expected, with key international decisionmakers opposing the call.

On the domestic front, none of the major political parties in the Kurdistan region have officially declared their full support, including the Gorran Movement, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Kurdistan Islamic Komal, making it even more difficult for Barzani to continue ahead with the project, despite some PUK and KIU politicians having expressed their support.

Gorran persists with its demands to amend Kurdistan’s presidential law and delaying the referendum until all the necessary requirements are met, including logistical prerequisites. Gorran, the second biggest party in the Kurdistan region, demands a change from a presidential system of governance, which is supported by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), into a parliamentary system. On August 12, Gorran released an official statement asking the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to formally cancel its austerity measures that have reduced salaries by half, to bring more transparency to the oil trade and domestic income, and to reconvene parliament, which has not met since October 2015. The statement considers Barzani’s call nonbinding.

Public opinion in the provinces of Sulaimani and Halabja is blatantly and visibly against the timing and procedure of the referendum. There have been public meetings, seminars and campaigns opposing Barzani’s call for a referendum, asking him and the KDP to instead reactivate parliamentary function, send public servant’s payrolls on time, provide better services and prepare the population for a national reconciliation.

No for Now

On August 8, a No for Now movement was launched. Shaswar Abdulwahid, owner of NRT TV, is considered to be the mastermind behind it, having formally announced his opposition to the referendum on August 5 and claimed that the leaders of the major political parties have no courage to say no to Barzani’s decision. Abdulwahid has called the referendum a “gamble” and claims, “We are not against having a Kurdish state, it is rather a dream for all of us, but this referendum is not for having a country.”

Although Abdulwahid’s campaign may not present any significant obstacles, and that the No campaign activists might not be allowed to organize public gatherings in Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, and Duhok, both of which are under the control and administration of the KDP, they still legitimize Barzani’s decision and demonstrate the existence of democracy.

The No for Now movement has also established a TV channel broadcasting and encouraging people to vote no in the referendum. According to its statement, “A No for Now” vote means “No” to the failure of the experience of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “No” to a kleptocrat government of political businessmen. A “No” vote means “No” to selective politics of authority, the selectiveness by which they have proved they do not have anything to serve us except vulnerability and self destruction.” The statement also criticized human rights abuses, the killing of journalists and accused KRG leadership of feudalism and tribal authoritarianism.

Rabun Maruf, speaker of the movement, has stated that the referendum is a historic and dangerous mistake that could bring more conflict, poverty and vulnerability to the region, demanding instead a rule of democracy and an accountable government where exchange of power and political coexistence are guaranteed.

On the external level, the neighboring countries, including Iran and Turkey, have expressed their concerns and opposition to the referendum, warning Kurdish officials about the prospect of civil war. Iraq’s Kurdish president, Fuad Masum, expressed his hope that Iraq would maintain its integrity, encouraging the central government and the Kurdish officials to find a middle ground for their disagreements. “Independence referendum in Kurdistan is an ambitious dream whose realization is not possible under the current circumstances in Iraq and the region,” Masum was quoted as saying.

The US has opposed Barzani’s call, insisting on the importance of the unity of Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), though Kurdish peshmerga proved to be reliable allies in toppling the former Baath regime and defeating IS on several occasions. Besides, the Kurdistan region embraced around 2 million refugees and internally displaced people fleeing IS. Russia has also insisted on preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity, encouraging Kurdish authorities and the government in Baghdad to solve their issues through meaningful dialogues. Germany warned about the possibility of exacerbating tensions in Iraq if the Kurdish referendum takes place.

A Sovereign Hope

Despite internal divisions among the political parties and external threats, a dysfunctional government hampers the long-awaited aspiration for a Kurdish sovereign state. Peshmerga forces have yet to be united, and parliament has not convened in nearly two years. The KRG is three months behind payments to its civil servants. Disputed territories, including Kirkuk, will also prove a massive burden in case the referendum is successful as the KRG will have to provide electricity, clean water, food, medicine and salaries for those territories as well.

The decision to conduct the referendum is apparently against the will of the international community and neighboring countries, and brings potential long-term repercussions, such as the closure of the Kurdish airspace. Since the area is landlocked and political pressures and economical threats are mounting, the KRG has to work on multiple fronts to assure its citizens that the referendum will at least not further reduce their salaries, and that the price of basic needs of survival will be maintained.

The peshmerga’s victories over IS in Kirkuk, Shangal and Kobane have stimulated a sense of national pride and a revival of the spirit of Kurdish nationalism. But what if the central government stops sending monthly food rations, and the intra-Kurdish political rivalry deepens post-referendum? There need to be military preparations to preserve the borders and economic plans to rebuild the infrastructure and overcome any unexpected consequences. Regional interference and internal competition over the control of the sources of power and revenue will also pose a tremendous threat.

If the referendum is to take place in due course, a yes vote is highly likely. In 2005, the Kurdistan Referendum Movement, in an informal survey asking people whether they wanted to remain part of Iraq, found that a staggering 98.8% favored an independent Kurdistan. However, the geopolitics of Erbil, surrounded by the Shia governments of Tehran and Baghdad and the Sunni government of Ankara, would require the commitment and endorsement of the major international forces in order to survive. A peaceful Kurdexit based on reasonable dialogue with Baghdad will at least prevent a violent separation, if not an economic embargo.

In order to strengthen the pillars of the long-overdue sovereign state of Kurdistan in the Middle East, which is marred by political mayhem, religious rivalry and ethnic division, there needs to be internal reconciliation. Without political agreement to unite people and guarantee their endurance and support in case of war and economic embargo, the referendum may achieve internal acceptance in the long run, but it will face multiple challenges to obtain international recognition, making it difficult to translate the dream into reality.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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