September 30, 2017

The Referendum Was Held: What's Next?

Vadym Volokhov

Well, despite the threats to prevent the referendum, 92.73 % (2,861,471) of voters voted for the independence of Kurdistan, 224,468 people or 7.27 % voted against. A total of 3,305,925 people took part in the voting, the turnout for the referendum was 72.16 %, the results for the cities are as follows:

Erbil — 84 %

Kirkuk — 80 %

Dohuk — 90 %

Zakho — 94

Nineveh — 80 %

Khanaqin — 92 %

Jalawla — 87 %.

A total of 4,581,255 people registered in Kurdistan have the right to vote.

 

As was announced at the briefing on the results of the referendum, “these are the residents of Kurdistan proper and from areas beyond its borders”, that is, from the so-called “disputed territories”, and above all the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Kurds say that the “friendly divorce” with Iraq will be peaceful: “Straight after the voting nothing will change, since the very process of declaring independence will take up to two years and will include negotiations with Baghdad”.

Immediately after the announcement of the results in the streets of Erbil, Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah, a national holiday began.

According to Vice Chairman of the Kurdistan autonomy’ Parliament Jaffar Eminki, the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan can be proclaimed within one to two months. But the announcement of independence will be preceded by negotiations with Baghdad — in particular, on the borders between Iraq and Kurdistan, as well as on oil and gas. In the negotiations, the Kurds are going to “rely on the results of the referendum”, he explained.

Iraqi KurdistanNote:

Administratively, Iraqi Kurdistan is divided into four governorates: Dohuk, Hawler, Sulaymaniyah and Halabja.

They are home to more than 5.5 million people.

The total area of the provinces is about 40 thousand square kilometers.

 

 

Kurdistan's de facto independence turning into de jure one will undoubtedly launch a chain reaction on the collapse of the whole Iraq and it is unlikely that it will survive even in a federative form. Besides, the Kurds leaving Iraq will take with them not only the territory of Kurdistan itself, but also the lands occupied by the Kurdish militia (Peshmerga) during the current war against ISIS, first of all Kirkuk and Sinjar, inhabited mainly by the Yazidis.

Now several versions of the development of events are being considered. The first and relatively improbable is the military scenario involving Baghdad, with direct or indirect participation of Turkey and Iran. It is believed that the United States, which controls the airspace over Iraq to a large extent, will oppose this development and will prevent any attempts of air strikes on the Kurdish territory.

Besides, according to Spokesman for the US-led coalition to fight ISIS Ryan Dillon, “The referendum on independence in the Iraqi Kurdistan did not affect the current fight against ISIS”. “The Coalition and the Iraqi security forces have stayed focused on operations to defeat ISIS. Coalition operations out of Erbil, specifically the use of the airport there, have not been affected”, R. Dillon said at a briefing.

The second is the scenario of economic blockade and closure of borders, which may prove to be most effective in terms of impact on Erbil. At the same time, it is impossible to exclude the unlikely option of “increasing internal tension” in the Iraqi Kurdistan itself. It implies an aggravation of the confrontation between the Kurdish parties and groups in the region itself, including in the issue of relations with Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad have already begun to closely coordinate their further steps to blockade Iraqi Kurdistan in response to its decision to secede.

As reported by the Iranian Mehr News, a delegation of the Iraqi Armed Forces led by Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Army Othman al-Ghanmi has arrived in Iran to coordinate military efforts. The statement contains no information about the purpose of the visit, but it is not difficult to guess that the issue of the Kurdish referendum is at the top of the agenda.

As it became known from the statement of the representative of the Ministry of Defense of Iran, a Turkish military delegation, headed by Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Turkey, General Hulusi Akar will pay a visit in Tehran. The statement also says that during the visit, H. Akar 's meetings with the top leadership of Iran are planned.

Othman al-Ghanmi

Hulusi Akar
Othman al-Ghanmi Hulusi Akar

According to reports of the media of Iran and Iraq, air communications with Iraqi Kurdistan have been stopped, the border is closing. The Iraqi Security Council demanded that Erbil transfer all the border terminals and airports under the control of the Iraqi government. All diplomatic missions are closed in Erbil itself.

According to the Iranian Tasnim News, Iran, in turn, has also intensified its activities on its western borders, deploying new air defense units there to “strengthen the air defense of Iran's border areas”.

Mohammad Javad Zarif

Mohammad Javad Zarif

At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview with the non-profit organization Asia Society, based in New York, said that Iran will remain an eternal friend of Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the latter's recent mistake with the referendum on independence. M. Zarif stressed that Iran is the only country with a large share of the Kurdish population that maintains and develops with them decent relations which have largely strengthened after 2014, when the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began supporting the attempts of the Kurdish militia (peshmerga) to resist ISIS. And this may mean that Tehran will continue to develop its relations with an independent Kurdish state.

The Iraqi Parliament has approved sending troops to the Kurds-controlled province of Kirkuk “to keep control over the region's oil fields”. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself in a speech to Parliament members said that Baghdad would regain control over the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan by force of law and the Constitution. Besides, he urged the Kurds to abandon the areas that came under their control outside the autonomy and to cancel the results of the referendum. H. al-Abadi stressed that “Baghdad does not intend to put up with the results of voting”. In addition, the Iraqi authorities called on “all countries to cooperate exclusively with Baghdad in matters of oil and border points”. The authorities of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in fact control it and consider it Kurdish land.

The Turkish Parliament has extended for one year the government's mandate to conduct cross-border military operations in Iraq and Syria, which shows the willingness to engage the Turkish army in Iraq in case of emergency.

 

On the other hand, the referendum was supported by the all-party parliamentary group of Great Britain, whose delegation led by MP Jack Lopresti arrived in Kurdistan. Secretary of the Security Council of Iraqi Kurdistan Masrour Barzani on September 27 officially met it. “The world must respect the will of the people of Kurdistan, which they expressed democratically”, M. Barzani said during the meeting. MP J. Lopresti, in turn, congratulated the people of Kurdistan, saying: “We were very happy with this referendum”. He stressed that he supports the people's right to self-determination.

Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, during a telephone conversation on Tuesday also congratulated President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani on the successful holding of a “historic” referendum on independence in Kurdistan.

UK delegation led by Jack Lopresti

Masoud Barzani and Carles Puigdemont
UK delegation led by Jack Lopresti Masoud Barzani and Carles Puigdemont

So what will happen next? Suppose, Ankara tries to realize its threats and joins the economic embargo that Baghdad will undoubtedly introduce. In this case, it will lose not only economic investments in this region, but also large-scale political dividends. For example, Masoud Barzani may initiate a denunciation of the agreement with Recep Erdogan on Iraqi Kurdistan's refusal to support Turkish Kurds in exchange for Turkish money and Turkish food. In fact, as Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar points out, Iraqi Kurdistan is in fact Turkey's only friend in the region today, and it would be extremely unreasonable to lose it.

In this case M. Barzani can swing, for example, towards Tehran who, on the one hand, opposed the referendum, but on the other, in fact, is already Ankara's geopolitical rival.

Undoubtedly, there is a way out of this dilemma — Tehran and Ankara can overcome mutual distrust and together with Baghdad and Damascus will launch a multilateral blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, in this case M. Barzani can easily switch to other, external partners, for whom it is important and necessary to be friends with Iraqi Kurds. For example, to more actively cooperate with Washington.

It is not by chance that the US Department of State took a very diplomatically restrained position on the referendum. On the one hand, the USA “appreciates the legitimate aspiration of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan for independence”, but at this, they support “a unified, stable, democratic Iraq”. Washington sees Iraqi Kurds (as well as Syrian ones) as an American outpost in the region, through which it is possible to influence too ambitious Turkey, and too aggressive Iran, Iraq, and different forces in Syria. An independent pro-American Iraqi Kurdistan can become a reliable barrier to contain all regional forces. Therefore, the USA will most likely support Erbil with money and security guarantees.

Another potential neighbor of independent Kurdistan is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy unofficially supported the referendum. Thus, they are able to restrain both Iran and Turkey. Riyadh's position has already been joined by Saudi allies — Egypt and the UAE.

Finally, the Kurds can accepts a benefit from Moscow, which has already held preliminary talks and promised to increase investments into the development of the oil and gas industry in Kurdistan.

We must pay tribute to M. Barzani, he certainly chose the best time to hold a referendum and there is simply no one to stand in his way. Iraq is occupied by the Islamic State, the army is hardly capable of doing much, Shiite radical groups can arrange local provocations, but they will not have enough strength for a full-fledged conflict, since the Kurdish Peshmerga has long been well organized and well equipped with the latest weapons.

Turks and Iran only theoretically could have disrupted the holding of a referendum, but for this they would have had to resort to direct aggression. The shelling of border areas and the closure of borders are the maximum that they were capable of. Yes, Tehran has canceled all flights to Kurdistan since September 24, 2017, but this has not the slightest political or economic significance, so just pure emotions here. We can assume that now M. Barzani will take the next step — will start bargaining.

Note:

Masoud BarzaniPresident Masoud Barzani, who initiated the referendum, came to power in 2005, was reelected for a second term, receiving almost 70 % of the votes in his support, after which in 2013 the Kurdish Parliament extended his term for another 2 years.

In the context of the fight against ISIS, M. Barzani continued to act as President, and it is his legitimacy that is called into question by the opponents of the referendum: “The decision to hold the referendum was prepared hastily by only one group of people, while in general the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan was paralyzed by the actions of the President, who is legally no longer President”. That is why more than 7 % of Kurds do not recognize the legality of such a vote.

 

 

But M. Barzani does have something to sell. And again, he can catch in his opponents on a difficult, but inevitable choice. Some political scientists believe that M. Barzani will trade in access to oil in exchange for recognition of the results of the referendum. This is the most logical and reasonable negotiating position. Any other would end only in war. The referendum was held in such a way that it would be impossible to negotiate on the status of Kurdistan — only on independence.

Kurds accuse the central authorities of Iraq of not complying with the Constitution of 2005, which prescribes broad rights of autonomy in the region. In a recent interview with The Guardian, President of Iraqi Kurdistan M. Barzani, said: “From World War I until now, we are not a part of Iraq. We have our geography, land and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates”.

It is a different matter that the Kurds will have to give up something, and here Kirkuk is clearly on the agenda. Kurds captured it for a reason — it is in itself a most valuable prize, but that's why it is extremely profitable commodity in any auction.

Kirkuk province accounts for about 40 % of the Iraqi oil reservesNote:

Kirkuk is a Kurdish region, but administratively it is not part of Kurdistan.

This is a province with a mixed population, where the Kurds are the majority, but there are also Turkomans and Arabs.

The central government of Iraq was extremely jealous of the province, which accounts for about 40 % of the Iraqi oil reserves and it becomes the key factor in trade.

 

 

How exactly Kirkuk oil will be put up for auction is a difficult question. There can be a lot of options. But today the oil belongs to M. Barzani, and therefor it is he who will be raising the question about it. Except that Iraq can decide otherwise and will go to war — not with the Kurdistan itself, but just to return control of Kirkuk. The task is local and relatively feasible, but the Kurds will not give away Kirkuk just for fun. It's not for nothing that the Kurdish “Peshmerga” has laid hundreds of its fighters to liberate it.

Russia in these cases has to make a difficult choice. To take the side of Iran means to quarrel with the United States. To support the Kurds would be to complicate the already difficult relations with Iran and, especially, with Turkey. Perhaps, that is why, among other reasons, on the 28th of September, President V. Putin arrived in Ankara and held talks with Turkish President R. Erdogan.

The economic consequences of the referendum will be discussed a little later.

To be continued…