On Monday, Iraqi Kurds voted in a controversial referendum over whether to declare independence from Iraq. The controversy wasn’t reflected in the outcome; results are not yet final, but it seems roughly 92 percent of the possible future country voted for independence.
Rather, the controversy arose from the response of the Kurds’ neighbors. Iran moved to seal its border with the Kurdistan region, while Baghdad and Ankara announced joint military exercises on Iraqi Kurdistan’s border. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Iraqi Kurdistan that Turkish forces could “come unexpectedly in the night.” The Kurdish governor of the contested city of Kirkuk urged residents to refrain from celebratory gunfire and to “save your bullets for when they are needed to defend the city.”
In short, to the question of what happens next, the best possible answer is still “nothing.” And there is reason to hope that in the wake of the referendum victory all sides might still proceed with caution. Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani stated repeatedly that the referendum will not lead to an immediate declaration of independence, but rather renewed negotiations with Baghdad. He has also previously spoken of his vision of independence as a form of mutually-agreed-upon partition, similar to the model of Czechoslovakia.
There was little in the way the referendum itself unfolded to give Barzani further grounds for reckless confidence. Though outside pressure failed to convince him to cancel or postpone the referendum, the fact that he considered doing so means the international community does have considerable leverage. Internally, as well, despite the overwhelming Yes vote dissatisfaction was not insignificant. The referendum debate saw people across Kurdistan expressing concerns regarding the dangers the referendum posed and discomfort with Barzani’s leadership.
Having pushed ahead with the referendum, Barzani can take steps to manage the ensuing expectations and de-escalate the situation.
If, having pushed ahead with the referendum, Barzani can take steps to manage the ensuing expectations and de-escalate the situation, it could also provide space for his neighbors to walk back their threats as well. It will be difficult for Ankara and Erbil to return to their striking level of pre-referendum level of cooperation, but a complete collapse of Erdogan’s partnership with Barzani would not be in either side’s interests. Barzani offers an important partner in Erdogan’s strategy for containing what he sees as the more immediate threat posed by PKK-aligned Kurds in Turkey and Syria. Similarly, an embargo of the KRG, which Erdogan has also threatened, could cost Turkish businessmen, as well as the Turkish state oil company, dearly.
Yet Iraq and Iran’s behavior could still prove more threatening. Tehran, supposedly at Baghdad’s request, has temporarily closed its airspace to flights originating from the KRG’s territory. Iraq is a substantially bigger actor in the energy market than the KRG, and it could continue to deter international companies from purchasing Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil, hampering further development of its energy sector. More ominously, Baghdad could still make good on threats to regain control over disputed territories like Kirkuk by force, as the Iraqi parliament demanded yesterday. Iran is not likely to send in its regular troops but could use Iraqi Shi’ite militias in supporting in such an attempt.