The Kurdish referendum backfired badly. Here’s why.

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By Renad Mansour
A man walks next to a poster in Irbil, in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, that calls on Kurds to vote for independence on the eve of the Sept. 25 referendum. (Mohamed Messsara/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE)
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered his forces to retake the province of Kirkuk from the Kurdish peshmerga’s control. Abadi moved with broad support, including groups within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Iran, Turkey, the Persian Gulf countries and the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group.

The peshmerga, isolated and divided, withdrew, as leaders from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) commanding the area decided not to fight in objection to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The latest tensions stem from the Sept. 25 independence referendum in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, now widely considered a major miscalculation. Rather than establish a process to negotiate Kurdish separation, self-determination or autonomy, the Kurds lost territory, including the symbolic and economically strategic city of Kirkuk. The quick withdrawal of the peshmerga exposed the weakness of the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) institutional security apparatus.

A different deal?

Irbil’s foreign allies have been integral to the creation and development of the Kurdish de facto state. And they are furious with President Masoud Barzani’s decision to not postpone the vote. On the eve of the referendum, Washington had a deal to establish a U.N.-mandated framework to negotiate the nature of the Irbil-Baghdad relationship — an unprecedented move that, had it failed, would have led the United States to understand the need for a referendum.

Barzani rejected the plan, much to the surprise of the United States and its allies. However, several factors can explain both Barzani’s persistent drive for the referendum and the unanticipated consequences.

Kurdish overconfidence

The fight against the Islamic State increased the confidence of the Kurdistan region’s leadership. In August 2014, President Barack Obama intervened to defend the KRG against the Islamic State on its borders. Circumventing Baghdad at times, Washington and its European allies decided to directly arm, train and fight with the Kurdish peshmerga.

Many leaders in Irbil took these American overtures as a fundamental turning point in U.S.-Kurdish relations. At that time, Barzani’s chief of staff, Fuad Hussein said, “We now genuinely know the United States supports us.”

This sense of confidence led Barzani to discount American threats. Many who worked on the referendum for the ruling KDP were convinced that the Kurds had reached a point of autonomy and were now on the map. They could thus stage the vote with little consequence, and their ally would have to accept the reality.

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Tillerson urges Iraq, Kurds to resolve growing conflict

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Iraqi government Oct. 23 to resolve the conflict over Kurdish independence and disputed territories through dialogue. (Reuters)

Changing Iraqi politics

Since 2003, the Kurdish leadership had sent its senior leaders to join the Iraqi government to influence the state from within. By 2017, it had given up on this tactic, hampering Irbil’s ability to influence Baghdad.

To gain Washington’s favor, since 2003, Irbil painted itself as the only anti-Iranian and pro-democratic force in Iraq. Developments in Iraq over the past few years challenge these realities. Yet, without senior leaders in Baghdad, Irbil underestimated certain developments.

The Iraqi state is undergoing a cycle of rebuilding. Abadi has positioned himself as anti-Iranian hegemony and pro-democracy. After becoming prime minister with the Iraqi military collapsing to a few thousand Islamic State fighters in 2014, Abadi can take credit for winning back Iraqi territory and beginning state rebuilding.

In the evolution of the war against the Islamic State, Abadi has focused his efforts on the state security apparatus. After the 2014 collapse, Iran and its paramilitary proxies were the only power to defend Iraq against the Islamic State. At the time, even Barzani said, “Iran was the first state to help us .?.?. and it provided us with weapons and equipment.”

Abadi’s strategy involved, first, scaling back on complete dependence on Iran. The turning point came in the spring of 2015, when he invited U.S. support to help fight the Islamic State in Tikrit, much to the objection of Iran and its PMU-allied groups, which believed they were able to fight themselves. This move showed Washington that he could regain Iraqi territory from the Islamic State while minimizing Iranian and militia influence.

Today, Abadi continues to need the PMU to support Iraqi state forces. However, the key is his ability to reach a compromise that showcases Iraqi forces on the front line and restrains the worst excesses of the PMU, as seen in Kirkuk.

In Iraq, Shiites have begun protesting their own Shiite leaders and call for issues politics to reverse identity politics. Even the PMU faces internal schisms on the question, with a majority of its groups condemning its pro-Iranian proxies. Although they remain influential in Iraq, Baghdad is not solely governed by Shiite, pro-Iranian leaders.

Politically, Abadi’s strategy has been to strengthen relations with the United States, and other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, to lessen the dominance of Iran and its Iraqi proxies, who aim to bring down Abadi. Those regional actors have realized that Shiite leaders like Abadi can be useful in rebuilding Iraq away from Iranian influence. In the summer of 2017, both Abadi and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visited Riyadh. Shortly after sending troops into Kirkuk, in October 2017, Abadi again visited Riyadh.

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KRG dysfunction

The Kurdistan region has suffered from bad governance, economic mismanagement and inter- and intraparty rivalries. Its parliament hasn’t regularly convened for more than two years, its president continues to govern with a questionable mandate, and the KRG — marred by rampant corruption — is unable to pay state employees or offer sufficient services to its citizens.

As a result, Kurdish politics is split both between parties (KDP-PUK) but more critically within parties (intra-KDP and intra-PUK). Similar to Iraq’s Shiite population, Kurdish protesters are also calling for issue politics to replace identity politics, for an end to corruption and family-based politics.

Although it is difficult to say whether Baghdad’s aggression in Kirkuk was inevitable, the referendum alienated the Kurdistan region from its key allies. Since the 1990s, the region’s success has been predicated on strong diplomatic relations. The referendum was based on a fundamental misreading of U.S. policy. For Washington, Iraq represents a rare chance for a success story in the Middle East. The referendum challenged this story.

Renad Mansour is a research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.