Iraqi Kurdistan signalled its desire for independence from Iraq in its recent referendum, but given the international response, was it really a victory for Kurdish autonomy?
The Iraqi Kurdish people’s 25 September independence vote has seemingly backfired and jeopardised the Kurd’s long-held dreams of independence and autonomy. Within the region news of the proto-state’s bid for independence has been met with, at best, indifference and, at worst, violence. Neighbours of the Kurds, such as Iran and Turkey, have now enacted economic blockades and, internationally, both the United States and Germany have begun to reassess their political and military relationships. These actions, coupled with the recent capture of the oil-rich Kirkuk province by Iraq on 16 October, highlight the precarious position in which the independence referendum has placed Iraqi Kurdistan.
A messy divorce
In the lead up to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani stated in The Washington Post that an independent Kurdish state would bring about a “stronger relationship with Baghdad”.
Clearly he was wrong, as since the 25 September ballot Iraqi government troops in cooperation with forces from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)—a coalition of Iranian backed Shia militia groups—have moved to take back the disputed territory of Kirkuk. First lost by the Iraqi government in 2014 to Islamic State and subsequently captured by the Peshmerga—the KRG’s de facto defence force—Kirkuk was a vital economic lifeline due to the presence of large oil reserves. By capturing Kirkuk, Baghdad has claimed a critical economic prize and has deeply wounded the KRG by stripping it of a third of its oil exports.
Although only resulting in a few isolated casualties, the Iraqi government’s taking of Kirkuk is also significant as the entry of Iraqi forces was followed by the exodus of more than 60,000 Kurds from the province. It highlights the precarious nature of inter-communal relations in Iraq that have been left strained ever since the 2003 US-led coalition invasion.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbours have also reacted with hostility to the ballot, with both Iran and Turkey closing their borders to the proto-state following the vote and shutting off a vital economic lifeline far from the prying eyes of Baghdad.
The cooperation of Iraqi government forces and the PMU force in the taking of Kirkuk also brings to light the growing influence of Iran as it seeks to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. The PMU, trained and supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, has played a central role in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, and Tehran is now using it to translate its military power into political power in Iraq.
Much like Iran, Turkey also opposes any independent Kurdish state in the Middle East, as it risks setting a dangerous precedent for Turkey’s own Kurdish population, which has pushed for independence and, in more recent years, autonomy. In particular, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has fought a protracted 40-year insurgency against the Turkish state, often using the northern mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan as its base for attacks inside Turkey.
US and Europe
Equally important for the KRG is the United States’ recent decision to cease paying Peshmerga salaries. It is a clear sign that, in the wake of the 25 September ballot and the Iraqi capture of Kirkuk, Washington is reassessing its long-standing relations with the KRG.
The loss of support from the United States would be catastrophic as the KRG’s autonomy has been persistently underpinned by its relationship with the US. This was perhaps best seen when the US enforced a no-fly zone in the wake of the First Gulf War allowing for the founding of the KRG. Ever since, the KRG has proven to be a steadfast ally of the United States, supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq and providing some of the most effective forces in the fight against Islamic State (IS).
Yet, the KRG’s bid for independence is seemingly a step too far for Washington whose interests lie in a stable Iraq and not in its balkanisation as that would open it up to more Iranian influence. The loss of US support severely limits any ability for the KRG to prevent moves by Baghdad to retake more disputed territory in the future.
Other Western nations have also withdrawn support from the KRG in reaction to the recent ballot and the resulting violence in Kirkuk. Germany, with the largest Kurdish population outside the Middle East and a long-standing supporter on the international stage, has distanced itself from the KRG. It recently withdrew its military training mission, potentially jeopardising the millions of dollars of military aid that Germany provides to the KRG in its fight against IS.
The internationally isolated position Iraqi Kurdistan now finds itself in is further compounded by the fractured nature of KRG politics. Divided along Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurds lines—a vestige of the Kurdish civil war—the infighting of KRG politics further hampers any unified Kurdish response to the Iraqi government’s takeover of Kirkuk.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s bid for independence amidst the upheaval caused by the impending defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria has backfired. It has now lost the critically important oil-rich province of Kirkuk to Iraqi and Iranian-backed forces, and its economic and political isolation by its neighbours Iran and Turkey has left the KRG helpless to respond. Most damaging of all, its long-time backer, the United States, is seriously reassessing its relationship with the KRG. All this has resulted in the risk that Iraqi Kurdistan may not only be unable to achieve its dream of an independent Kurdish state, but risks losing its long-established autonomy within Iraq.
Douglas Barnicoat is an intern at the AIIA National Office and is currently studying a Bachelor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Canberra.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.