Kurdistan’s “Question of the Century” Lacks Essential Answers

By: Geoff Moore 

In the closing months of the battle to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul, the debate began to shift to questions concerning the future of Iraq as a country. In Kurdistan, where talk of independence was delayed by fighting, politicians moved quickly to announce a referendum.

Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has spoken frequently of independence. Two major political parties, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), met earlier this year and proclaimed September 25th as the date Kurds would decide their own future. The Gorran (Change) Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) did not attend the meeting due, in-part, to their opposition to Barzani’s already extended stint as President. Gorran and KIG are opposed to a referendum taking place without the KRG parliament’s oversight, a body which has not convened since October 2015. The KDP-funded Rudaw news outlet has devoted a section of its website devoted to the “Question of the Century.”

This week, Barzani expressed confidence in a “yes” vote in the referendum. Yet, on June 28th, Barzani outlined his argument for independence in a Washington Post op-ed. While the essay can be read as a passionate and patriotic plea for the United States and others to support Kurdish sovereignty, it must also be deconstructed as a policy document. Kurdish self-determination, though easy to support as an abstract concept, will not be a facile process. Striking as Barzani’s words may be, his argument at this time shows a clear lack of interest in detailing the policy-making process. He writes that:

“The issue of what territory joins Kurdistan will be the most contentious issue in the separation…We wish to incorporate into Kurdistan only those territories where the people overwhelmingly want to be part of Kurdistan as expressed in a free vote. The last thing we want is a long-lasting territorial dispute with Iraq.”

Taking this excerpt one sentence at a time, a catch-22 seems to appear. First, the issue of which territories constitute Iraqi Kurdistan is a long-running dispute in Iraq. This can be summarized as a dispute over the frontier between Arab Iraq and the KRG. Although the KRG is autonomous, many Iraqi Kurds live in disputed territories. While the KRG wants the oil-rich Kirkuk region, Baghdad has long opposed the affixing of Kirkuk to the Kurdish Region. Iraq’s 2005 constitution described how the territorial dispute should be resolved, but it included a deadline which passed nearly a decade ago.



The second sentence is truly confounding. Barzani seems to be implying that a “free vote” would determine how many people consider themselves to be residents of Kurdistan and that this vote would necessitate the inclusion of “only those” territories in which a majority of voters prefer to be included in Kurdistan. Barzani seems to be blending a census with a referendum to determine both (a) where he has a majority, and (b) to where he might be able to extend the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. Doing both simultaneously at the ballot box is an exercise in circular logic. Barzani and the KRG would need to know which regions should receive Kurdish referendum ballots, so he would either be conducting a free vote, or he would be pre-determining what regions constitute Kurdistan. He cannot have both. If it is the latter, he cannot call the vote an act of self-determination. Apparently, this sentence hinges on the relative definition of “we.”


Even if the referendum were to take place only in current KRG regions, Kurdish authorities would still need to deal with the huge number of Iraqis who have become internally displaced during the war against IS, and with Kurds who now live elsewhere. In Scotland’s independence referendum, non-Scottish Brits, as well as Commonwealth and EU citizens who were residents in Scotland (and registered to vote there) were allowed to vote. Scots who lived outside out Scotland had no such right. It seems more than likely that the opposite will be true for the Kurdistan vote, but Kurdish leadership should take a serious look at the Scotland model.

Barzani’s third sentence is well-meaning. If Kurdistan were to become independent, it would not be in Iraq or Kurdistan’s interest to have a protracted border conflict. Yet, this is already a territorial dispute. At a time when sectarian divisions are portrayed as “chaos”, Barzani is asking Baghdad to help him avoid a political conflict as old as post-Saddam Iraq. Protests in Kirkuk earlier this year exposed the surface-level tension in the disputed territories.

A 2015 report in the Middle East Eye described the Kirkuk gun market as a place where “Now and then somebody comes and asks for a grenade launcher.” What may sound like hyperbole has been extensively documented by groups such as Amnesty International. It does not take much imagination to see how a dispute over Kirkuk could get out of hand. The Kurdish Peshmerga are unlikely to relinquish de facto control of Kirkuk, so any threats of force from Baghdad could mutate into a standoff or worse.

In an interview with Foreign Policy last month, Barzani explained that he wants to “negotiate the results of the referendum” with Baghdad in the case that Kurds choose independence. Yet, when pressed to explain what framework or process would carry out the will of the voters, he deflected. Conversely, when asked about foreign support for the referendum, Barzani stated clearly that “if [international powers] stand against the referendum, it means that they are against democracy.” As a President who has had his own term extended beyond legal limits, Barzani did not seem to notice the irony.

The independence referendum, framed as a 100-year struggle for self-rule, will likely succeed. It is no surprise that Kurdish leadership would rather talk about self-determination than the details of voting or the plan to negotiate with Baghdad. However, the legitimacy of the independence movement may depend on it. Establishing a transparent process and reconvening Parliament are necessities when many people in the region could be deprived of a vote. If Kurds want to use the 100-year argument to assert their sovereignty, it is in their interest to do both.


Geoff Moore is a graduate of the MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College London where he focused on Middle Eastern politics and transitional justice. He has interned for the Kurdistan Regional Government in their London office and more recently worked on UN Advocacy for International Crisis Group in New York. He received his bachelor’s from Boise State University where he studied International Business and French.

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