The world may be transfixed by the horrors of Syria or perplexed by the politics of the Gulf, but important developments are also under way in Iraqi Kurdistan. Mired in crisis, the self-governing region is headed for a controversial referendum on independence on September 25, followed by high-stakes parliamentary and presidential elections a month later.

Kurds have dreamed of and died for an independent nation ever since the modern Middle East took shape, and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s decision to vote on secession from Iraq has triggered a wave of nationalist sentiment. Amid the flag-waving, one man in Kirkuk just made news by naming his firstborn son “Referendum.”

But as it happens, this popular referendum is also a very unpopular one. Arab Iraqis are outraged that their Kurdish compatriots hope to abscond with the northern tip of their country and a large part of its oil wealth, and they have the neighborhood at their back. Turkey, Syria, Iran, and the United States are all on record as opposing the referendum.

In Kurdish hands since the 1991 Gulf War, northern Iraq has long functioned as a key prop for U.S. operations in Iraq and, since 2014, as a main base for the American-led war on the so-called Islamic State. Turkey and Iran also have vital interests in the area and both wield influence over local politics. While none of these governments oppose broad Kurdish autonomy, all are vehement about the need to preserve Iraq’s formal unity, fearing that secession would throw Iraqi politics into permanent disarray and unleash an epidemic of new conflicts across the region.

If held according to plan, the referendum still seems likely to result in a resounding yes to independence, but it won’t produce an internationally recognized state in the foreseeable future—and Kurdistan’s leaders know it.

A substantial number of Iraqi Kurds are in fact also skeptical about the independence vote, or at least cynical about its timing; and many in the minority communities that make up a quarter of northern Iraq’s population find the idea of secession frightening.

If held according to plan, the referendum still seems likely to result in a resounding yes to independence, but it won’t produce an internationally recognized state in the foreseeable future—and Kurdistan’s leaders know it.

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Principles and Politics

For all of its historical and national significance, the independence referendum is widely understood to have been born out of an unseemly intra-Kurdish power struggle, revolving around Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani’s attempt to use unconstitutional methods of clinging to power. The crisis goes back to summer 2015, when Barzani, a wily 71-year old guerrilla-leader-turned-politician who also heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, refused to step down at the end of his mandate. As protests rose, KDP security forces barred the speaker of the Kurdish parliament from entering Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil. The legislative branch has been out of session ever since, though there are now efforts underway to revive it.

To cope with the mounting opposition, Barzani ramped up nationalist rhetoric and launched the referendum, though he was careful not to over-promise: it is deliberately designed to be a non-binding expression of popular will, rather than an immediate declaration of independence. After a ’yes’ vote, Erbil would use “peaceful means to persuade Baghdad, the regional countries and international community” to support an official secession, the senior Barzani adviser Hemin Hawrami told journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, adding, “You have to be realistic. Wishful thinking is different from the reality. It has taken us 100 years to get to this stage.”

Once Barzani had managed to schedule a vote for September 25, he called parliamentary and presidential elections for November 1. The KDP leader had previously promised not to stand for reelection again, but critics suspect he will use the referendum to gain time and swathe himself in Kurdish pride while figuring out how to cling to the presidency.

“He needs something like the referendum to maintain his power,” I was told by Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish journalist and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “He thinks people will tolerate him remaining in power if it is for statehood.”1

The quest for Kurdish self-determination is not merely some elite level ploy, however. Nationalism really is the name of the game in Kurdish politics.

The quest for Kurdish self-determination is not merely some elite level ploy, however. Nationalism really is the name of the game in Kurdish politics. Every political party of consequence holds to the goal of an independent nation, including Barzani’s traditional rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, a leftist-nationalist group that holds sway in the eastern half of the autonomous region around Suleimaniyah.

Many non-KDP politicians were accordingly quick to clamber onboard Barzani’s referendum bandwagon, whether out of nationalist conviction or to avoid being branded as unpatriotic.

“The PUK has fought from the beginning for the right of the Kurds to self-determination, and not just for local self-rule,” says Omar Sheikhmus, a veteran activist and PUK co-founder who is now a respected independent voice in Kurdish politics. In an interview, Sheikhmus told me that he sees no other choice for his former comrades in the PUK leadership than to support the referendum, despite their reservations about Barzani’s motives. “If not,” Sheikhmus said, “they would let Barzani and the KDP kidnap the national slogans and become ’heroes’ for ordinary Kurds in every part of Kurdistan, despite their obvious flaws.”2

Indeed, although the PUK is internally divided and many leaders remain unpersuaded, the party has publicly aligned with Barzani on this issue. The anti-referendum camp is instead headed by Gorran, a large Suleimaniyah-based PUK splinter that is stridently anti-Barzani, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, a small Islamist party that also draws most of its strength from the eastern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. Both say the referendum is unconstitutional and have called for it to be postponed. In addition, a young Suleimaniyah-based media mogul and aspiring politician by the name of Shashwar Abdulwahid has placed himself at the head of an even more radical anti-referendum camp, urging a ’no’ vote and blasting Barzani’s politics on his NRT television station. (NRT was recently and probably not coincidentally attacked by armed thugs.)

For all of the simmering frustration among Barzani’s opponents, the anti-referendum activists appear to remain a largely ineffectual minority. Omar Sheikhmus dismisses the ’no’ camp as irresponsible populists who are gambling with Kurdistan’s future. “It could be very costly for the Kurdish people if the number of ’no’ votes is relatively large,” he tells me. “People would say that the Kurds have themselves rejected their desire for independence.” To Sheikhmus, the proper place to challenge Barzani isn’t the referendum, but the November 2017 elections.3

Kamal Chomani is skeptical. “I believe the elections will be postponed, and they will not be held in 2017 as they should be,” he tells me. “If they will ever be held, the KDP and the PUK will lose more, but we have reached a point where elections do not change anything.”4

Running Roughshod over the Minorities

Intra-Kurdish disputes aside, the referendum may also cause turmoil in areas seized by the Peshmerga—the KDP and PUK’s militia forces—in the aftermath of the Islamic State’s 2014 attack on Mosul. Kurdish claims to these regions are hotly disputed by Baghdad and, indeed, by many of the inhabitants, some of whom belong to other ethnic or religious groups and maintain their own alliances with Baghdad or with Iraq’s neighbors.

Kurdish Lands map. Source: CIA.

In late August, when the provincial council of Peshmerga-controlled Kirkuk voted to take part in the referendum, Arab and Turkmen delegates boycotted the vote and there were howls of protest from Iran and Turkey.

“It is still not even clear exactly which disputed areas will be included in the referendum,” says Carl Drott, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford who researches minority relations in the Nineveh Plain, an area outside Mosul that has a large population of Christian Assyrians, Syriacs, and Chaldeans. “Most inhabitants of the Nineveh Plain as well as [the Yezidi-populated Sinjar region] seem to favor some form of self-rule,” Drott told me in an interview. “While rival politicians are insisting that this should be within Iraq or Kurdistan, regular people are generally more pragmatic. International protection of some sort would clearly be the most desired option, but if people are left with the choice between Baghdad and Erbil, it all depends on what would be on offer.”

According to Drott, the authoritarian methods of the Kurdistan Regional Government, its haphazard organization of the referendum, and the fact that so much of the non-Kurdish population remains displaced after the war against the Islamic State has made a fair vote virtually impossible in the borderlands.

“Some local people clearly would favor incorporation into Kurdistan, at least in due time or under certain conditions, but the way the Kurdistan Regional Government is currently going about this makes a mockery of its claims to be democratic,” Drott says. “There have been local protests, which have been shut down, but many people are afraid to speak out, since they live at the mercy of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s authorities.”5

Might the Referendum Be Postponed?

The United States opposes the referendum. Skeptical of Kurdish plans for independence in general, U.S. diplomats have been particularly critical about what they see as a poorly timed and organized vote. To have a referendum “on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, we think, significantly destabilizing,” said Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. American diplomats have urged Barzani to at least postpone the vote.

It wouldn’t be the first time that this has happened. In 2014, Barzani scheduled an identical independence referendum after the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul, a defeat which had just shredded Baghdad’s influence in the north of Iraq. However, he was forced to eat his words almost immediately, when the jihadis turned their guns on Erbil and the KDP Peshmerga had to be bailed out by the U.S. Air Force. In return for American air support, Barzani had to call off the referendum—or postpone it, as the face-saving phrase went.

But this time around, Kurdish politicians seem determined to make the vote happen, sensing that the political window created by the Islamic State crisis is about to close. In a recent interview with the Saudi-owned daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Barzani said he would not postpone the vote unless he receives iron-clad guarantees that the results of a delayed referendum will be accepted by Baghdad and its allies.

Chomani thinks that Barzani may be grandstanding. “Barzani wants to postpone, but he does not decide by himself,” he tells me, arguing that the KDP leader is trying to leverage the referendum to secure a good political deal, perhaps in the form of American support in negotiations with Baghdad or through a face-saving public intervention from the White House. But Barzani might also pursue an arrangement with Gorran and other opposition parties that would allow him to continue as president. If such a deal were reached, a reactivated Kurdish parliament could take the fall for canceling the referendum.6

Life Goes On

With only three weeks to go, there now seems to be too little time to organize a credible referendum, but also too little time for Barzani to gracefully back down.

Still, the world won’t end on September 25. Whether the Kurds vote yes or no or not at all, local politics will soon snap back to normal. That may seem alarming to Barzani, whose position remains uncomfortably unconstitutional, but he’s got it all figured out: as soon as the referendum results are in, all parties will need to scramble to get ready for the presidential and parliamentary elections thirty-five days later. As new problems pile up, so do the opportunities. Whether Barzani intends to stay in power, anoint a successor, postpone the polls, or engineer some sort of leadership makeover, a successful referendum will put fresh wind in his sails at a moment when the opposition is in disarray—though a low turnout could do the opposite, too.

With only three weeks to go, there now seems to be too little time to organize a credible referendum, but also too little time for Barzani to gracefully back down.

For all the Iraqi and international protests, a ‘yes’ vote is also unlikely to cause much mayhem in the region. Nothing in the referendum obligates Kurdistan to secede from Iraq—in effect, it is an opinion poll, not a legal blueprint for dividing the Iraqi state. A ‘yes’ vote on September 25 would release a toxic puff of angry statements from Baghdad and it might also deepen the Arab-Kurdish split and stir up ethnic unrest along Kurdistan’s contested borders. All very deplorable but Barzani will probably manage, and may even find a way to exploit the uproar.

If cool heads prevail, that might be the end of the story. Having pocketed his gains in the referendum, Barzani could move quickly to limit the Arab and international fallout by making conciliatory statements about the non-binding nature of the vote, and then turn his attention back to Kurdistan’s increasingly messy internal politics.

It’s a long game, and he plays it well. But although there is no underestimating the ability of Kurdistan’s ruling elite to simply muddle through any crisis, their style of politics may be getting closer to its expiration date. Unless oil money and investments begin to flow again, both KDP and PUK will likely find it hard to sustain the patronage networks that underpin their power—and although every new crisis in Iraqi Kurdish politics might be manageable on its own, aren’t the crises now arriving a little too frequently for comfort?

Cover Photo: Masoud Barzani at the frontline against the Islamic State between Erbil and Mosul in September 2014. Source: Kurdistan Regional Presidency.


  1. Kamal Chomani, email interview with the author, September 2017.
  2. Omar Sheikhmus, email interview with the author, September 2017.
  3. Sheikhmus, interview.
  4. Chomani, interview.
  5. Carl Drott, email interview with the author, September 2017.
  6. Chomani, interview.