Tensions are building in Iraq in the lead up to a September 25 Kurdish independence referendum. The government in Baghdad has already said that it will not recognize the results of the vote, and on Thursday, Reuters reported that the Iraqi parliament voted to dismiss the governor of Kirkuk.
Najmaddin Kareem is the governor of Kirkuk, an oil-rich province that will be participating in the upcoming Kurdish referendum that would formalize the region’s independence (if recognized by Baghdad and the international community). He said the vote to remove him from office was “unlawful” and that he planned to stay in office.
As of now, the vote is scheduled to go ahead, but even if it does not, the support it has within the country’s Kurdish region might cause tensions and have an effect on the country’s fragile security just as gains are being made in driving ISIS out of its Iraqi strongholds.
Kurds — who make up between 10 to 15 percent of Iraq’s population — have been pushing for independence for roughly a century.
One potentially complicating factor in this latest effort is the extent of regional opposition or support for an independent Kurdistan. Despite claims by Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani that the vote is not intended as an act of hostility against Baghdad, Iran and Turkey have registered their unease with the referendum, with Tehran saying such a vote will “weaken entire Iraq” and Ankara saying the split is a “historic mistake” that might lead to civil war.
— Masoud Barzani (@masoud_barzani) September 10, 2017
While, both Iran and Turkey have their own domestic tensions with ethnic Kurds (each implicating Kurds in acts of terrorism within their borders) what they’re saying might have some merit, if somewhat hyperbolic.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Vera Mironova, associate at Harvard University’s Belfer Center’s International Security Program. “There will be some clashes, but civil war between Peshmerga and Iraq, I don’t think so. Only in certain territories.”
The big fight, she said, will be over the populous and oil-rich Kirkuk governorate, which is home to roughly 1.3 million people and has recently flexed its regional muscle in refusing to ship oil to neighboring Iran over a dispute with Baghdad. “Kirkuk is the biggest issue — the rest is just leftovers,” said Miranova.
She added that Baghdad is already moving to send troops to act as a buffer between the Hashd al-Shaabi popular mobilization [mostly Shia] army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
“There’s a possibility that it won’t be orders from the top that could cause clashes, but just people getting angry, shooting at each other, and things escalating,” said Mironova.
Ali Banuazizi, professor of political science at Boston College, said that Turkish reservations and oppositions to the referendum are more pronounced with good reason.
“In the case of Turkey, the threat is much greater because the Kurds comprise somewhere between 20 to 22 percent of the population. In the case of Iran, it’s six to eight percent of the population that they make up,” said Banuazizi.
However, Iran is in an especially delicate position because while it has close ties to the central government in Baghdad, it has also supported the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).
“For Iran, ISIS was the major threat and obstacle. They were at the forefront of that fight. With the Kurds, I think [Iran’s] policy has been moderate, nuanced and sophisticated,” said Banuazizi. “They’re probably going to insist that this is a symbolic vote and that it represents merely a measure of the desire of the Kurdish people to achieve greater autonomy. In other words, they won’t recognize it as a binding referendum.”
Banuazizi said that the worry is that over time, if the referendum in Iraq were to succeed, Kurds in Iran would “be tempted to move in the same direction.”
Further complicating matters is Israel’s support for the referendum, which Turkish state media points to as proof there’s a secret deal afoot to settle 200,000 Israeli Jews in Iraq’s Kurdish region. This claim is refuted in Israel, where the Haaretz news site called it “fake news.”
Iran’s Mehr News Agency, semi-official state media, meanwhile, has called Israel’s support for the referendum “proxy” support by the United States. Banuazizi points out that both Israel and the United States have stated that ethnic minorities within Iran “should achieve greater independence.”
As it stands, the United States has called for the referendum to be delayed over concerns that it might distract the Peshmerga from the fight against ISIS.
Indeed, the Peshmerga are about to enter into a battle with ISIS to reclaim Hawija within the next few weeks, and any potential clashes might distract them from that fight.
Banuazizi doubts the fight against ISIS will be compromised, as “that fight supersedes this issue, and all the sides, with the exception of Turkey, have greater commitment to that fight… than to allow this to create this division within them.”
Already, there are reports of anticipated problems with coordination between Iraqi, Kurdish, and Hash al-Shaabi units in Hawija, as it is a disputed territory less than 60km away from Kirkurk’s provincial capital.
But Barzani has insisted that there will be no delay on the referendum — indeed, he’s said that Kurdistan may be independent by the Nowruz holidays (the vernal equinox in March, denoting the start of the new year). In an August 28 interview with the Carnegie Middle East Institute, Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, gives us a pretty clear idea of why the timing is so crucial for the Kurds:
Barzani doesn’t need tea leaves to understand that the regional situation is evolving rapidly, and not necessarily in his, or the Kurds’, favor… If and when the Islamic State is militarily defeated in Iraq and Syria, will the U.S. still need the KDP [Kurdish Democratic Party — Barzani’s party] as a fighting proxy on the ground? Will it need Iraqi Kurdistan as a buffer against Iranian influence in the region? Would it be willing to get its hands dirty if Iran and Turkey decided to use the Kurdistan region as a battleground for a proxy war? The answers remain unclear, but Barzani has reason to be worried.
Banuazizi thinks Barzani’s timing is right.
“This has been in the works, this has been the ambition… I’m not necessarily supporting it, but I understand it,” he said, adding that he does not think Brazani will be hasty in pushing for independence after the vote. “He’s going to moderate his position and use it, essentially, as a negotiating base for himself and not press immediately for independence.”