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After the referendum: What next for the Kurdish Region?

The days surrounding the Kurdish independence referendum have been filled with feverish commentary, speculation and in some cases, mis-information about the situation on the ground. Subsequent events in Kirkuk and the disputed territories caught many commentators off-guard, showing that if anything, many people had not been paying attention to the nuances of Iraqi-Kurdish politics.

Kirk Sowell, long time analyst of Iraqi politics and head of advisory firm Utica Risk Services, who publish the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter, was one of the few analysts to correctly warn that dramatic events were about to unfold, not simply a vote and some political disagreements. Here we ask him for his take on what happened, and what we might expect in the coming days and months.

Q: The Kurdish people have certainly been through a lot of suffering historically. They have their own language and culture. Is it not time they had a state of their own? What are people missing in all this?

KS: There is no question that the Kurds are a separate people, not merely a minority, with their own separate language, culture and national identity. And this separation is growing with time, as young people in Kurdistan are not learning Arabic. I’d estimate that no more than one in 20 who grew up inside the Kurdistan Region’s education system are now capable of engaging in a conversation in Arabic. So in a generation they won’t even be capable of speaking to Iraqi Arabs, even if they want to.

Yet forming a state is much more complicated than that, and how you view it depends on where you sit. I’d divide these perspectives into the foreign and domestic views.

For a Westerner like myself who does not identify with any of the groups involved but whose country has national interests, this just isn’t enough. The referendum itself threatened the US position in Iraq because the polarization it created was a political boon to the pro-Iran, anti-American Shia factions. Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi is the only real pillar holding up US interests in Iraq, and the fact that he had worked with Masud Barzani fighting terrorism, meeting publicly with him, it threatened Abadi, even more so because of the inflammatory manner in which Barzani used it to justify annexing ethnically-mixed “disputed territories” outside the Kurdistan Region. Abadi has in fact protected himself from this by taking a hard line, and the reaction Abadi has led turned Barzani’s triumphant referendum into catastrophe.

Thus US officials have been right to stand by Baghdad in the recent Kirkuk crisis. There is a huge amount of anti-American propaganda in Iraq’s Shia media about the US secretly being behind the referendum, plotting to create a “second Israel” and the like. Those who advocate US support for a Kurdish state now are falling into a trap.

Yet there is this alternative foreign view, that the Kurds’ “moral right” overrides these considerations and that the United States should champion an oppressed people. But here’s my question: let’s suppose we write off Iraq and take up the Kurdish cause, are you willing to next go to war with Turkey for it? Because championing a Kurdish state in such a manner would cause heads to explode in Ankara faster than you can say “AKP.” Thus even if you don’t hold to my Richilieuen worldview, you may not be interested in political risk, but political risk is sure interested in you.

Then there is the domestic view. For the Kurds, their aspirations are reasonable, and I’d want what they want were I in their shoes. But among Iraqi Arabs the predominant view is that Kurdistan is part of Iraq, and the reaction against the referendum has solidified this view. Note how Abadi’s rhetoric has evolved – until Barzani’s visit to Kirkuk on September 12, Abadi took a relatively soft line, claiming that the problem was having a unilateral referendum and the constitution didn’t allow it, but he didn’t object personally.

Yet since mid-September Abadi has used very hardline rhetoric, repeatedly comparing Kurdish nationalism to Baathism, racism, and even, in one speech, to Nazism. And the demand to push the Kurds back to 2003 border lines, that was extreme two months ago. It is now mainstream and Abadi is championing it. Of course Abadi always emphasizes the rights of the Kurds as Iraqi citizens, using phrases like “our people in Kurdistan.” But these soft phrases often don’t translate on the ground.

Q: There has been talk of renewing the mandate of UNAMI to deal with the crisis of disputed territory. But UNAMI made an apparently very detailed plan in 2009, albeit with few recommendations, on the 15 disputed districts. It seemed to be forgotten about. Are we further away from, or closer to, a UN backed solution?

KS: We are further away from it given the events of the past month. If I’d done this interview earlier, there are steps I would have proposed to incrementally resolve the matter, depending on the local population. For example, one could imagine resolving Ninawa’s conflicts by giving Sinjar and the Ninawa Plains autonomy status for ten years and then a referendum monitored by the UN. The problem until now has been that the dominance of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its authoritarian practices made a referendum in these areas not credible. In principle this could be done now.

The problem is that the mistakes made by Kurdish leaders over the past few months have shifted the balance of power in favor of Baghdad. And this undermines any real possibility for a negotiated solution. As recently as October 12 or so it could have been different – Baghdad was only demanding a return to June 2014 lines of control, not April 2003 lines. If the Kurds had compromised then, when their relative leverage was greater, they could have negotiated a coordinated pullback and some shared role. The only significant area outside of KRG borders the KDP still control is Alqosh and nearby parts of the Ninawa Plains. And right now Baghdad is feeling so confident that this just isn’t enough to give the KDP much leverage. Given the intense resentment which exists against them, the KDP could end up going from near total domination of northern Ninawa to total exclusion.

What is realistic now: if Baghdad is wise, it will grant broad autonomy for Kirkuk, Sinjar and the Ninawa Plains. There are initial signs that Baghdad is letting local Yezidi groups take over in Sinjar, and this is good. Southern, Shia-dominated provinces are constantly complaining about the heavy dead hand of central government administration; no one anywhere in Iraq seems to want to have their local affairs governed from the capital. But with the Kurdish collapse, nothing will keep Baghdad from suffocating these areas if it reverts to centralization.

As for the KDP’s main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), they have negotiated a deal, but waited until October 15 when the pressure was overwhelming and they were staring federal forces across battle lines. So while the PUK looks like it will end up with a role in Kirkuk under the label of “joint responsibility,” they will go from having total dominance to being Baghdad’s junior partner.

Q: Where is Russia in all of this? Much has been made of their energy investments in the KRI--and while there has been pre-financing, a lot has not come into fruition yet. Russia also does a lot of business in southern Iraq, for example in the supergiant field West Qurna 2. They've sold Iraq billions of dollars' worth of weapons--and sent a much smaller amount of arms to the Kurds. Might they lose Baghdad as a friend and gain an ally in Erbil?

KS: In short, no. Whereas Russian policy in Syria is ideological, elsewhere in the region, and especially in Iraq, it is mercantile. This isn’t the Soviet Union creating puppets everywhere, and the Russians are shrewd enough to have spoken with Baghdad about anything they do in the KRG beforehand. Notice the public reaction from Baghdad to Russia’s deals with the KRG, in contrast to Turkey – silence. This talk of Russia “bankrolling” Kurdish independence never had any basis, and totally misunderstood Russia. They were just getting a piece of the long-term action, and Iraqi oil will continue to flow into Turkey regardless. Moscow and Baghdad have a mutual interest in maintaining their relationship and nothing will disturb it.

Q: Are we looking at another Kurdish civil war similar to the 94-96 period? Or something more similar to the collapse of the 1970 autonomy agreement, with the KDP feeling betrayed by the central government? Maybe these historical comparisons are of limited use now?

KS: What I see is not a new intra-Kurdish shooting war but rather just a period of internal fragmentation. Even before the referendum, the PUK and Gorran were both trying to use budget debates in Baghdad to limit Barzani. So Barzani’s missteps have given them a huge opening. Furthermore it is clear from their statements in Iraq’s Arab media in recent days that they realize this themselves. I wouldn’t even exclude the possibility of a new region forming in east Kurdistan which is internally autonomous but closer to Baghdad than Irbil politically. Even if the KRG doesn’t formally break up, something like this de facto is likely.

Q: What is the endgame for Barzani now?

KS: I think the more relevant question is, what is the endgame for the Kurds? I think they need to focus on developing democratic institutions, the rule of law and a real non-oil economy, and give time for emotions to cool down. Arab acceptance of Kurdish independence – just the three provinces, not the disputed territories – has been growing in recent years, although the polarization around the referendum has set that back. So I think the Kurds need to take a decade to restructure their affairs within federal Iraq, and try with a less divisive approach next time.

As for Barzani and the KDP, right now their endgame appears to be doubling-down on the propaganda effort that failed before the referendum, now trying to paint Baghdad’s reaction as being all about Iran in the hope of baiting the Trump Administration into intervening on their behalf. But while the Iranian role matters, it is secondary, and outside of people who listen to a certain echo chamber, this isn’t working. So at some point they need to realize that having burned bridges with both Baghdad and Turkey while alientating the United States, all at the same time, they need to rethink their entire approach. They have no leverage or any real power, so they just need to start talking to people, instead of talking at them.

Q: How will these events affect the 2018 elections or is it too early to tell?

KS: If the election were held now, Abadi would be in very good position. But things can change, and also bear in mind there is a parallel political crisis in Baghdad over the formation of the new electoral commission which could result in elections being delayed. And if that happens, it would be very destabilizing for the country and very unhelpful for Abadi. But that is a separate problem.

Kirk H. Sowell is a specialist in Arabic-language research and the principal of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm which is the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics (, a biweekly newsletter.

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