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The survival game: post-referendum politics in Iraqi Kurdistan

The regional hostile post-referendum moves may seem to leave the Kurds with little reason for optimism, but in Kurdistan, resistance never comes as a surprise.

A Kurdish man puts his finger into a bottle of ink at a polling station during the referendum vote in Erbil, Iraq, on Sept. 25, 2017. Picture by Khalil Dawood/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. On the 25th of September, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) organized a highly controversial independence referendum. Though non-binding, the Iraqi Parliament declared the vote illegal, and obliged the government of Prime Minister Al-Abadi to take all necessary measures to preserve the unity of Iraq. The Kurds did not bulge – not to the threats from Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, nor to pressure from Kurdistan’s closest international allies to postpone the vote. In a day filled with hope and euphoria, close to 93 percent of the Kurdistani electorate voted in favor of independence, with a turnout of 72 percent.

Two weeks later, the Iraqi government’s hostile post-referendum moves may seem to leave the Kurds with little reason for optimism. But in Kurdistan, resistance never comes as a surprise.

The Kurds’ concerns

In the two weeks before the referendum, I was in Iraqi Kurdistan to conduct interviews with politicians, minority representatives, researchers, and civil society activists. Within this fortnight, Kurdistan’s capital city Erbil transformed into a vibrant advertisement in favor of independence as the streets got lined with flags, buildings covered in banners, and car windows blinded by pictures of KRG President Massoud Barzani. Everyone seemed obsessed with the referendum, and few people questioned that the yes-campaign would win by a landslide.

The overwhelming support for the Kurdish cause is not a recent surge.

The overwhelming support for the Kurdish cause is not a recent surge. If anything, the number of Kurds in favor of independence is even higher than the results indicate: many of those who voted against it (or did not vote at all) have done so because they fear the regions’ response, question the timing, or shun the political motivations of the referendum, not because they doubt that Kurdistan will be better off alone. Even Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir, the most prominent figure campaigning against a ‘yes’ vote—tellingly named the ‘No for now’ campaign—was not ultimately opposed to independence.

Not only is independence a long-standing wish of Kurds across the region to express their political and social uniqueness, Iraq’s Kurds also increasingly view it as a necessity for their security and survival. Several interviewees mentioned that they see the continuation of Baghdad’s sectarian politics as an existential threat – not just to the Kurds, but to Iraq as a whole. Firstly, because the country’s Sunni population continues to be marginalized, there is a general expectation that the Islamic State will rise again. As one senior party official put it, ‘if the Islamic State is defeated, its sons will grow up – and they might be even more radical.’ When this happens, it is likely that the Kurds will again be part of the conflagration.

Another threat that has been fueled by both the Islamic State and Iraqi sectarianism are the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a range of largely Shi’a militia groups that responded to the call of religious leader Grand-Ayatollah Al-Sistani to defend the country against the Islamic State. Since February 2016, the PMUs are formally included in Iraq’s armed forces, but the Iraqi government only controls a limited number of these groups. The largest and most influential forces are instead heavily influenced (or directly controlled) by Iran, and can best be seen as temporary allies of the government.

Many interviewees indicated that they consider future conflict with these Iranian-backed elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi highly likely. Smaller clashes between PMU and Peshmerga forces have already resulted in casualties on both sides, and popular fear of a large-scale confrontation in Kirkuk is profound. Both forces maintain a strong military presence in the area that, with its mixed population and large oil reserves, forms the center stage for any future confrontation between Kurds and Arabs.

Elite-level games

The political leadership in Kurdistan has grown very skilled at utilizing the population’s genuine concerns to its own advantage. In August 2015, when President Massoud Barzani’s term ended for the second time—it had already been extended for two years in June 2013—the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party moved to prolong the president’s tenure by two more years, arguing that ongoing war against the Islamic State (IS) was a poor time to hold elections. When Gorran refused to fall in line, its speaker of the parliament was prevented from entering Erbil and its four ministers expelled from the cabinet, to which Gorran responded by boycotting the parliament. The parliament’s suspension was only undone shortly before the referendum, to provide legitimacy to the organization of the vote. Gorran did not attend the session.

Barzani used the vote to force his opponents to line up behind him

Yet when the war against the Islamic State was used by the international community in an appeal to the KRG president to postpone the referendum, it was suddenly no longer a valid argument. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the president’s term is again about to expire, while there is no one there to challenge his authority. The leaders of both Gorran and the PUK passed away this year, leaving the parties in disarray as they struggle to fill their leadership vacuum. Capitalizing on their weakness, Barzani used the vote to force his opponents to line up behind him, bolster his own sagging popularity, and draw attention away from the region’s political deadlock, economic crisis, and rampant corruption. As several interviewees noted, it is a typical ‘Kurdish solution:’ if you cannot solve a problem, you bring in a bigger issue.

Many people are aware of the elite-level games that are being played, and feel uneasy with a legitimate question being used as a political tool. Yet despite their awareness of the president’s ulterior motives, they also did not want to waste the only chance they might have in their lifetimes to push for statehood.

More bark than bite?

While the Kurdistan government never had the illusion that the referendum would bring independence easily, it did hope that the vote would give a new impulse to negotiations with Baghdad. In reality, the Iraqi government refuses to discuss the result of the referendum unless the result is cancelled – a possibility the KRG has ruled out.

The war of words continues as Iraq and its neighbors are conspiring to isolate the Kurdistan region. Not only has Baghdad imposed a ban on international flights to Kurdistan, it also seeks to take control of all border crossings into Iraqi Kurdistan, and has participated in large-scale military drills with both Turkey and Iran. As part of the latest round of sanctions, Iraq has now also filed a lawsuit to put those who organized the referendum on trial. Outside Iraq’s borders, Turkish president Erdogan said last week that he would ‘soon’ close the airspace and borders with the region, and alluded to the possibility of a joint decision with Iran and Iraq to cut off Kurdistan’s oil exports – a threat that, if carried through, would have devastating consequences for the Kurdistan Regional Government. According to a 2016 World Bank report, oil sales constitute as much as 85 percent of the KRG’s fiscal revenues, essential to pay for its oversized bureaucracy.

Iraq’s neighbors have much more to gain from a strategic partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan than from its marginalization.

While to some it may seem that the KRG miscalculated the amount of international resistance it would face after the referendum, government officials I spoke to before the referendum seemed to be very aware of the initial pushback they would receive. Indeed, one member of the Kurdistan parliament said that they realized Iraqi Kurdistan’s international partners would be ‘pissed off for a few weeks,’ but expected them to come around eventually. They trust that the shaky alignment between Baghdad, Tehran and Turkey will soon collapse: because of their regional rivalry, Iraq’s neighbors have much more to gain from a strategic partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan than from its marginalization. For Turkey, in particular, the KRG has become an increasingly important ally. It is essential to its energy security, an important aide in Turkey’s quest to contain the PKK insurgency, and a buffer against Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. This also explains why it is unlikely that Erdogan will follow through on his threats, which are mainly intended for domestic consumption vis-à-vis Turkey’s own Kurds.

Iraqi Kurdistan is playing a survival game in which, over time, it has accumulated appreciable skill. The Iraqi Kurds survived decades of conflict, marginalization and repression, and meticulously exploited the possibilities that opened up after 2003. In order to get to its current position of relative strength, the KRG used the regional powers as much as the regional powers have used them. As one interviewee rhetorically asked, ‘Who else would have survived a landlocked situation for so many years – between countries that only agree on suppressing the Kurds?’ Through the referendum, the KRG has increased the stakes, which means it must feel confident of having a good hand to play. For the sake of peace in the region, it better be true.

About the author

Feike Fliervoet is a visiting research fellow at the Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute for International Relations, and a Ph.D. candidate at the European University Institute.


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