Secession of Iraq’s Kurdistan Highly Unlikely in 2017
Calls for the secession of semi-autonomous Kurdish-majority areas from Iraq have increased in the past month but domestic and regional challenges remain high for such a break-up.
“I’m confident New Year will begin with renewed strength to overcome crises & enemies and I hope it’s the year of Kurdistan’s independence,” Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, said on Twitter.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said he formally proposed the topic of separation with the central government.
“In the past, [independence] was conveyed through the media. Now, I am telling you (Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Iraqi government) officially our goal is independence and we must establish a committee to discuss this,” Barzani said during an interview with the Al-Monitor website in December.
Iraq’s Shia-led central government is staunchly opposed to the break-up of Iraq. The KRG is already in dispute with it over budget matters. Despite the improvement in ties between the KRG and Abadi during the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the government in Baghdad in unlikely to approve the breaking away of Kurdistan and Kurdish officials have indicated they would not announce independence unilaterally.
The KRG’s grab of territories under central government control before being lost to ISIS and then captured by peshmerga forces is tolerated by Abadi due to Baghdad’s weakness. They remain, after all, Iraqi territories, which is different from a change in sovereignty.
Redrawing Iraq’s borders will not be easy, especially when there are many disputed areas. Non-Kurds living in Kurdish-majority regions, some of whom have been complaining of persecution, find the prospect of being part of a separate Kurdish state terrifying.
Even outside the Kurdish-majority region, much of the country’s mainly Arab population (both Shias and Sunnis) see Kurdistan as an indivisible part of Iraq that is not in the purview of the central government to give up or of the KRG to take away.
Some in the Sunni Arab-majority region, which is closer geographically to Kurdistan than the Shia-majority parts of the country, have aspired to have their own semi-autonomous authority. While they may be too weak now to prevent the loss of parts of their land to a newly formed state, the threat of conflict is likely to become more serious in the future.
KRG President Masoud Barzani called on Iraqi Kurdish parties to join the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to discuss a referendum on independence from Iraq.
But many in Iraq’s other main Kurdish parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change (Gorran) — fear breaking away from Baghdad would mean being dominated by the KDP.
The Kurdish parliament has been suspended since October 2015 following deadly riots and the PUK and Gorran — among others — have stated opposition to Masoud Barzani, whose mandate for the presidency expired in August 2015. He remains in the position amid a crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression.
Regionally, the secession of Iraq’s Kurdish-majority region is strongly opposed by Iran, which has an immense influence on Baghdad as well as the PUK. Tehran has been cracking down on Kurdish militants in Iran, some of whom operate from Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Turkey may have strong ties with the KRG and Barzani’s KDP but supporting the creation of a Kurdish state is another matter. Turkey’s training and backing of peshmerga forces against ISIS or Ankara’s importing oil from the KRG, to the ire of Baghdad, have led Iraqi Kurdish officials to believe that breaking away from Iraq is not a red line for the Turks.
They could be very mistaken. Turkey’s problem is not with its Kurds, many of whom support the Turkish government or are part of its ruling party, but rather with Kurdish separatism.
Israel has been a vocal supporter of the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, which it sees as a natural ally, but Tel Aviv’s thumbs up is unlikely to tip the regional balance in the KRG’s favour.
Internationally, the United States and Europe generally support the KRG but they are unlikely to put their weight behind a unilateral break-up of Iraq just yet. For them, the unpredictable repercussions from such an event can wait.