Referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan: post-referendum assessment


In late September 2017, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities organized a referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence. However, this outcome was not immediately materialized into independence. Dr. James M. Dorsey, a Middle East scholar from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, shares his thoughts on the referendum and expectations in post-referendum future. 



Huseynov: The independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan held on 25 September 2017 demonstrated that the majority of the voters were in favor of independence. However, this outcome accompanied by large-scale euphoria did not convert into an independent state. What was the reason for Iraqi Kurdistan`s authorities to step back?

Dorsey: In my opinion, the Kurds have never surrendered their ambition to become independent. They are in quite a unique situation: they populate four different states, which border each other. During their struggle for independence, the Kurds have historically been very conscious on geopolitics. And in this regard, the timing of declaring independence would have to be determined by geopolitical circumstances. One can argue that the time is never going to be right as the international community does not like secession. Therefore, whenever the Kurds want to proclaim independence, it would create a lot of international and geopolitical problems. 

In my opinion, in recent years the Kurds a better chance for establishing independence: a fine moment for it came in 2014, when the Islamic State was swept off northern Iraq. At that time, the Kurds were a party that was in demand and much more needed. And then they had a great degree of leverage. 

The motivation for independence in September 2017 was driven more by domestic factors. There were corruption issues and other problems for Barzani inside the region, and he decided to calm that tide with an independence referendum. Although there was no split in Iraq Kurdistan on desire to become independent, there was a disagreement regarding the timing of referendum. Because it was evident that such a decision would provoke harsh international reaction, while the Kurds did not have a leverage to counter that. 


What was the major contribution or influence of the referendum and its results to the geopolitical developments in the region?

The referendum strengthened the hands of the central government in Baghdad. It did also strengthen the position of Iran and sent a warning to other Kurdish groups in Syria and Turkey. 


Is the idea of an independent Kurdish state still alive and could it be realized in the foreseeable future?

Absolutely. That idea has not died at all. And that won`t die. The prospect for independence, after the referendum, may have gone lesser, but the aspiration remains. 


How would you comment the position of the countries that support Kurdish independence? 

The Israelis were explicit in supporting the Kurdish independence. However, the U.S. did not endorse this aspiration, like the majority of the members of the international community. The United States were not so critical of the Kurdish independence referendum, but it did not show any support to it either. 

Talking about the regional geopolitics, one can argue that even if established, the Kurdish state, landlocked with no access to sea, would be surrounded by four hostile countries. 

Not necessarily hostile. We can refer to the Turkish-Kurdish relations, especially in the economic field. So it is not by definition hostile although Turkey does not want the breakup of Iraq.  

As I noted earlier, if the Kurds had done it when they possessed more leverage, one could have weighed pros and cons. 

Certainly, there is some fear on the possible Kurdish independence. Iraq does not naturally want to lose part of its territory. Turkey, Iran and Syria fear that such a move could give an impetus to Kurdish minorities in mentioned countries. 

There may be some plans in Washington to destabilize Iran through ethnic unrests of the Kurds, Balochs or Iranian Arabs. However, there is no decision yet to proceed with such a plan; nor is there any indication that the Kurds would want to be part of it.  


The development in autumn demonstrated once again that even in the 21st century the world`s political map is still flexible. The independence aspirations in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia occurred simultaneously. Can you draw any comparison between these two cases? 

There are both similarities and difference between these cases. As a matter of principle, such aspirations do not die now. They are enhanced by several factors, one of which is connected to technological advance and globalization. In other words, the world may not need large state units to interact with one another. Although international integration projects are important, small states can also function properly. 

In case of Iraqi Kurds, there is a large dissatisfaction with numerous arrangements made by the central government in Baghdad. The Middle East, unlike Europe, is in a period of very volatile and often brutal transition since the old structures and forms of rule no longer work and produce. As a result, the borders are being questioned. We can witness this phenomenon more obviously in Libya, Iraq, and Syria.