For nearly a century, Turkish government officials and Erdogan nationalists have been overwhelmed by “Sevres syndrome” — a nationalist paranoia that ethnic Kurds, inspired by miscalculated borders and ethnic nationalism, would pursue separatism. The short-lived Treaty of Sevres and the central powers that signed the agreement laid the foundation for future treaties, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Treaty of Lausanne, to determine the fate of the regional order. Yet, unlike Sykes-Picot’s British and French zones of imperial ‘influence’, Sevres was much more self-deterministic; the treaty’s Section III, Articles 62-64, offered ethnic Kurds to conduct a referendum to chart their own course as a nation.
In 2017, the Kurdish nation is fragmented across Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi state lines. While the Kurds have created a transnational identity, their statehood objectives differ across Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish governmental constraints. A year ago I remarked how a unified Kurdistan in the Levant was nearly impossible — how the Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish identities intercepted any uniform statehood strategy among the Kurds, and in many ways, complicated the chances for Iraqi independence. This is a truth that still stands. A year ago, Kurdish statehood, of any kind, was a near-impossible phenomenon — even with international recognition, thriving oil exports, and an Islamic State exterminated from Northern Iraq. Kurdistan’s geopolitical position— straddled between the crossfire of Syria’s civil war, Iraq’s battle against Daesh, and Turkey’s illiberal presidential republic — seemed too costly to pursue separatism.
The Kurdish President Masoud Barzani shocked the international community when he announced Iraqi Kurdistan would conduct an independence referendum on September 25, 2017. The announcement was met with rhetorical caution, derision, and even interventionist threats from Kurdish neighbors, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, while the United States encouraged a delay so that war-torn Iraq would first be unified. Even though the referendum was non-binding and implicated no blueprint for negotiations, the international community perceived statehood as Barzani’s absolute objective. This is not the case; President Barzani recognizes Kurdistan’s internal setbacks and has crafted the referendum to achieve autonomy within the Iraqi government, not secession. Even if the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) can achieve greater leverage with the Iraqi government, the referendum has caused a schism in Kurdish theaters of trade, politics, and civil society. The very act of conducting the referendum has resurfaced many tensions, inequities, and setbacks that the Kurdish nation must face before pursuing concrete separatism.
Obstacles in the Oil Sector
Despite the strides Kurdistan has made towards democratization and de facto control of disputed territories, there remain many signs of political immaturity and economic stagnation. While Kurdistan has operated a bustling crude oil industry and expansive network of international oil companies (IOCs), it’s economic output has been reliant on what Denise Natali deemed “political limbo.” The KRG has been able to operate under the Iraqi government’s radar through leaving trade agreements, territorial boundaries, and revenues ambiguous — leaving ample leverage for a bustling oil trade. The Kurdish government has been able to sell nearly half their crude oil in 2017 to Israeli private firms— recipients that cannot be legally targeted by the Iraqi government for violating trade agreements. The ambiguity that has surrounded the oil-abundant province of Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Diyala, has enabled the Kurds to produce as much medium-grade crude oil necessary for economic independence. Yet, these blurred lines of legal uncertainty and the anagram of the ‘correct’ territorial perimeter with Iraq, are only temporary
fixes. Post-secession, an independent Kurdistan may find it challenging to retain many of its valuable trade partners, no longer free-riding on Iraqi revenues and
unable to offer attractive rates per barrel. Furthermore, while the KRG regards Kirkuk as an incredible geopolitical and economic asset to their road to independence, the province is aligned with the ruling party’s rival,
the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and is deeply fragmented along sectarian and ethnic lines. It is challenging for the KRG to even negotiate with Baghdad while the ruling party, the KDP, struggles to retain political control in Kirkuk. Kurdistan, while economically independent, is geo-economically splintered; the KRG should craft policy to appease the PUK in the Kirkuk province and confer with key trade partners — well before approaching the negotiating table in Baghdad.
Disappearing Political Unity
The Iraqi Kurdish government has been hailed as one of the most pro-democratic forces in the Levant, a stark contrast to Kurdish neighbors Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish parliament houses a plurality of factions, with the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), opposed by the PUK, the Movement for Change (Gorran), and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), and have pursued a special experiment in direct democracy.
While a large majority of elected officials support the objective of independence, the Kurdish parliament clash’s over the timing, process, and prerequisites are a reflection of the deep schism in Kurdish political unity. The very idea of the referendum was met with disdain by many parties that opposed the PUK, encouraging the Kurdish government to focus on democratic reform at home before pursuing a controversial road to separatism. Even a bi-partisan negotiation to determine the referendum’s date and conditions was boycotted by major elected officials in the Gorran party and the KIG, leaving KDP and PUK majorities to mitigate some of the most important conditions for Kurdistan’s fate. The Kurdish Parliament has not met as a body since
October 2015, nor does the nation have a constitution to guide it. In 2009, the KRG’s parliament drafted a national constitution, yet did not ratify, rendering any referendum laws, parliamentary rules, and legislative procedures nonexistent in Kurdistan.
President Barzani’s KDP party shares a strained relationship with many of its rivals. Barzani and his supporters are perceived as opportunists, conducting a swift referendum for political support and re-election while gambling with the Kurdish nation’s fate. Furthermore, Barzani has presided the executive office for more than four years and has delayed the next election, stating the nation needs political consistency during their fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Despite the 2005 decision to limit the presidency to two terms and require the speaker of parliament to succeed, the KRG extended Barzani’s term by two years in 2013. It will be increasingly difficult for any KRG delegation to represent the national interest with no blueprint, conditions, or terms approved by parliament, and will undoubtedly increase frustration among Kurdish officials and civil society.
As Kurdistan strategizes to contend with Baghdad across the negotiating table, the KRG should first establish definitive plans for the presidential election and a possible referendum for the 2009 constitution. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place on November 1, 2017, however, Barzani’s seat of power continues to be unrivaled. The KRG should also first assess their most paramount trade partners, such as Israel and Italy, to establish newfound conditions under different commercial routes, national taxation and revenue systems, and state alliances. Kurdistan is in dire need of economic diversification, and only its trade partners and few regional allies can aid such an endeavor. The political schism in Kurdistan is detrimental, but can only be remedied if the KRG reverses its autocratic tendencies, revives a dormant constitution, and re-calls parliament into session to discuss the conditions of separatism.
Caroline Rose is the Executive Editor of the World Mind Magazine and a senior in the School of International Service. She focuses on Middle Eastern foreign policy and is fascinated about post-Arab Spring conflicts in the Levant and North Africa.