September 29, 2017 4:36PM

A Self‐​Determination Façade: The Kurdish Referendum

On September 25, 2017, Iraqi Kurds voted in favor of independence from Iraq in a historic referendum. Out of the 3.3 million Kurds and non-Kurds who voted, 92% voted in favor of independence, which is not surprising. The international community’s reaction is also not surprising: Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Russia, France,  and the United States were all against the referendum, cautioning the Kurdish leadership about the regional impact from various strategic angles. In its quest to secure more non-Arab allies, Israel is the only country that has backed the referendum. The international community’s lack of support is seen as hypocritical by the Kurds, and may very well be. The United States in particular is wary of the creation of new states and their regional impact that tends to increase instability rather than reduce it, like in the case of South Sudan. While discouraging a population from seeking self-determination is thorny—even illiberal—the Kurdish referendum has two important outcomes that should not, be ignored.

First, the referendum has sent a dangerous mixed signal to other populations seeking independence and territorial sovereignty. Currently there are no administrative channels in place that will facilitate Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq—and it certainly cannot be called Kexit in the same vain as Brexit, the nickname for the UK’s vote to exit the EU. For example, Iraq still controls the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KRI) air space and immediately following the referendum, instituted a flight ban from the region’s two international airports. KRI is not economically independent, and the referendum may have actually decreased its chances of becoming so. Even though Kurdistan has been producing 600,000 barrels of oil per day, an impressive feat for a landlocked region surrounded by hostile neighbors, low oil prices gravely impacted the development of its public sector that continues to remain weak and corrupt. Also, Kurds still hold Iraqi passports, and will most likely continue to be Iraqis officially for years to come, if not decades. So how exactly secession will happen is not clear. Therefore, it would be beneficial for other independence-seeking populations like Palestinians, Kashmiris, and Catalonians to pay close attention to how Kurdish independence unfolds, if at all. So then why was the referendum done now? There is speculation that the Kurdistan region’s president, Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, wanted his legacy to be putting Kurds on an internationally mandated path to independence. But Kurds are divided; while a majority of them want independence, many feel that is was not the right time, such as the “No for Now” campaign. In the presence of strong criticism from the international community, the referendum’s claim of providing a mandate for Kurdish independence is also questionable.

Second, the referendum has backed the United States in a corner. U.S. foreign policy has been driven by the idea that a unified Iraq is a better regional and counterterrorism partner than a divided one. In its quest to counter the Islamic State, the United States has often sided with Baghdad over Erbil. Yet, the Peshmerga, the KRI’s military force, has been one of the most effective fighting groups against ISIS, and played a crucial role during the battle of Mosul in 2016. But supporting Kurdish independence would have two negative consequences for the United States: 1) it would create a rift with Turkey, a key NATO ally at a time when the U.S.–Turkish relationship is already strained, and 2) U.S.–Iraq relations could weaken, which would be detrimental not only for Iraq’s stability but also for the region’s. Instead, this is a time for the U.S. to tread lightly and practice restraint. Whether or not the Trump administration will heed this advice will become apparent in the upcoming weeks.