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Quick Thoughts: Joost Hiltermann on Iraq and the Likely Limits of Kurdish Independence

[Iraqi Kudistan. Image via] [Iraqi Kudistan. Image via]

[In early 2016 Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, proclaimed that a referendum on Kurdish independence would be conducted before this year’s US presidential elections. More recently its prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, has pledged the referendum will be held after the campaign to oust the Islamic State (IS) movement from Mosul is concluded. To get a better understanding of the dynamics and context of a potential initiative to declare Kurdish statehood in Iraq, and as part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East analysts, Jadaliyya interviewed Joost Hiltermann, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director.]

Jadaliyya (J): The Kurds of Iraq appear to be emerging as significant beneficiaries from the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) movement, particularly in terms of the expansion of territory under their rule to the contested city of Kirkuk. Once the dust settles over the Mosul campaign, do you think this will strengthen the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) hand vis-à-vis the Iraqi central government, or rather set the stage for intensified hostility between Erbil and Baghdad?

Joost Hiltermann (JH): Future relations between the Iraqi central government and the KRG will depend on how the battle for Mosul, and for Nineveh Governorate more broadly, plays itself out. For now, military cooperation between the Iraqi military and Masoud Barzani’s Peshmerga is good, but this is only because they have concluded a mutually beneficial deal: the Peshmerga are permitting the Iraqi army to move through areas the KRG controls east of Mosul, and in exchange Baghdad is not challenging control over these areas by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is the dominant force in the KRG.

Yet these areas, known as the Nineveh Plains and which extend north and northwest of Mosul, are disputed areas whose status is yet to be determined on the basis of steps outlined in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. So for sure, the KDP’s de facto control over these areas will strengthen the KRG’s bargaining power over the central government in any post-Mosul negotiations over the terms of the Baghdad-Erbil relationship.

The area is also rich in oil; ExxonMobil has a contract with the KRG to develop a couple of blocks there, as do other companies, despite the fact that these areas formally fall under Baghdad’s remit. If the effort to defeat IS in Mosul proceeds according to plan, then this de facto military deal may lead to a political accord. But much could still go wrong with the military operations currently underway, and this could affect the Baghdad-Erbil relationship in ways that are at present impossible to predict.

J: Some have characterized the growing talk of an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan as little more than a way for the KRG leadership to "escape forwards" as it comes under increasing domestic criticism for failures related to its rule. Is it nevertheless the case that the KRG leadership will be left with no option but to make good on its vow?

JH: The vow to conduct an independence referendum before the end of this year was made by KRG President Masoud Barzani, but it is not unanimously supported by Kurds, even if many do favor an independent Kurdistan. This is because many saw Barzani’s move as a political ploy to cloak the reality that his tenure as president has expired – twice, in fact, if one takes into account his 2009 electoral mandate as well as the two-year extension granted him in 2013 by the Kurdish regional parliament. When your governing legitimacy is at risk, appeals to nationalist sentiment can bring some relief. How much relief is the question. We are nearing the end of 2016, and there has been no referendum. How long can you continue to fool the people, especially when their salaries have been both cut and delayed, public services have dwindled, and corruption is rife, including at the highest levels of government? Yet, behind the scenes, the KDP has initiated discussions with the coalition of Shia parties in Baghdad about the eventuality of Kurdish independence. We’ll have to see where that goes; again, much will depend on how the battle for Mosul unfolds, and what happens in its immediate aftermath.

J: What are the current attitudes of Turkey, Iran and the US to Kurdish independence? Do you think these will have a determining effect?

JH: There seems to be quite a bit of sympathy for Kurdish independence inside the Beltway, but Turkey and Iran are not going to recognize an independent Kurdish state. For them Kurdish statehood constitutes a red line – for obvious reasons. And they hold more weight in the neighborhood than does the US. Turkey needs the KDP to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and also benefits from a very close economic relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan, including through transshipment of oil and gas. But Ankara has a potential chokehold on a landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan’s lifeline. As for Iran, it too wants to benefit economically, and maintains close ties with Barzani’s rivals in Suleimaniya, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the pro-reform Movement for Change (Gorran), which have an unhappy relationship with each other. Iran can easily aggravate intra-Kurdish divisions to thwart any move toward statehood.

J: What do you see as the most likely and best options respectively for the future dispensation of Iraqi Kurdistan? 

JH: The best option is also the most likely one, and it has already been outlined in the Iraqi Constitution: a federal arrangement with Baghdad that allows the Kurdish region to develop and flourish (if it can diminish the impact of the “oil curse” and get rid of the scourge of corruption). The problem is that the central government in Baghdad is divided and weak, and so Kurdish leaders are finding it difficult to resist the temptation to retain control of territory taken from IS that was never Kurdish or majority-Kurdish. This complicates negotiations over the terms of the federal relationship and potentially sets the stage for the next round of conflict. I don’t expect this to take the form of open warfare between Baghdad and Erbil, but rather anticipate a series of conflicts between local forces loosely aligned with either side. Given the stakes, these conflicts will be particularly pronounced in the disputed territories.

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