ERBIL, Iraq — Just an hour drive from the smoldering ruins of Mosul — until recently Islamic State’s Iraq stronghold — the Kurdish city of Erbil is a bustling, modern metropolis untouched by war. After a decisive role in turning back ISIS, the Kurds stand at yet another precipice as they gamble on an independence referendum next month, risking instability or even conflict with Baghdad and Iran.
Though Kurdistan already feels like a different country from Iraq, visitors arriving to the Kurdish capital are confronted with little evidence of a momentous and historic Kurdish march to statehood.
Aside from a few vinyl banners, TV spots, car decals and a new referendum headquarters, one just doesn’t sense the buzz of a new country in the making — nor one in campaign mode, with presidential and parliamentary elections just eight weeks away.
“We have a strong, organic campaign, reflecting the will and the hearts of our people,” a senior advisor to Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, told me.
“It’s the culmination of a decades-long Kurdish struggle for dignity after cycles of genocide, war and a failed partnership with Iraq. Unlike the international community, the public doesn’t need much persuasion,” he assured.
The Kurdistan High Referendum Board announced in recent days that it will open a new office with dedicated staff and engagement programs to turn out supporters.
Compared with Brexit or Scotland, the result isn’t likely to be a nail-biter: Polls suggest a decisive outcome in favor, and 99 percent of Kurds said “yes” in an informal independence vote held in 2005.
But this time, the stakes are real and an opposition is organizing. Entrepreneur Shaswar Qadir, head of a leading opposition media outlet, launched a “No, For Now” effort against the referendum. Mulling a candidacy for prime minister of the Kurdistan region, Mr. Qadir’s group warned that an “yes for independence” outcome would bring “…a much deteriorated international and regional partnership,” and sees the vote as a partisan move to distract from government shortcomings.
Referendum organizers are working to secure support from all parties, with a focus on bridging divides over the reopening of the Kurdish parliament, which was suspended in 2015. The parliament was shuttered after a falling-out between the coalition’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Gorran, an opposition party. Gorran has boycotted all meetings related to the referendum.
The organizers want the parliament to open in time to weigh a legislative mandate for the referendum, however, Gorran’s bloc prefers to postpone the plebiscite. The KDP relented to Gorran’s demands with an offer to reconvene parliament without any preconditions and negotiations are ongoing.
Meanwhile, the push toward independence draws mixed reactions from abroad.
Aside from Iran, “No other countries have expressed opposition,” former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, now a key member of the Kurdistan High Referendum Board, told local news.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to express his disapproval, and Tehran summoned Kurdish representatives in hopes of derailing the move. Even Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the infamous chief of Iran’s covert Quds Force, visited Kurdish opposition strongholds to drum up resistance.
Turkey opposes the vote, though less harshly than Iran. President Recip Erdogan simply says the referendum is “wrong.” Yet, as a landlocked region, Iraqi Kurdistan’s relations with Turkey are key, since Turkey is their main outlet for global oil exports and trade.
During a visit to the Kurdish capital on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that while the referendum is “not a good idea,” that “it has nothing to do with trade with this region. We have been supporting [Iraqi Kurdistan], and our Kurdish brothers and sisters,” ending murmurs of potential Turkish reprisal.
The Turkish prime minister followed with reassurances that the referendum is not seen as a cause for war.
Kurdish authorities ask countries not supportive of the measure to at least not voice opposition. “It’s only a referendum. It’s not a declaration of independence,” said Kurdish Representative to the U.S. Bayan Abdulrahman, speaking to Foreign Policy.
“Even after the referendum we still have time to persuade our friends on the Hill and elsewhere that this is something for the good,” he added.
The first international leader to endorse Kurdish self-determination was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2014, and this month Netanyahu reiterated his support in a gathering with members of the U.S. Congress.
A handful of European Union member have indicated some support for holding the referendum, including Belgium, Greece, Hungary and Poland — but Kurdish officials are most buoyed by statements from Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.
Speaking to Kurdish media, Lavrov said, “The desires and legal goals of the Kurds must be fulfilled like that of all other peoples,” and the decision to hold the referendum is, “according to the right that they have within the international law.”
Zebari hailed the remarks as a “very progressive stance” with a “very extraordinary impact” on the calculus of Europe and the United States. American and British officials express recognition of the referendum’s premise, but cite the timing as a distraction from their priority of defeating ISIS and keeping Iraq united.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded President Barzani postpone the vote, following similar requests from other officials. President Barzani refused to agree to a delay, instead opting to dispatch a negotiating team to Baghdad to gauge Iraq’s appetite for concessions to Erbil, in exchange for a delay for the referendum.
Erbil and Baghdad are gridlocked over the Kurds’ 17 percent share of the Iraqi federal budget, unpaid since the end of 2014. The Kurds have financed their fight against ISIS and accommodate nearly two million refugees by independent oil sales without Baghdad’s approval.
Baghdad views this as an ongoing Kurdish violation of the Iraqi constitution that justifies their refusal to release the budget.
Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said in a recent speech that despite trying “every way with Iraq,” the Kurds “have no hope that Iraq could get better.”
The Kurdish negotiation team noted that postponing the vote is possible if Baghdad and the international community guaranteed an alternative date and fiscal relief. This notion fell apart when Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi refuted Kurdish suggestions that concessions were even on the table.
Citing no viable alternative, President Barzani adamantly declared in the last week that “Postponing is not a possibility at all.”
Beyond hostile rhetoric from Baghdad, Iraq’s central government may retaliate with closing Kurdish airspace, or by dismissing Kurdish members of the Iraqi government. Displaying little concern, the Kurds indicate they will not even attempt to appoint officials to already-vacant posts earmarked for them in Baghdad, including finance minister, chief of the army and intelligence director.
Military options do not appear to be under consideration, for now. Iranian media reports alleging that the Iraqi Army would intervene to stop the referendum are a “blatant lie,” according to Iraqi Defense Minister Erfan al-Hayali, who insists, “…the army will not interfere. It is a political issue.”
In spite of this assurance, a standoff continues between Kurdish forces and the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militants over the disputed Kirkuk and Sinjar areas. Open hostilities along these fault lines could bring de facto independence more quickly than even the Kurds would welcome.
“In order to maintain and protect our peace and coexistence, we will have to show our ambitions to the whole world in a referendum,” Prime Minister Barzani concluded.