Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendum

Briefing 11-10-2017

On 25 September 2017, the government of the autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq, under its president, Masoud Barzani, organised a referendum on independence, disregarding calls by the Iraqi central government and the international community to postpone it. The referendum was held in the Kurdistan Region's constituencies and also in the neighbouring 'disputed' territories, in particular the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, which have de facto if not legally been governed by the Kurdish authorities since the moment they were recaptured from ISIL/Da'esh. Even though the 'yes' side has won, it is by no means certain that a Kurdish state will emerge in the near future. Such a state would be weakened by internal divisions and poor economic conditions. In addition, Syria, Turkey and Iran strongly condemned the referendum and have taken retaliatory action. Among other considerations, they are worried that an independent Kurdish state would encourage their own Kurdish populations to seek greater autonomy. However, the prospect of a Greater Kurdistan is remote, since the regional Kurdish landscape is dominated by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and its affiliate parties, which do not share the Iraqi Kurdish leaders' ideology or strategic alliances. Concerned by the fragmentation of the Middle East, the EU, the USA, Russia, and most of the region's powers other than Israel, disapproved of the referendum, which took place in the context of the ongoing fight against ISIL/Da'esh, and called for negotiations within the existing Iraqi borders. This briefing updates Regional implications of Iraqi Kurdistan's quest for independence, EPRS, December 2016.