New Commentary Analyzes the Upcoming Kurdistan Referendum

In a new LISD commentary “Kurdistan and Its Referendum,” Walter Posch of the National Defence Academy in Vienna analyzes the potential outcomes of the upcoming September 25 referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. Posch argues that "without a regional consensus or at least a powerful state as partner on the ground, and without a real American commitment and strong and sustained support, declaring independence remains a risky endeavor, albeit a highly popular one." This said, he concludes, "in absence of being able to predict the future of Kurdistan the competition between PKK and KRG risks to become more of the same after this referendum, thus pitting one Kurdish group against the other, making kurdayeti again a dream for the next generation, rather than a reality for those living today."

Abstract

During the last century Kurdish nationalism—kurdayeti —has steadily gained importance among Kurds. This said, there is no unified political body or organization functioning as an umbrella organization for all Kurdish groups. As a matter of fact, two main Kurdish forces have become important political actors in the region: the Kurdistan Regional Government led by the KDP, and the PKK and all the parties and organizations linked to it. Both have established themselves as political and military forces on Kurdish inhabited territories where they were able to setup their own administrations, namely the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Rojava in Syria. Yet the KDP and the PKK are also political and ideological competitors who have territorial disputes among themselves, especially in the strategically important Sinjar region, a mountain range on the Syrian-Iraqi border west of Mosul inhabited by Yazdi Kurds which is separated from Kurdistan proper by a belt of Turkmen and Arab settlements. But most importantly, it is in the respective attitudes of the KDP and the PKK towards Turkey where the differences appear most dramatically. In Arbil, the KDP maintains quite cordial relations with Ankara, whereas the PKK has conducted a 40-year insurgency against Turkey which has intensified after the faltering of the peace process with Ankara in 2015.

Ironically both, the KRG and the PKK, have good relations with the United States, without however being able to formulate a common position in order to harness American support for a Kurdish rather than a partisan cause. Thus, this referendum in September can be seen as a means to rally support behind the government in Arbil and at the same time to force the United States to come out more vociferously in favor of Kurdish independence. It also draws some legitimacy from the Kurdish resistance against the ISIL/DA’ESH—although, it was the PKK or PKK affiliated forces who did most of the fighting. The big question now arises what happens after DA’ESH will be defeated? One possibility for both Kurdish parties is to position themselves against Iran in the regional equation and try like this to secure the continuation of American support. If this was the case Iran would certainly react, although rather with an economic blockade and subversion than with crude military force. 

But without a regional consensus or at least a powerful state as partner on the ground, and without a real American commitment and strong and sustained support, declaring independence remains a risky endeavor, albeit a highly popular one. This said, in absence of being able to predict the future of Kurdistan the competition between PKK and KRG risks to become more of the same after this referendum, thus pitting one Kurdish group against the other, making kurdayeti again a dream for the next generation, rather than a reality for those living today.

About the Author

Dr. Walter Posch is a Middle East expert at the National Defence Academy in Vienna, Austria, who publishes regularly on Iranian domestic and foreign policies. In previous assignments he worked at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin (2010-2014), as a Middle East Expert at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris (2004-2009), and for the National Defence Academy in Vienna (2000-2004). He holds a Ph.D. in Iranian Studies from Bamberg University. 

About LISD Commentaries:

The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination supports a publication program that disseminates research conducted as part of Institute projects in a variety of formats. The published output from LISD includes policy briefs, issue reports, edited volumes, and book-length policy reports that are part of the Liechtenstein Colloquium Report series. The program also supports the e-publication of "LISD commentaries," op-ed style articles that provide analysis and insights to a broad range of current events and pressing policy issues. Past LISD commentaries have addressed issues ranging from counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in Egypt, and Turkish elections to human trafficking, self-determination and modern diplomacy, and observations from fact-finding trips to Tehran and Kabul. LISD commentaries are written by LISD researchers, faculty associates, non-resident associates, and participants in LISD-sponsored lectures, panels, workshops, and colloquia.