The independence referenda in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Catalonia have caused considerable political crises in Iraq and Spain, respectively. It seems as if Masud Barzani and Carles Puigdemont have not chosen the dates for the independence referenda particularly wisely. Not that there would be a date in which such a project would have been politically wise. In completely misjudging the political atmosphere, both leaders apparently considered holding referenda a good idea and certainly not detrimental to their agendas. However, the opposite is true; the momentum for independence, if there ever was any, might be lost for the foreseeable future.
Last November, I predicted that it would be highly unlikely that Iraqi Kurdistan will be able to effectively declare itself independent from Iraq. I identified three main reasons for this: internal divisions, the complicated regional situation, and the lack of support by the international community. All of them have more or less materialised recently. While I was primarily referring to political struggle, the Kurdish groups fighting the Iraqi army seem, nevertheless, fragmented. None of Iraq’s neighbouring countries such as Turkey or Iran are particularly fond of Kurdish independence. And the international community, first and foremost the USA, is more interested in Iraq’s territorial integrity than rewarding the Kurds for their successful offensive against ISIS.
Leaving aside the internal Kurdish fragmentation for a moment, the regional and the international reactions are easily understandable. Turkey’s main interest is that its own Kurdish territories remain intact and do not secede to join a newly independent Kurdistan. The same is true for Iran. Iran’s interest in this is threefold. First, it is committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity as Baghdad turned into an ally. Secondly, Tehran does not want another Sunni state at its western border. This would not only create a potential adversary right at the border but would also thwart Iran’s alleged attempt to create a “Shiite crescent”. Lastly, Iran is interested in keeping its own minorities in place, another reason why it does not want to strengthen the Kurdish independence movement.
Reaction of the international community
So far, the reaction of the USA and the international community have not been extraordinarily surprising. Washington has never made a secret of its commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, President Trump defines the US’ national interest quite narrowly and, therefore, is unlikely to get involved in this chaos. In addition to this, the wider international community must also be committed to keeping Iraq intact; states either do not want to strengthen their own independence movements or weaken the state system as such. Additionally, the international community wants to avoid another crisis as has been highlighted by the spokesperson of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The United States remains committed to a united, stable, democratic, and federal Iraq, and committed to the Kurdistan Regional Government as an integral component of the country. We will continue working with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions, avoid further clashes, and encourage dialogue.
What comes next?
Masud Barzani, this seems to be consent among political scientists, has entirely misjudged the situation. Apparently, he failed to secure international consent to the referendum and, as a consequence, overestimated his position. The situation, as it is now, seems dire for the Kurds: everything has to happen on the basis of the Iraqi constitution and, at least for the moment, Kurdish independence is off the table. However, the situation as it is now is too complicated to be predictable. Everything depends on the inner-Kurdish political groups and the central government in Baghdad. Will the cease fire hold? Will they reach an agreement all sides can agree to or will Baghdad try to impose their will on the Kurdish regions?
At this point, is interesting to note the differences between Iraq/Kurdistan and Spain/Catalonia. The Iraqi government reacted with military force to the independence movement in Kurdistan, a sign that the rule of law in Iraq is still under development at best. Spain, on the other hand, successfully used the tools provided for in the Spanish constitution. Nevertheless, the situation as it is now is similar in both states: The central government has, for the moment, successfully choked the respective independence movements. Time will show whether the Kurds or the Catalans will create a narrative of being suppressed by their respective central governments, or if these have stylised themselves to the “enemy from the outside”.
In conclusion, both Kurdistan and Catalonia went on collision course with their respective central governments, and, for the moment, both failed in achieving their political goal: independence. Their respective leaders failed to strengthen their position beyond using democracy as a tool to make a point. The question both Mr Barzani and Mr Puigdemont should have asked is whether they may secure the referendum result politically and what steps should come next.
Yesterday, Masud Barzani announced that he would step down as President of the Kurdish Regional Government. This move does not come unexpected as his plan for Kurdistan’s independence backfired. As Mr Barzani’s mandate had ended a few years ago anyway, the question is now whether Iraqi Kurdistan may evolve into a more democratic region. Or, to put it more objectively, in which general direction Kurdistan may now be moving.
BBC News (2017a): Iraqi Kurds offer to ‘freeze’ independence referendum result
BBC News (2017b): Catalan ex-leader Carles Puigdemont vows to resist takeover
Çandar, Cengiz (2017): Kurds in Iraq: Back to square one?, in: Al-Monitor
Chmaytelli, Maher (2017): Iraqi forces, Kurdish Peshmerga agree on ceasefire, Kurdistan says, in: Reuters
Collin, Katy (2017): The Kurdish referendum won’t deliver independence—here’s why it matters anyway, in: Brookings
Harrer, Gudrun (2017a): Kämpfe zwischen Kurden und Bagdad: Barzanis Fehlkalkulation, in: Der Standard
Harrer, Gudrun (2017b): Kämpfe in Irakisch-Kurdistan: Die Notbremse ziehen, in: Der Standard
Schmidinger, Thomas (2017): Barzanis Niederlage in Sindschar, in: Der Standard
Tharoor, Ishaan (2017): Iraqi Kurds voted in their independence referendum. Now what?, in: Washington Post