Final approach to Kurdish independence referendum and key threat considerations

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September 06, 2017  

The Kurdish Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) plans to support the conduct of an independence referendum in the Iraqi Kurdish Region (IKR) on 25 September 2017. The baseline motivations for Kurdish independence stem from the strong Kurdish identity, and historic abuses stemming from the central Government of Iraq (GOI), particularly for the violence experienced during the former Saddam Regime. This extends to the Peshmerga’s role in maintaining a determined defense in northern Iraq, while the Iraqi military disintegrated during the initial IS invasion in 2014. From an economic standpoint, disputes center on shares of oil wealth from Kirkuk and other disputed territories, as well demands for significant debts owed to Kurdish government employees from the GOI budget.

If the vote goes forward as planned, areas affected will include each of the provinces of the Kurdish Region, as well as a number of Kurdish-controlled disputed territories including Kirkuk and portions of Nineveh and northern Diyala, with Kurdish diaspora also eligible as part of roughly 5.5 million eligible voters according to Kurdish officials. The vote will be in a simple Yes-No format, and is officially intended to serve as a non-binding framework of consent for the region to negotiate the formation of an independent Kurdish state should it pass.

Unofficially, the vote forms one of many bargaining tools intended to increase the autonomy of the IKR during the post-conflict environment, including increases in Kurdish control of disputed territories and shares of their oil wealth. Despite these ambitions, substantial opposition to the vote and challenges facing its legitimacy has increased the likelihood that the KRG may agree to postpone the vote if certain concessions and guarantees are made. However, it is still very possible the vote will go forward as currently planned. While highly unlikely the vote will spark a “civil war,” there are a number of key threat and compliance considerations influential to international organizations.

Assessed primary impact considerations:

  • Unofficial disruptions or shifts in trade across Turkish and/or Iranian borders – unlikely to significantly impact oil-related transport
  • Increase in Turkish and Iranian targeting of PKK, KDPI, and other armed groups – targeting possible within the IKR, with the potential for KDP and PUK mediation efforts
  • Possible uptick in related sectarian targeting both in IKR and GOI areas of control
  • Compliance issues and other forms of harassment during transit to and from the IKR
  • GOI visas could become a requirement for transit from IKR to GOI areas of control with particular long-term impact to humanitarian organizations
  • Possible short-term GOI disruption to IKR airspace
  • Official or unofficial increases in customs tariffs and extortion efforts affecting transit
  • Increase in criminality along IKR / GOI borders, and within disputed territories
  • Localized skirmishes between Kurdish and Iraqi security forces along borders of security control

 

Part One: Opposition characteristics

Region-internal opposition:
As discussed regularly in the months leading up to this event, opposition to the independence referendum has been very widespread. Although enjoying significant support within the Kurdish Region, particularly amongst the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) parties, divisions are readably apparent even within these factions and related support zones. Staunch opposition is led by the Change Movement (Gorran) party, who cite the inability of the KRG to reactivate the defunct parliament, as the primary point of contention, with Gorran and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) calling for the vote to be postponed.

The owner of the Nalia Company, associated with Nalia Radio and Television (NRT), launched a very popular “No for Now” campaign that was similarly focused on highlighting shortfalls in the KRG’s ability to govern effectively, demanding these wide-ranging issues first be resolved before the referendum is conducted. Responses predictably included equally significant efforts to suppress opposition to the referendum, including the halting of NRT broadcasts and a spike in controversial intimidation acts against multiple journalists, Imams, and other influential opponents. Each of these acts detracts from the KRG’s ability to support media freedoms and freedom of expression in the region.

Overall, the lack of a normalized parliament will significantly harm the legitimacy of the vote, a factor recognized on a national and international basis. Meanwhile, significant divisions are unlikely to set conditions for a landslide victory unless fraudulent activity is noted. Both of these aspects greatly detract from the ability of the referendum to further its objectives concerning full Kurdish independence, as well as more moderate objectives tied to increased autonomy and oil wealth in the post-conflict period.

31 Aug 2017 Duhok NRT building assault

National opposition:
GOI opposition to the referendum remains virtually universal with the obvious exception of Kurdish representatives. Primary GOI motivations are essentially the opposite of Kurdish interests, and involve retaining as much of the disputed territories and associated oil wealth as possible. Motivations also involve discouraging other regions of Iraq from demanding less significant increases in autonomy. The GOI officially regards the vote as unconstitutional, with mixed considerations in play. The KRG can effectively argue that it is permitted to conduct voting activities within the region, but disputed territories falling under Article 140 of the constitution are associated with stricter GOI processes.

The non-binding and essentially unofficial nature of the vote places it further into a grey area with regards to disputed territories. Negotiations between the KRG and GOI have predictably intensified as the vote neared, with cause for optimism noted as KRG representatives increasingly focused on negotiating conditions for the delay of the vote. Towards the end of August, both sides described their views as being “close” as negotiations continued. Even Kurdish President Masoud Barzani finally publicly acknowledged a delay in the referendum could be possible if certain conditions would be met to guarantee the national and international legitimacy of the vote once held at a future date.

Outside of official GOI responses, the approach to the referendum saw different forms of anti-Kurdish discrimination. Shi’a Faili Kurds residing in central areas of Iraq, particularly Baghdad, Diyala, and Wasit, have faced various threats and discrimination from Shi’a extremist groups, while some government officials called for their citizenship to be revoked if Kurdistan votes for secession. Increased discrimination against Kurdish individuals at checkpoints between GOI and KRG controlled areas has also been assessed, though somewhat difficult to quantify given reporting challenges.

Most concerning for international organizations is a significant increase in compliance issues while travelling from the KRG into GOI controlled areas in the leadup to the referendum. There has been a significant increase in instances where NGOs have been halted at GOI checkpoints and asked to produce Iraqi Visas in order to pass. The enforcement of such regulations has varied greatly, and has not assumed systematic characteristics as of this writing, but forms a readably identifiable future consideration as discussed further below.

Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi said in April he respected the Kurdish right to vote on independence, but didn’t think the timing was right [Reuters]

International opposition:
International opposition to the referendum remains similarly significant. The Iranian and Turkish governments are strongly opposed to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan due in large part to the threat posed by armed Kurdish groups operating within their borders. Iran and Turkey are highly concerned that these groups, most of which have significant support zones within the IKR, will be further enabled and encouraged to develop their own ambitions for independence. Significant KRG efforts to dissuade such fears have been largely ineffective, despite significant ties between the KDP and Turkish government, and similarly significant ties between the PUK and Iranian government.

Western opposition to the referendum involves multiple considerations. While recognizing the significant sacrifices the Peshmerga have made supporting Coalition interests in both the current and previous conflicts, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would promote yet another set of security and political dynamics in the region. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would also serve as a politically controversial concession that the US-led intervention during the Second Iraq War set conditions for Iraq to become divided.

In addition to maintaining a unified Iraq, US and other Coalition officials have repeatedly called for the referendum to be delayed due to the impact on the war against IS. If the vote goes ahead as planned, both Kurdish and Iraqi security forces will undoubtedly dedicate a significant amount of attention to maintaining security during the event and mitigating any related follow-on unrest. Related concerns spurned discussion that the operation to liberate Hawija will likely be delayed until after the 25 September vote is held or confirmed as postponed when the situation can be reassessed.

Military advisers from the international coalition forces stand during a transfer of authority ceremony on 15 June 2017 at the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center (KTTC) of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Part Two: Outlook

Vote conduct:
There is a fair amount of optimism at present that the combination of challenges facing the legitimacy of the vote, related internal divides in the IKR, and substantial national and international opposition, is increasingly setting conditions for the planned 25 September vote to be postponed. Referendum supporters may remain steadfast until soon before the planned vote as they seek to negotiate the best terms possible, with regards to their primary economic and territorial motivations, as well as seeking guarantees of the legitimacy of a vote at a future date.

An agreement to postpone the vote facilitated by a negotiated settlement would obviously greatly reduce anti-Kurdish tensions, and would serve as an excellent framework for all related post-conflict negotiations as a positive silver-lining to these tense developments. However, it remains very possible that an agreement may not be reached. Referendum supporters could assess that despite all the challenges faced, they may not receive their desired objectives and carry out the 25 September vote as planned. It is important to reiterate that the referendum is non-binding, and essentially forms another bargaining chip shaping longstanding post-conflict negotiations.

Initial concerns will be on the safety of the voters from harassment and more significant forms of violence. Kurds may face harassment in mixed-sectarian environments such as Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu, and areas of northern Diyala. Opponents to the referendum, both minorities and Kurds, are expected to face even more significant levels of harassment throughout the IKR, forming an escalation to the various forms of harassment already being used to discourage such opposition. Cautious optimism is in play that various forms of harassment will not see significant escalations, and that any acts of violence in the IKR will remain relatively limited with low overall casualties.

A man sews an Iraqi Kurdish flag bearing a portrait of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on February 3, 2016. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

National impact:
There is an evident potential for anti-Kurdish demonstrations and other forms of unrest on a national basis. Most such unrest is expected to be largely symbolic, with Kurdish flag burnings and similar acts likely. For international organizations, the most significant impact with this regard is expected to be transit-related disruptions, with announcements related to the timing and location of such events important to monitor. Escalations in abuses against Faili Kurds and other Kurdish minorities in GOI-controlled areas is also expected, particularly in Baghdad, though it is difficult to assess if this will translate to significant upticks in lethal force.

It is generally unlikely for outbreaks of prolonged armed clashes along various sectarian fault lines, or so-called “civil war” outcomes. Many analysts have focused on the relative military strengths of Peshmerga force compared to Hashd al-Shaabi forces and other fairly arbitrary measures. It is important to remember that, although some Shi’a militia leaders have issued some harsh anti-Kurdish rhetoric, each party involved is expected to place a priority on maintaining order. There is little to gain by propagating military force, with the same significant international pressures calling for the postponement of the referendum so as to not detract from the war against IS remaining in effect as a stabilizing factor.

With Iraqi provincial and parliamentary elections slated for 2018, it is assessed as more likely that senior leaders within Shi’a militia groups will focus efforts on election-related considerations rather than efforts to significantly engage in open hostilities with Kurdish security forces. Likewise, both Shi’a and Kurdish security elements seek to maintain legitimacy on the national and international stage, with open conflict contradictory to these aims. Assessments suggesting the “civil war” scenario are as such, a worst case scenario, often discussed from the framework of international efforts to pressure for postponement of the referendum.

Despite some assessments that the civil war scenario is a significant possibility, the most dangerous course of action is assessed as likely to be characterized by decentralized upticks in sectarian-driven violence snowballing into significant escalations in Tuz Khurmatu or other mixed-sectarian environments. Other scenarios associated with the most dangerous course of action involve increases in frontline disputes between Peshmerga and Hashd al-Shaabi or other Iraqi forces, with stand-off style exchanges in fire possible. In the event either of these scenarios play out, equally significant mitigation efforts are expected to go into effect in order to suspend hostilities and prevent future outbreaks as has been seen in the past.

Numerous minority groups reside within the IKR and existing disputed territories, including Turkmen, Christians, Yazidi, Assyrian, Shabak, Sabian Mandaeans, Bahais, and Kakais. These minorities are currently expected to participate in the referendum vote. Barring Turkmen, a “yes” vote is likely for those residing under KRG security protection. There is an expectation that any minority group voting “no,” particularly amongst IDP populations, will subsequently face suspension of existing support from the KRG. As a result, it will remain important to monitor the responses of such minority groups and potential backlash should minority elements fail to support the referendum.

The period following the referendum will be most important to follow for any official or unofficial shifts in GOI policies towards the KRG. Increases in compliance issues and other forms of harassment during transit to and from the IKR are very likely given current increases in such incidents. International organizations based in the KRG are advised to be aware of the possibility that GOI visas could become a requirement for transit on a more systematic basis. Official or unofficial increases in customs tariffs and extortion efforts affecting transit also forms a very realistic possibility. Criminal groups that already exploit sectarian fault lines may similarly continue to be emboldened by such conditions.

Significant concerns also surround the GOI’s control of Iraqi airspace, and the previously demonstrated potential to disrupt flights into the Kurdish Region. While the baseline capability to cause substantial disruptions exists, it is assessed to be unlikely the GOI will carry out long-term acts of retaliation along these lines, with no credible threats to do so issued. It is important to be mindful that in the event a referendum vote is held, the GOI will need to redouble its efforts to set conditions for the IKR to remain a part of Iraq. Significant acts of retaliation along these lines would only further solidify support for Kurdish independence, and degrade opposition within the IKR.

Overall, post-conflict negotiations concerning the disputed territories and shares of Iraq’s oil wealth will continue following the vote if it goes forward. The potential failure to reach an agreement concerning the referendum will strengthen anti-Kurdish political resolve in many circles, but ultimately a politically negotiated settlement forms the only credible method of resolution despite significant posturing.

Kurdish men look at a Shia militiaman’s vehicle burning in Tuz Khurmatu, April 24, 2016. REUTERS, Goran Tomasevic

International impact:
On an international basis, significant fears were seen that Turkey and Iran could cutoff trade with the IKR in retaliation should the vote be conducted. However, Turkish officials have emphasized they have no intent to conduct such actions, with no official embargos anticipated in accordance with the mutual trade interests of these three countries, particularly those concerning oil exports despite a number of threats seen. Nevertheless, more subtle shifts in trade policies and trade activities remains possible with unofficial boycotts of Kurdish goods and services.

Other international concerns include the potential for shifts in Turkish and Iranian military actions against the PKK, PDKI, and other Kurdish separatist groups operating on both sides of the respective borders. The above noted concerns related to potential increases in armed actions by these groups would undoubtedly be met by similar counter-actions from the Turkish and Iranian military. As with established patterns, most such actions are expected to be limited to border areas, though likely with reduced GOI concerns for violating Iraqi sovereignty. Should such engagements become more substantial, international pressures are likely to be exerted on KDP and PUK elements to actively engage and mitigate PKK and PDKI activities within IKR territory, with this to remain a consideration for operations within affected areas.

Despite the international opposition to the referendum, respective ties between the KDP and Turkish government, and the PUK and Iranian government, will remain in play to moderate tensions. Overarching priorities related to maintaining lucrative international trade is expected to form the overall greatest stabilizing factor. However, should the vote go forward, the potential emergence of concerted efforts to actually form an independent Kurdish state will serve as a significant long-term destabilizing factor.

In terms of future military support, the Coalition has stated their intent to continue supporting the Peshmerga as long as they fall under the Iraqi security apparatus. There are understandable concerns that the Coalition could be forced to reduce support for Kurdish security forces in order to maintain positive influence with the GOI, with an enduring priority placed on countering Iranian influence. However, it is important to emphasized that there is a significant gap in time and effort between a referendum vote being held, and actual independence becoming a feasible reality.

Should such conditions theoretically form, the long-standing relationship between western military actors and the Peshmerga is highly unlikely to come to a conclusion. Conditions are expected to be met for strong relations to continue with both the GOI and the IKR in the event independence is gained in the long-term future.

James Mattis, with the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, gave the US’s view (EPA)

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