In September the Kurdish people held a peaceful vote on independence and the result was an overwhelming majority in favour of creating a new nation-state. The final vote was 92.7 in favour of secession and 7.3% opposed. The independence vote was not legally permitted by the Iraqi government but due to the country’s current security situation Baghdad was unable to prevent the vote from taking place. Since this vote an economic blockade has been imposed by Iran and Turkey and flights into Kurdistan have been diverted to other parts of Iraq. Amid these tensions the government in Erbil has said that they are seeking to negotiate with Baghdad about Kurdistan’s future, and they have reiterated this stance in the face of continued pressure.
In order to prevent Kurdistan from unilaterally declaring independence, the Iraqi government went to the Federal Court arguing that the country’s constitution did not permit any part of the country to secede. The Federal Court upheld the government’s argument, but the decision by the KRG to respect the decision is important. In a statement to the Rudaw, the KRG said:
“We believe that this decision must become a basis for starting an inclusive dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad to resolve all disputes through implementation of all constitutional articles and in a way that guarantees all rights, authorities and status mentioned in the Constitution”.
The Kurdish government are using this court decision, in full knowledge of the secessionist desires of its citizenry, to demand a new constitutional settlement. In some ways this is a good outcome. Firstly, following the resignation of Masoud Barzani as Kurdish President, the KRG lacks a leader that could make a final push for independence and galvanise the same sentiment that led to such an overwhelming vote in the referendum. That isn’t to say that without Barzani the Kurds would have voted against independence, but I would argue that gaining international recognition without a respected leader at the helm would more difficult, especially after the Federal Court’s declaration of the referendum as illegal.
Secondly, the Iraqi government’s dramatic decision to retake oil-rich Kirkuk from the KRG despite the state’s participation in the referendum, and vote in favour of secession, illustrates that Baghdad is willing to use force if necessary to maintain Iraq’s territorial unity. I still stand by my prediction that the Iraqi government will not attack Kurdistan but given the amount of disputed territory Baghdad has retaken in recent months policy-makers in Erbil are most likely entertaining the idea of a full-scale attack.
And thirdly, buying time will slowly undermine the main argument used by Baghdad and foreign governments about Kurdish secession, namely that such a move would detract from the fight against ISIS. In the last few months ISIS’ territory has shrunk and jihadis have been driven out of the remaining large settlements they previously controlled. Although the Syrian Civil War is still going on, in Iraq the picture is much more optimistic. The Iraqi government is more fragile but is certainly more in control of its country than Damascus is of theirs. A peaceful dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad would allow for greater autonomy, and possibly a binding vote on independence, and leaves the pro-Kurdish secession camp in a win-win situation. On the one hand no independence but more autonomy, and on the other the arguments against secession get weaker. Patience will be the key to victory and, more importantly, recognition of other states and international institutions.
The Kurds have voted for independence and I would argue that given the history of persecution of this group of people they have one of the strongest cases for their own state. At the moment, however, the Iraqi government has most of the cards and ignoring this fact will only inhibit the Kurdish liberation movement from achieving its goal. An open dialogue with Baghdad should now be the main focus on the KRG because a standoff would only allow the Iraqi government to justify a military occupation to the international community. The safety of the Kurdish people needs to be at the forefront of people’s minds, especially as the pro-secession sentiment will not go away overnight. A dialogue could lead to more autonomy and the suspension of the current economic blockade and that would be a good start to re-establishing harmonious relations between Baghdad and Erbil.