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After Referendum Missteps, the Kurdistan Region Can Still Prosper

The failure of the independence movement has strengthened the will of many Kurds for democracy, rule of law, institutionalization of the peshmerga and security forces.

The independence of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and disputed areas such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk was approved by 93 percent of Kurdish voters in a referendum on September 25. Many of the voters expected the creation of an independent state in the days following the vote, but less than a month later, the Kurdistan region had lost all territories it had disputed with the Iraqi government, including Kirkuk and its oil fields, after Iraqi forces advanced and pushed Kurdish peshmerga troops to the 2003 border. Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani had resisted local, regional, and international pressure to cancel the referendum, pursuing aims of becoming a pan-nationalist leader and tightening his grip on power. Local Kurdish groups, the Iraqi government, regional countries, and the United States pressured Barzani to resign on November 1, shocking the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which he led. The referendum’s failure was inevitable because the Kurdistan region was not ready for independence. However, it does not represent the failure of Kurdish aspirations in Iraq, but of the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), parties that presided over a 26-year corrupt and undemocratic reign in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The failure of the independence movement has strengthened the will of many Kurds for democracy, rule of law, institutionalization of the peshmerga and security forces, and the fight against corruption, nepotism, tribalism, and family rule. The referendum’s failure will transform Kurdish ethnic nationalism driven by oil and gas resources into civic nationalism within the borders of Iraq, strengthening Kurdish patriotism rather than secessionism. The dominant wing of the PUK, the Change Movement (Gorran), the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), and civil society groups have made statements prioritizing rule of law, democracy, a strong economy, transparency, and the institutionalization of politics over independence claims. In the wake of the referendum, political parties, many Kurds, and even some pro-independence elements now understand that the Kurdistan region cannot survive without real partnership with Baghdad. Now, all politicians and parties are calling for negotiations and talks on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution, with the Kurdish government openly submitting to the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court’s interpretation of Iraq’s federal nature.

The outcome of the referendum frightened ordinary people and politicians alike, especially after international flights were banned by the Iraqi government, exports and imports were restricted at the Turkish and Iranian border crossings, military incursions were made into Kurdish territories, and Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara threatened to cut oil exports—the lifeline of Kurdish finance. These led Lahur Talabani, director of the Kurdistan Regional Government Intelligence Agency and Counter-Terrorism Group, and a high-ranking PUK official to warn the Kurdish leadership of future challenges that the Kurdistan region could face if it did not return to the negotiating table with Baghdad. Nevertheless, the Kurdish leadership continued its missteps until October 16, when Iraqi forces advanced to Kirkuk and the peshmerga collapsed. Gorran, KIG, and the Coalition for Justice and Democracy have since come together to call for a national salvation government, while the PUK Leadership Council dissolved its political bureau and set January 2018 as the date to hold its long-delayed congress, aiming to quell some of its pro-independence “old-guard” members who followed Barzani.

The Kurdish leadership’s mistakes were based on miscalculations regarding several issues. First, they did not take Iraq’s threats to regain control of disputed areas seriously, revealing that Kurdish leadership had no real strategy as to how to bring those areas under Kurdish control. Second, underestimating Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian, and international warnings about the referendum was a serious error of political judgment by the leadership, particularly Masoud Barzani, who was misled by media and local and foreign advisers promoting their own interests. These miscalculations had disastrous consequences, with the Kurdistan region losing almost half the territory it had gained control over after fighting the Islamic State. Yet the stubbornness of the leadership continues, revealing their failure to understand factors that will not allow an independent Kurdish state to be born: the geopolitics of the Kurdistan region, its collapsed economy, internal politics and disunity, paralyzed institutions and political gridlock, lack of existing infrastructure, and Iraqi, regional, and international opposition. The Kurdistan region could face even harsher consequences if it does not consent to Iraq’s call to cancel the referendum results and use the Iraqi Constitution as a basis for resolving remaining issues, and if the U.S., the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the European Union do not successfully pressure Erbil and Baghdad to negotiate.

In addition to these misjudgments, the Kurdish leadership also did not fully prepare for consequences that they anticipated. The Kurdistan region will suffer further from economic and financial crises following the referendum, with the possibility of mass public demonstrations turning violent. Teachers in Sulaimaniya have already started a boycott: the Kurdish government has not paid teachers for 45 days, and throughout 2017, has paid them less than half of their wages only eight months out of the year. Although the Kurdish leadership, especially Barzani, saw this coming—he repeatedly mentioned these consequences during the referendum campaign—they did not prepare to face these challenges affecting people’s livelihoods. If the Iraqi and Kurdistan regional governments do not reach an agreement, the latter will not be able to pay civil servants next month.

The Kurdish government can still turn the failure of the referendum into a success by looking at where its fatal mistakes started: when its leadership weakened the Kurdish presence in Baghdad. A stronger presence in Baghdad would guarantee Kurdish constitutional rights, something the U.S. has been calling for—the Iraqi Constitution is one of the best, if not the best, constitutions in the region. Secondly, Kurdish political parties can prevent possible civil unrest by normalizing the political situation in Kurdistan region, ideally with the Kurdistan Parliament speaker returning to Erbil to lead the sessions.Dissolving the current government and appointing a new cabinet—with representation for all political parties—would regain the people’s confidence and support, which it will need for negotiations with Baghdad. The Kurdish leadership should also no longer delay efforts to professionalize and institutionalize the peshmerga and security forces.

The Iraqi Constitution is the most effective guarantor of all the Kurdish rights. Allying with leading forces in Baghdad that believe in democracy and respecting the Iraqi Constitution in the upcoming Iraqi elections is essential, as some parties in Baghdad hope to end the coalition-based cabinet, which will marginalize the Kurds. Finally, securing U.S. support for the Kurdistan regional government is the most important step for the Kurdish leadership. Anti-American sentiment in KDP-controlled areas is rising, which does not serve Kurdish-American relations. The U.S. has already announced its support of Kurdish constitutional rights, but it should also guarantee that the Kurdish share in the Iraqi budget will not be touched and emphasize that Kurdish participation in future Iraqi cabinets will be crucial for all parties, and ensure that the Kurdistan region’s institutions remain in place. It is in both parties’ interest to repair relations after several months of strain.

A dream of having an independent state will remain alive for many Kurds. However, such aims must be deferred in the short and medium terms. If post-Islamic State Iraq transforms to a democratic state where economic prosperity and peaceful coexistence replace corruption and violence, the Kurds will and should remain within a united Iraq. This deferral does not mean the end of the Kurdistan region, and the future of the disputed areas should be determined in agreement between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. After the Erbil-Baghdad issues and disputes are resolved, the Kurdistan region could prosper even more than it would as an independent state.