The Kurdistan Regional Government has set a date for its referendum declaring independence from Iraq. As Rudaw reports:
On Wednesday June 7, 2017, the high-ranking representatives of the political parties within the parliament and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in attendance with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, the president and deputy president of the Kurdistan High Electoral Commission, all convened with Mr. President Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region. [….]
The meeting’s attendants unanimously agreed on the following points:
– First, September 25, 2017 was set for holding referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration.
Critically, a senior advisor to President Barzani seemed to suggest that the referendum would include disputed areas under Kurdish Peshmerga control that are claimed by the central Iraqi government, most notably the oil fields and refineries around Kirkuk:
Referendum on 25/9/2017 is for Iraqi Kurdistan including kirkuk, Khanqin, Sinjar & Makhmor. The ? Is: Do you want an independent Kurdistan?
— Hemin Hawrami (@heminhawrami) June 7, 2017
As in Syria, removing ISIS from Iraq will solve one problem but give rise to others that may be more difficult to solve. While the progress to recapture Mosul has been slow, it seems likely that the entire city will be under the control of the Iraqi army by the time the referendum is held, leaving only small pockets of ISIS control along the Kurdistan Region’s border with federal Iraq. By September, those pockets may well have been recaptured as well. With the common enemy gone, but foreign support at its peak, there may be no better time for the KR to declare independence.
While Turkey is relatively close to the Barzani government and might be willing to accept an independent Kurdistan strictly within the territory of the Iraqi KR, they are deeply concerned with the PKK presence in Sinjar and fearful of the Syrian Kurds, whom they hold to be in league with the PKK. Concerns that the Kurds in northeast Syria might link up with the Kurdish enclave in northwest Syria in large part forced the Turkish military intervention there. While the Syrian Kurds for the moment claim that they only want greater autonomy within Syria, not independence, the threat of a unified Kurdish state spanning Iraq and Syria might force Turkey to take further military action.
Kurdish independence would also fundamentally alter the makeup of a rump Iraqi state. Since 2005, Iraq’s presidency has been de facto reserved for Kurdish office holders and Kurdish parties hold about 20% of the seats in Iraq’s parliament. Without the KR, rump Iraq is a more uniformly Shi’a state and may fall even deeper into the arms of Iran, particularly if the U.S. is once again pushed to withdraw after the ISIS threat recedes.
There’s much that the U.S. can do to try to shape the outcome of this referendum to our liking over the next few months, making demands or assurances where necessary. But that would require a clear eyed vision of what our goals are and a strategy for achieving them that was lacking during the past administration and of which there are as yet no signs from the Trump administration.