The status of the Kurdistan region and its independence has been a tenuous issue in the Middle East since Kurdish forces became major players in combat operations against ISIS. Last month, the referendum held for a Kurdish independence sparked a major crisis in the region with Ankara and Tehran supporting Baghdad to marginalize the Kurdish referendum. The events that transpired afterwards signalled the precarious position the Kurdish independence movements are in; forces that fought together to liberate Mosul are now fighting each other for control of the Kirkuk province. Meanwhile, the United States stayed quiet, not interfering or taking a clear stance on the issue, despite allying with and arming the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. This crisis has led to the resignation of long-time Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, right before scheduled elections on November 1, now delayed by eight months. Who are Barzani’s possible successors and what does these developments mean for the future of Kurdish independence and regional politics?
The three major parties contending in the election are Barzani’s KDP, the Gorran movement led by the Omar Said Ali, and the PUK led by Barham Salih. Currently, the most popular party, Barzani’s KDP, has consistently campaigned on a platform calling for Kurdish independence. One major concern is that Barzani will simply transfer power to his nephew, the current prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, and exercise his influence from the background. This move would damage the democratic credibility of the Kurds, result in a continued a pro-independence stance, and a likely continuation of the coalition with the PUK. There would not be much change other than the face leading the Kurdish region, despite beliefs Barzani’s resignation could lead to reconciliation between the Baghdad and Erbil governments.
As assertive movements by the KDP have led to the current blowback against Kurdish independence, a Gorran-PUK coalition emerges as another possibility. The PUK is a socialist movement that claims to fight for human rights and democracy. Rhetoric or not, supporting the Barzani government further would compromise this position. The Gorran movement, while also supporting Kurdish independence, does not wish to do so in as abrupt and confrontational a manner. They would rather work towards deeper autonomy through dialogue and negotiations with the Baghdad government.
Given the results of the September referendum, it is difficult to imagine any party refuting a push for independence. Such a platform would deeply alienate any party from prospective voters. Yet, if the KDP forcefully pursues independence, they face a backlash from Baghdad, as displayed in the Kirkuk operations and regular micro clashes with PMU units. This situation strengthens the KDP’s position due to its strong stance on independence, despite the logical platform of the Gorran movement being the position most conducive to independence. If the Gorran movement fails to achieve long awaited discussions and the Iraqi government does not provide the further autonomy promised, then they possess increased credibility to escalate the assertiveness of their movement. Pushing for independence in the immediate post-ISIS environment, when the Iraqi government is attempting to put up a strong image, will lead to confrontation and garner very little international support from allied states. There is more to lose from a weaker Iraq than a non-existent Kurdistan.
The United States has been reticent in its stance, refusing to publicly become involved in what they are considering private Iraqi affairs. Yet, the United States’ preference is clear: a Gorran led government, due to a coalition with the PUK. The Gorran stance provides the United States an ability to avoid further confrontation within Iraq while providing a possibility where they do not have to choose between two allies: one strategically important to their interests in the Middle East, the other a symbol of independence and self-determination, lofty liberal values. The reliance on the PUK as a coalition partner would also provide a leverage mechanism for Washington to take advantage of should circumstances change. This position will likely not incite Iran and Turkey as much as the KDP position has, creating a more stable environment for the redevelopment of the region considering the post ISIS power vacuum.
Considering the popularity of the KDP and their hold on power, it is most likely that the blowback from the referendum is not enough to displace their political position, much to the chagrin of Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara. The hope to be considered is that the KDP and the Barzanis will have learnt a lesson from the latest episode: the United States will not support their assertive claims to independence, and the Iraqi government will respond forcefully to defend their interests in reclaiming the territory controlled by the KRG. If this message is received, then there is hope that the confrontation in the Kurdish autonomous region will not escalate as the KDP adopt a platform similar to the Gorran’s movement while satisfying domestic pressures for a strong stance on independence.