The Countdown to Kurdish Secession Has Begun. Don’t Rush It.

The planned Sept. 25 referendum on secession from Iraq would tear the country apart at precisely the moment the so-called Islamic State is on the ropes. Mattis wants to stop it.

SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region, Northern Iraq—The countdown began on June 7 when several Kurdish political parties announced that a referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) would be held on September 25.

Since that time, one narrative has dominated: that authorities in Erbil, the Iraqi-Kurdish capital, are responding to the will of the Kurdish people, who overwhelmingly support an independent state.  

The plebiscite is being cast as the work of responsible leadership acting according to the will of the people it serves—with the outcome a foregone conclusion.

And right now U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is in Erbil trying like hell to keep the vote from happening, or at least get it postponed. Because as Washington sees it, a referendum for Kurdish independence would tear Iraq apart at precisely the moment the defeat handed the so-called Islamic State in Mosul had seemed to be bringing it back together.

In fact, the vote probably should be postponed. But that’s not the only reason why.

Let there be no mistake: we, like all Kurds, dream of independence.  We understand and have great appreciation for the aspirations and sacrifices of Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and his generation of great Peshmerga leaders and political activists who have done so much to bring Kurdistan forward.

But we as the new generation also care about what kind of independent state we and our children will have.  We see South Sudan and Northern Cyprus, one racked by war, the other isolated from the rest of the world, and know that this could happen here in Kurdistan as well if independence is not established on the right foundations.  

So, while independence is not a matter of “if” for us, the “when” and “how” need to be examined and discussed much more than they have been.

We are not alone in these concerns.  The timing and manner of the referendum is a subject of intense debate in the Kurdistan region, a debate that the rest of the world is not getting to hear.  

Kurdish opinion around the Kurdistan region is polarized.  Here in Sulaimaniyah, local estimates suggest that if the referendum were to be free and fair, around 30 percent would either vote against independence at this time, or not vote at all. That compares with the 98 percent vote in favor when an unofficial plebiscite was held in 2005.

It will not be because we are less patriotic than we were 12 years ago; rather, we have tired of poor governance and large-scale corruption in our region.

A culture of fear and intimidation has sprung up.  Anyone who publicly questions the timing of the referendum or the motives for organizing it is accused by the the dominant Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) under Barzani, and by other political elites, of being traitors.

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Supporters of the referendum, predominantly from the KDP,  argue that there is never a “right time” for such a move; and in any case, in Middle East politics land is won by imposing will—“facts on the ground”—not by negotiation.  Self-determination is a natural right, and Kurdistan’s instability is caused by its forced inclusion in the Iraqi state.  Secession, which has been won by blood, will allow much-needed reforms to take place.

But building states takes more than hopes and dreams.  Stable, prosperous states are built on functioning institutions and the rule of law, both of which promote economic growth.  Neither of these conditions exist in Kurdistan at present.  

Kurdistan’s current leaders squandered the opportunity they have had since 2003 to lay the foundations for effective government and a flourishing economy.  They used the region’s oil wealth to fuel and expand preexisting party patronage networks, and entrenched their power by promoting family and tribal ties.

A referendum now would simply further ingrain this status quo, at the expense of real democracy—and the will of the people—in Kurdistan.  It is not even clear that there is a legal basis to hold the referendum under either the Kurdistan or Iraqi constitutions: parliament has not met for two years, since KDP forces prevented the speaker from returning to Erbil; and, Barzani’s term as president formally ended in 2015, although he has refused to relinquish the post or the powers that go with it.

The plebiscite, and the determination to hold voting in disputed territories, also threatens to increase tensions unnecessarily with the federal government in Baghdad.

After the so-called Islamic State captured Mosul in 2014,  during subsequent operations to oust the terrorist group the KRG took control of much of this land, from Sinjar to Kirkuk to Khanaqin, expanding its territory by 40 percent.  Erbil has insisted that it will not withdraw from these areas, and believes that the referendum will legitimize its control.

But it is not clear that Baghdad will concede this territory without a fight.  In 2008, after the KRG had expanded its territorial control while Baghdad was distracted with a four-year battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq (the forebear of ISIS), federal government forces moved to dislodge Kurdish authorities.  

Today, neither the United States military nor the United Nations are present on the ground to manage these disputes as they were before, and the risk of direct conflict—either local or on a wider scale—is real.  This danger is even higher given the potential role of the Hashd Al Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces, which have pledged to defend some of these areas.

Our biggest concern, however, is the financial and economic impact of holding a referendum that the federal government, as well as key regional powers, oppose.  The KRG is already under overwhelming budgetary pressure, due to the drop in oil prices as well as the endemic corruption and nepotism that has plagued Kurdistan.  As a result, government salaries—which most Kurds rely on to survive—have not been paid consistently or in full for two years.  Families who used to give sadqa to the poor during Ramadan have since become recipients.

A referendum at this time, and in the face of external opposition—from all of our international allies—will only make this situation worse.  It could mean not only the end of coalition support to the Peshmerga but the freezing of Kurdish accounts in Baghdad,o the interruption of a critical trade route, especially via Turkey and Iran, and a lack of access to international financial assistance.

Alternative proposals to the current referendum timetable have been put forward by Kurds.  Elements of other political parties including Gorran, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan  and the Kurdistan Islamic Group as well as intellectuals, journalists, and independent analysts have called for a longer timeline (one businessman and media mogul has started a “No For Now” campaign) with a reactivation of the Kurdistan parliament in order to get the assembly approval for the vote, followed by negotiations with Baghdad and the international community over the modalities of the eventual relationship between the Iraqi government and a new Kurdish one.  

The federal government has expressed its approval for this approach; many elements in Baghdad and Iraq are not no longer adamantly opposed to Kurdistan’s secession, but want it to be a negotiated process.

This more cautious approach would also avoid further polarizing Kurdish opinion and allow the Kurdish people to have a real voice in the process.  At present, not everyone— especially in disputed territories—knows exactly what they are voting for and the referendum is more the “will of some of the people,” or, more precisely, the “will of one of the Kurdish parties” than a genuine national aspiration.  This is not democracy in action.

If the will of the people is to be the guiding principle for the KRG, it needs to listen to all opinions (including opposing ones), not just dictate.  This might mean a slower path to the independence that all Kurds want, but it will create a Kurdistan state that has stronger foundations and a much greater chance of prosperity.

Muhammed Ahmed Abdullah, 31, is an independent researcher and analyst from Sulaimaniyah who has worked with Iraq Oil Report, UPI, and other local and international outlets. Bahra Saleh, 27, is the Research and Program Officer for the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).