Amid the backdrop of a fight against the Islamic State, the Kurdistan region of Iraq plans to hold an important vote to determine its direction on statehood. Earlier this month, Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani announced that a long-awaited referendum on independence would be held Sept. 25, 2017. Importantly, the vote will not only take place within the borders of the Kurdistan region, but also within disputed territories that are now under de facto Kurdish control since their liberation from the Islamic State.
Barzani has called for a referendum many times before, but this time an official date has been set and the vote will probably take place. An informal referendum passed overwhelmingly in the Kurdistan region in January 2005, and there is good reason to believe a positive result will be replicated in this year’s official process.
A step toward independence
The referendum is not equivalent of a declaration of independence. Nor will it trigger any immediate change to the nature of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq, as the vote has neither a legal framework to empower the referendum as a binding measure, nor support from the international community. The referendum will simply ask voters if they want an independent Kurdish state. However, the referendum is a way for Iraqi Kurds to signal their intention to pursue independence more aggressively in a post-Islamic State Iraq, and the vote will likely give Kurds more leverage in that process.
Why now? A strategy to solidify territorial gains.
The referendum is also viewed as a way for the Kurds to help legitimize their hold on newly gained territory from the fight against the Islamic State. After nearly three years of war, the Kurdistan Region has gained control over many of the disputed territories in contention with the central government in Baghdad, most importantly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Knowing that their bargaining position vis-à-vis Baghdad (and Washington) will diminish once the fight against the Islamic State ends, and with the battle for Mosul reaching its final stages, the Kurds are acting fast to solidify their territorial gains before pressure is refocused to withdraw from those areas. A pro-independence vote in Kurdish-held disputed territories will undermine American and Iraqi efforts to have those territories returned to Iraqi control.
Creating future bargaining power
The referendum will be used as a mechanism to gain political leverage over Baghdad. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s divisive sectarian politics sometimes award a united Kurdish front a powerful brokerage role, especially in the high-stakes government formation processes that have followed a national election.
However, this influence is limited in the areas of sustainment and enforcement. For example, during the 2010 government formation stalemate, the Kurds backed Nouri al-Maliki for a second term as prime minister in exchange for his agreeing to enforce Kurdish interests. Maliki took the deal and sealed his premiership, but the Kurds could not keep him from reneging on those agreements shortly thereafter.
By holding the referendum in September 2017, before the April 2018 Iraqi national elections, the Kurds are changing the way they leverage Iraqi national politics. In the past, the Kurds would wait until after the election to wield its influence. But now, Kurds view the pre-election period as a more favorable time to negotiate their terms of separation. By unilaterally moving ahead with its own referendum process, the Kurds may use the vote to bid for allies in Baghdad.
The shadow of intra-Kurdish politics
Another angle to interpret the referendum and its effects is through intra-Kurdish competition. While nearly all Kurds want independence, they disagree about the process, and the referendum has become a high-stakes venue for political jockeying.
The decision to hold the September vote is being pushed by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and has received only “conditional” support from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Other parties, like Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, are in favor of independence in principle, but are against the procedure of the vote — namely, that the referendum will take place outside of a deadlocked Kurdistan Parliament, which has been out of session for nearly two years. Gorran has refused to join the KDP-led referendum committee, saying that the vote should be coordinated through a reactivated Kurdistan Parliament, where they insist on resuming the speakership.
The referendum vote itself will probably alter the balance of power between Kurdish political parties. Announced alongside with the referendum, parliamentary elections in the Kurdistan region are set to take place Nov. 6. Should the referendum pass without a hitch, those parties actively promoting the vote may use the referendum as an electoral strategy to convert nationalist fervor into additional votes.
A venue to gauge domestic and international reactions
Iraqi Kurds are using the referendum to gauge how regional and international actors will react to more concrete steps toward independence in the future. The referendum is serious enough to elicit real reactions from Baghdad and the international community, but the outcome is limited enough to avoid costly forms of prevention and backlash.
So far, Washington has responded with rhetorical support for the Kurdistan region’s “legitimate aspirations,” but overall disapproval over the vote itself.
Baghdad has complained about the timing of the vote — which it calls “illegal” — but is distinctly not in favor of northern Iraq breaking away. Turkey and Iran have offered a strongly negative reaction, fearing Iraqi Kurdish independence will trigger similar requests at home. However, Turkish anger may be more muted in private, given that the vote is happening at all.
The Kurdish referendum holds the possibility of affecting the balance of leverage between Irbil, Baghdad and regional powers, as well as shaking up internal Kurdish politics. With control over disputed territories and a referendum at hand, the Kurds are making a play for bargaining power on the road to independence. This does not represent a declaration of independence — but it is a strong indicator of where the focal point of Kurdish politics will lie in post-Islamic State Iraq.
Morgan Kaplan is a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and PhD student at the University of Chicago.