Regional implications of Iraqi Kurdistan's quest for independence

Briefing 06-12-2016

Strengthened by its victories over ISIL/Da'esh, the government of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq has announced that it plans to organise a referendum on independence. The deadline is still unclear, as political divisions have led the region to an institutional stalemate. Negotiations with the federal Iraqi government will focus on the territorial scope of the referendum. The Kurdish leaders want to include the 'disputed areas', in particular Kirkuk, in the poll. However, Iraq is not keen to be cut off from this oil-rich region, which is already at the heart of a dispute on the sharing of oil revenues. The status of Mosul after it is recaptured from ISIL/Da'esh is also under discussion. Even if the referendum were to take place and the 'yes' side won, it is not certain that a Kurdish state would emerge. Such a state would be weakened by internal divisions and poor economic conditions. In addition, Syria, Turkey and Iran, neighbouring countries that have complex relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, are worried that an independent Kurdish state would encourage their own Kurdish populations to seek greater autonomy. Yet, the perspective of a Greater Kurdistan is remote, since the regional Kurdish landscape is dominated by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and its affiliates, which do not share Iraqi Kurdish leaders' ideology or strategic alliances. As for the EU and the great world powers, although they consider Iraqi Kurdistan to be a reliable ally in the fight against ISIL/Da'esh (again recently in the battle for Mosul), they do not want to openly back the fragmentation of the Middle-East.