Joost Hiltermann is the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. He is also the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja, first published in 2007. Diwan spoke to Hiltermann, a specialist on Kurdish affairs among other things, in late August so that he could discuss the referendum on Kurdish statehood that is scheduled to take place on September 25. In July, Diwan also conducted its Inquiring Minds feature on the Kurdish referendum, which can be read here

Michael Young: How should we read the intention of Mas‘oud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, to stage a referendum on Kurdish statehood on September 25?

Joost Hiltermann: The situation surrounding the announced non-binding independence referendum in the Kurdish region of Iraq and the disputed territories is enormously complex. There is no question that the Kurds, in general, seek statehood as a solution to the problems that derive perennially from their lack of sovereignty over the areas in which they form a majority. But which Kurds? In which territory or territories? And under whose leadership?

The Kurds presently do not have a political project to seek statehood as a nation. This has a long history. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the only discussion concerning Kurdish independence related to a small territory in what is today Turkey. This, the Kurds say, was promised to them in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, and then taken away from them three years later in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1946, Kurdish nationalists under Mustafa Barzani established the “Mahabad Republic,” a briefly independent Kurdish entity in a small part of Iran. The latest bid for independence is led by Mustafa’s son, Mas‘oud, and concerns only the majority-Kurdish areas of Iraq. Even this may prove a stretch, as the cultural, linguistic, and political divide between Barzani-controlled Badinan and the area known as Suran, with its capital in Suleimaniyya, is very deep. Surani Kurds in Iraq support Kurdish independence in principle, but in practice not under a Barzani leadership.

MY: Given this divide, how widely supported is Barzani’s call for a referendum among Kurds in Iraq?

JH: The Kurdish leadership that called for a referendum is only Barzani and his political movement, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). They are using the cover of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which they fully control but in which they lack full legitimacy. That is because they ousted their governing partners, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, both Suleimaniyya-based parties, over the question of presidential succession two years ago.

This is not the first Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum. The Kurdish parties staged one in 2005, and received an almost unanimous “yes” response. There should be no need for a second one—and arguably, having one when Kurdish society is a good deal more divided than in 2005 is particularly unwise—except that Barzani seems to believe that if he is to negotiate Kurdish statehood with Baghdad, he needs fresh evidence that the Kurds are behind him. This would be indispensable in doubtless difficult future bargaining over the terms of separation. 

MY: How do you explain the timing of the referendum? Why now?

JH: The reason that Barzani is pressing for a referendum and negotiations now appears to be that he believes the current moment is the most propitious or, to put it more starkly, is his last chance before the window will inexorably start to close again. Barzani doesn’t need tea leaves to understand that the regional situation is evolving rapidly, and not necessarily in his, or the Kurds’, favor. The United States has been a strong ally of the KDP and PUK since it invaded Iraq in 2003, but its support is contingent on these parties’ utility in serving U.S. strategic interests. And Washington’s priorities in the region are changing, a shift initiated by former president Barack Obama and which has so far continued under President Donald Trump. If and when the Islamic State is militarily defeated in Iraq and Syria, will the U.S. still need the KDP as a fighting proxy on the ground? Will it need Iraqi Kurdistan as a buffer against Iranian influence in the region? Would it be willing to get its hands dirty if Iran and Turkey decided to use the Kurdistan region as a battleground for a proxy war? The answers remain unclear, but Barzani has reason to be worried.

MY: Surely there are factors playing against the timing of an independence referendum, as well?

JH: Yes. If the timing of an independence referendum may be right for the above reason, it is wrong because of a host of other factors. These may undermine Barzani’s initiative to the point of nullifying the result and thus depriving him of the popular legitimacy he needs in negotiations. Iraqi Kurdish society is so deeply divided that it could descend into the type of internecine fighting the region witnessed once before—in the mid-1990s.

The main dispute is over Barzani’s autocratic tendencies, but Kurds are profoundly unhappy also about the parties’ inept governance, unbridled top-level corruption, and at times repressive control. The region also is economically weaker than it has been in years. Because the KDP and PUK staked the population’s economic future exclusively on exploitation of hydrocarbons riches, the sharp drop of the oil price in 2014 precipitated a structural crisis. An enduringly troubled relationship between Barzani and the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad hasn’t made things easier.

At the heart of that relationship stands not the question of Kurdish independence, which many non-Kurdish Iraqis appear to accept, but of the boundaries of the future Kurdish state. This is the question of the disputed territories—in effect territories long claimed by the Kurdish parties as part of the Kurdish region. Some of these territories have a majority-Kurdish population; others, such as the city and governorate of Kirkuk, do not; Kurds are merely the largest group. The fact that Kirkuk has major oil fields is not irrelevant in the dispute between Erbil and Baghdad. In fact, it has relevance also in the competition between the Kurdish parties themselves. The KDP opportunistically seized the main fields in 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the Islamic State’s onslaught, while Kirkuk is traditionally a pro-PUK Surani area, where support for the KDP is limited. This is a competition yet to play itself out by whatever means the two parties decide.

The United Nations, which tried to mediate a negotiated solution to the territorial disputes a little under a decade ago, has come out against the Barzani referendum and said it will not do anything to support it. This means that the referendum result will lack international legitimacy.

MY: What about Turkey and Iran? Would they condone a referendum that could lead to statehood for Iraqi Kurds?

JH: All of these factors will complicate efforts to organize a referendum in the Kurdish region and in parts of the disputed territories, as Barzani has said he intends to do. Most importantly, neighboring states that are dead-set against Kurdish statehood will exploit these factors to block the referendum or undermine its local legitimacy, especially in the disputed territories. Iran has been explicit in its opposition to Kurdish independence, annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdish region, and the announced referendum. Turkey, too, is opposed, but is happy for Iran to do the heavy lifting. Ankara values its relationship with Barzani (which is directed against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK), but not to the point of enabling a Kurdish independence that can only complicate Turkey’s internal situation.

MY: What about Washington?

JH: The United States has said that it wishes Iraq to retain its territorial integrity. In other words, no Kurdish independence but negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad about the terms of their relationship within Iraq. Barzani appears to believe that he can parlay the goodwill he has built up in Washington over the years into significant political support for U.S. tolerance of a Kurdish independence move. He could be right, but he has to take into account the role of both Iran and his ally Turkey, which have a good deal more to say about the matter than Washington. In any case, the Trump administration has explicitly said to Barzani that it wants to see the referendum postponed. Ankara is delivering a similar message. At this point, it is questionable whether Barzani can proceed with the referendum. He stands to anger the only friends he has.

MY: When all is said and done, what is Barzani wagering on?

JH: Barzani knows all of these things, of course. The question therefore becomes: Why is he pushing ahead with a referendum knowing that his initiative may collapse, leading to a loss of face and, possibly, the end of his leadership of the Kurdish cause in Iraq? I’d like to think that Barzani is being smart about this, and is pushing for a referendum only until it becomes clear that it will not succeed—in whatever way, and for a combination of the aforementioned factors.

At that point, his messaging to Kurds everywhere will become critical. If he spins this defeat of Kurdish aspirations as a deplorable but necessary step toward eventual statehood, he may be able to get away with it, and indeed strengthen his case in front of the “international community.” After all, the Kurds have faced many setbacks before. This would simply be the latest one. The strategy ought to be to establish a record of claims and attempts at achieving statehood that, over time, will deliver such an outcome by international acclaim if and when the regional situation allows it.

However, if, instead, this is a desperate push for a popular exercise before the imagined window of U.S. support closes, then Barzani’s pursuit is a foolish one that can only redound badly on him politically.