Reports indicate that the non-binding independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held on September 25 passed with a majority of 91.8%. The Iraqi Government denounced the referendum. In reaction, it closed its border crossings into the KRG on September 25. Reports additionally indicate that on September 27, the Iraqi Parliament gave the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) a mandate to deploy troops to the Peshmerga-held Kirkuk region.
Reports from September 22 quoting KRG President Masoud Barzani, affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), indicate that the referendum’s goal is to grant the KRG leader the mandate to negotiate independence. According to unconfirmed reports from September 29, Barzani agreed to postpone the declaration of independence for two years in order to engage in negotiations with Baghdad.
Furthermore, the Iraqi Council of Ministers demanded that the KRG hand over all oil revenues, as well as Erbil International Airport (EBL) and Sulaymaniyah International Airport (ISU) to the central government. During the evening hours of September 29, Iraqi authorities closed the airspace over the KRG for international flights, resulting in the cancellation of flights to and from the Sulaymaniyah and Erbil Airports, with the exception of domestic flights. This followed the ultimatum issued by the Iraqi government to the KRG to cancel the September 25 independence referendum results by September 29 at 18:00 (local time).
Turkish Airlines, Egypt Air, the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, and Royal Jordanian additionally announced a suspension of their flights. Since the results were announced, celebratory events took place throughout the region’s predominantly Kurdish-populated areas, including in Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
• On September 23, Turkey launched a military drill along the KRG border. While President Erdogan has threatened that “all military and economic measures are on the table”, Turkey’s Economy Minister Zeybekci stated on September 26 that he does not expect the referendum to impact trade relations between Turkey and the KRG at this point. At the time of writing, Turkey’s sole border crossing with the KRG, Habur, remains open. On September 28, Turkey’s Minister of Energy also threatened to impose sanctions on oil-related imports from KRG. Iran has threatened to cease all security cooperation with the KRG. Moreover, flights to KRG airports were reportedly suspended, while border crossings between Iran and the KRG were closed one day after the referendum
Assessments & Forecast
Over the short term, any concrete KRG steps towards independence remain unlikely to materialize, given the international community’s lack of acknowledgment, including by countries known for their military and economic support for Erbil, such as the US and the UK. Instead, President Barzani likely held the referendum at this point in order to deflect domestic criticism and bolster his status and popularity among the Kurdish population of the KRG. Such criticism is fanned by the fact that Barzani’s term expired in August 2015, with him staying in office after the Kurdistan Consultative Council extended his mandate for two more years. The measure has contributed to a persisting political crisis in the KRG, as evidenced by the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Parliament has been shut down since October 2015 due to growing disagreements between the KDP and opposition movement Gorran, particularly regarding the aforementioned extension of the presidential term. Barzani likely calculated that finally holding the referendum would assert his political control over the territory for the years to come. However, as Barzani previously stated, the referendum merely meant to grant the KRG the mandate to commence negotiations with the central government for independence, thus not entirely binding him to declare independence. Nonetheless, there remains a potential for some loss of credibility among the KRG’s Kurdish population in the long term, should the final goal of an independent Kurdish state fail to be achieved.
As highlighted by the Iraqi parliament’s mandate to deploy ISF troops to Kirkuk Province, tensions between the central government and Erbil are liable to remain heightened in the coming months. In addition to Baghdad’s interest in maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity, the KRG bears a significant economic importance, given its oil-rich regions, as well as its oil pipelines which run through its region towards Turkey. That being said, while minor skirmishes between ISF troops and Peshmerga fighters remain possible along the border of KRG-controlled territory and the central government, we assess that full-scale hostilities between the two parties remain less likely at this time. This is likely due to the fact such a scenario may weaken both parties, and thus pave the way for the Islamic State’s (IS) re-emergence in the country. FORECAST: Instead, Baghdad will likely impose political and economic sanctions on the KRG, which would potentially damage Erbil’s economy and cripple its ability to operate a sovereign state. This scenario is further likely in the event of similar sanction implementations by Turkey and Iran.
FORECAST: Within the KRG’s territory, the referendum is liable to exacerbate the longstanding internal sectarian tensions, particularly between the Kurdish population and the territory’s Arab and Turkmen minorities. This is further underlined by the reported clashes in Kirkuk Citybetween Kurds and Turkmen guards, during the night hours of September 18, in front of Turkmen Party Offices, which were triggered by the local Kurds’ celebration of the then-upcoming referendum, resulting in the killing of one Kurdish guard. Given the prevailing sense of marginalization among the Turkmen and Sunni Arab minorities, which would likely be enhanced in the event of the formation of a Kurdish state, it remains possible that some of these elements would be more susceptible to radicalization. In this context, the Sunni Arabs may even be prone to recruitment to Sunni jihadist militant groups, such as IS, as has been witnessed over the past several years. Regardless, localized ethnic-related hostilities between the aforementioned groups remain likely in the KRG over the coming weeks.
Regionally, the referendum is liable to enhance tensions with regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey. As underscored by the celebrations by Kurdish communities in these countries, this can likely be attributed to Tehran and Ankara’s growing concerns that the referendum will encourage the separatist aspirations of these countries’ Kurdish minorities and lead to increasing acts of militancy and civil unrest. With this in mind, Iran and Turkey’s posturing until this point likely intends to reduce the potential for such effects in these countries’ Kurdish-dominated areas. FORECAST: In Iran, groups such as the Party of Free Life
FORECAST: In Iran, groups such as the Party of Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) may intensify the frequency of their attacks against government-affiliated interests throughout the country’s northwestern provinces. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as its radical offshoot the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) to a lesser extent, will intensify their militant operations across the country, especially across its predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern regions.
That said, despite Turkey’s increasingly hostile rhetoric toward Erbil, significant punitive measures by Ankara remain unlikely at this time. This is likely because the latter is heavily invested in the KRG’s economy. The aforementioned statement by the Turkish economy minister indicates that economic sanctions on the KRG remain rather unlikely over the coming months. This assessment is backed by the fact that a potential closure of Habur border crossing, the main route for oil exports, would harm not only Turkey but also the Iraqi central government, which obtains the majority of its income from these oil sales. Additionally, should Turkey implement actual punitive measures against the KRG, it may impact the level of militancy across the country’s predominantly Kurdish-populated southern provinces. If Turkey significantly alienates the KRG, it would potentially lead to the latter’s support for Turkey’s main militant threat along the Iraqi-Turkish border, namely the PKK, as the group is known to cross the border back and forth. This is in contrast to the current relations between the two Kurdish groups, in which the PKK and the KDP-led KRG are currently in a state of rivalry.
Iran is highly threatened by a potential independent state, as it would likely have a pro-Western orientation, including in the form of friendly relations with Israel, which is the Islamic Republic’s main adversary in the region. Such a state may be perceived by the Iranians as a potential base of operations for its rivals. As a result, we assess that Tehran is likely to take more significant punitive measures against the KRG. However, should Tehran keep the border with the KRG closed over the long-term, this would be liable to result in increased unrest and an uptick in acts of militancy in Iran’s Kurdish-majority provinces. This is due to the fact that the Kurdish-majority population in the border area depends to a significant extent on cross-border trade, a major source of income for them. Given this possible negative fallout, Tehran may choose to reopen the border crossings over the coming weeks.
FORECAST: Regardless, the Iranian government will likely punish the KRG by instructing Iranian-backed Shiite militias to ignite hostilities with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in disputed areas in northern Iraq, particularly in the Kirkuk and Salahuddin Province’s Tuz Khurmatu area. With this in mind, the risk for such hostilities will likely be elevated over the coming weeks.
It is advised to defer all travel to Baghdad at this time due to the daily threat of militancy in the capital, violence in areas surrounding the city, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions.
Travel to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah may continue at this time while maintaining heightened vigilance and adhering to standard security precautions regarding the threat of militant attacks. Avoid all nonessential travel in the Kurdistan Regional Government outside of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil.
Given the ongoing presence of Islamic State (IS) militants in bordering provinces and subsequent clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga, it is advised to avoid the vicinity of the KRG’s borders, and the disputed areas. For those remaining in Baghdad, it is advised to ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options. We advise against nonessential travel to Basra. If travel is essential, contact us for itinerary-based consultation and on-ground support.
Travel to areas outside of Baghdad and Basra should be avoided at this time, particularly to the north and west of the country, including the Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces due to ongoing combat operations. This is in addition to avoiding the Babil Province, south of Baghdad. Those operating in these regions are advised to contact us for itinerary and contingency support measures, including evacuation options, given the deterioration in the security situation. Consult with us before traveling to Kirkuk City.
Those operating natural gas or oil facilities are advised to obtain security consultation for facilities in outlying areas, specific to the nationalities and operational needs of their employees. As a general precaution, it is advised that any travel, particularly in outlying areas, be conducted in armored vehicles, with proper security escorts and coordination with authorities.