Barzani's referendum: killing the dream with a hoax

A dream of poets and politicians

In March of 2009, Jalal Talabani, the then-President of the Republic of Iraq, came under attack from a wide range of Kurdish groups for a statement he had given to a Turkish newspaper. Talabani had told the Turkish paper that Kurdish independence was “impossible” and a Kurdish state was only “a dream in poems”.  Many of Talabani’s rivals, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Gorran Movement who had just split from the PUK to form a new political party, regarded Talabani’s comments as an attempt to keep his position as president of Iraq. Others, especially on social media platforms, went as far as accusing him of treason.

Despite the huge outrage caused by his comments, Talabani’s depiction of independence as a dream was not very far from reality after all. For decades, the main talking point of the Kurds on independence had been an emphasis on independence as being a rightful dream and an admission that circumstances were not in favour of such Kurdish independence. Kurdish politicians did not deal with the concept of Kurdish independence much differently from the Kurdish poets. Following First World War, when the maps of the Middle East were being redrawn by the victors, Kurds were divided among four other countries. At the time, Kurds lacked the political awareness, vision, unity and leadership required for having a state. They were not a significant factor in the post-war negotiations. Although there were several movements in Turkey, Iraq and Iran to push for a Kurdish entity, they failed to take momentum and change post-war realities. Most of the movements were of a local and tribal nature with no real vision for a nation state. 

Kurdish nostalgia chooses to select memories which tell a story of conspiracy against Kurds. They think that independence was their ‘’right” and it was taken from them by international powers of that time and the neighbouring nations. They see the right to self-determination as equivalent to the right of having an independent Kurdish state. The dominant Kurdish political discourse doesn’t see the state as an administrative unit or a type of autonomous ruling, they see it as a right like any other basic human right such as food and shelter. 

In 1992 and under international pressure, the Iraqi regime had to withdraw its forces from the Iraqi Kurdish areas except Kirkuk. Kurds did not declare independence but did not stick to the old version of autonomy either. They chose federalism instead. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, Kurds succeeded to convince other reluctant Iraqi groups to accept federalism and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as a federal region in the Iraqi constitution was ratified in 2005. However, during all this time, Kurds never ceased talking about their dream of having a Kurdish state of their own. To the opposite, the flow of international oil companies into the region and the diplomatic opening to the outside world made Kurds more confident than at any other time that they were a step closer to their dream. 
Since 2011, ‘Kurdish independence’ has been the talk of the town. The Kurdish parties, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s de-facto president, have expressed their intention to move forward towards their historical dream.  The war with DAESH accelerated these steps as Kurds gained military control of Kirkuk, and parts of Ninawa and Diyalah provinces which were previously known as “disputed areas” between Erbil and Baghdad according to the Iraqi constitution’s article 140.

On June 7th, 2017, Masoud Barzani decided to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum is scheduled to be held on September 25th, 2017. Kirkuk and other ‘’disputed areas’’ are also expected to be included in the referendum. The Kurdish answer to the question Barzani is going to ask them is very well known prior to the referendum. All Kurds want independence. However, Barzani’s rush for a referendum amidst serious political and economic crisis both home and abroad raises many questions as well.  

Barzani: looking for a place in history

Masoud Barzani is the son of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the historical Kurdish leader who led several revolutions against various Baghdad governments. He was known for his secret and strong ties with foreign governments in his attempt to bring about a Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. He managed to secure a deal with Saddam Hussein in 1970 according to which Kurds were given autonomy in three provinces; Duhok, Erbil and Sulaimani. Following the Algerian Treaty between Iran and Iraq, the Iranian support for Barzani was withdrawn. He dissolved the revolution and went into exile. Barzani the father died in the US, disappointed and heartbroken. 

Masoud Barzani took charge of the KDP leadership after his father’s death. The KDP is a party without an ideology. In recent years, it has turned into a tribal structure with Masoud Barzani as president, Nechirvan Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s nephew, as vice president and Masrour Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s son, as head of the KDP’s strong Parastin intelligence. The KDP is not a nationalist party necessarily. It was far behind its rival, PUK, until recent years when it came to the Kurdish nationalist cause. Up until 1991, the KDP stuck to autonomy as the ultimate demand of Iraqi Kurds, while its rival, the PUK, had started advocating federalism as an alternative vision. 

Masoud Barzani eyes more power for his family and a name for himself in history as the person who achieved Kurdish independence, but sometimes those two ambitions go against each other. He is a pragmatist leader with no ideological depth. He is also not very educated compared to his peers Jalal Talabani or Nawshirwan Mustafa. But he has been the better of the three in missing no opportunity to expand his hegemony in Kurdish politics. In 1991, Barzani embraced those Kurds who had cooperated with Saddam and were known as jash. They were by the tens of thousands and some were prominent tribal figures with strong bases in their areas. This gave Barzani the advantage. In 1996, he had no second thoughts when he decided to make a deal with Saddam Hussein to invite Iraqi troops into Erbil and push out PUK forces from the city forever. Barzani owes a lot of his power today to Saddam’s support to him in the civil war. Barzani is not necessarily for or against Iraq. His position changes based not on nationalist agendas but on a purely pragmatist roadmap which eyes more power for himself and his family. 

In recent years, the KDP has taken charge of all crucial areas of decision making in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s important sectors are all dominated by the KDP with a marginal role for the PUK. Barzani himself has been the president of the region since 2005. His term was extended for 2 years in 2013. He has been acting as president since 2015 even after his term was ended. The current political crisis in Kurdistan is due to the KDP’s resistance to demands from other parties to have a new president. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, has been prime minister for more than 15 years. He was the prime minister of the KDP government in Erbil from 1999 to 2005. He then assumed the same role after the unification of the KDP and PUK governments. Except for two years in which Barham Salih, a liberal PUK politician and deputy to Jalal Talabani assumed the office, Nechirvan Barzani has been prime minister nonstop.  Barzani’s son, Masrour Barzani who many see as the second strongest man in the KDP and most likely successor to his father, has also been leading Parastin and Kurdistan National Security. Shortly, Barzani the father, Barzani the nephew, and Barzani the son are in charge of most aspects of decision making in the Kurdish region. 
Being the sole decision maker in Kurdistan is not good enough for Barzani. He finds himself bound by many rules and political realities when he acts within the framework of Iraq. His attempts to export oil independently led to a clash with Nuri Al Maliki which ended in Baghdad cutting the budget of the Kurdistan Region. He does not see himself as having the power and prestige he thinks he should have in Iraq. Thus, he thinks the current rules of the game needs to be changed. Barzani’s struggle for more power is in line with the Kurdish aspiration for more autonomy from Baghdad as well. Thus, Barzani can easily sell his personal goals as Kurdish dreams to his people and others.

A divided house 

Masoud Barzani’s meeting after which he announced the date for a referendum was boycotted by Gorran (Change) Movement and the Islamic Group, two of the five major Kurdish parties. These two parties did not recognize Barzani as president after his term ended in August of 2015. The PUK and the Kurdistan Islamic Union, two other major Kurdish parties, attended Barzani’s meeting but they also have been reluctant to recognize him as president of the Kurdistan Region. But all these four parties support reactivating the Kurdish parliament which has been forcefully shut down by the KDP since October 2015 before advancing with the referendum.

Gorran and Islamic Group reject the referendum based on legal arguments. They believe such a referendum should be ratified in the parliament and requires a legislation. Gorran MPs have made very strong statements against the referendum calling it a ‘’political fiasco’’. This rejection by these two parties is also supported by a huge backlash against the referendum decision by Kurdish activists, journalists and analysts on different media and social media platforms.

This confident ‘no’ to a referendum which involves Kurdish independence is startling. For an outsider, it would be unimaginable to have such a huge number of Kurds rejecting a referendum which is supposed to be asking them on their long lived dream of independence. However, for those with a bit of knowledge of the internal dynamics of Kurdish politics in Iraq, this backlash was expected. Shutting down the parliament by force and sacking Gorran ministers from their positions, in addition to Barzani’s sticking to power even after his legal term as president ended, led to this outright opposition to anything Barzani does, even if it is a referendum on Kurdish independence. It was inevitable that such a step would not be as popular as it would have been under normal political circumstances. 

Reactivating the parliament and normalizing the tense political situation are the least of what the KDP could do to ensure Kurdish unity before such a crucial step.  This divided house puts under the question the very notion of going for a referendum at this timing. It also questions the sincerity of Barzani’s claims that the referendum is a serious step and not aimed at internal political consumption. 

It is not only the political crisis which has divided Kurdish opinion on the referendum. The economic recession which followed Barzani’s standoff with Nuri Al Maliki has caused huge outrage among the Kurdish people, especially in Sulaimani province. Public sector employees did not get their benefits and salaries for three months in 2014, and they have not been compensated. Government employees who form the absolute majority of the workforce in Kurdistan are now getting only a quarter of their original monthly salary. Many hold the government and the KDP’s oil policies as responsible for the economic crisis. Iraqi Kurds have been through worse economic conditions before, but this time, they see corruption and mismanagement of the oil revenues as the cause for the economic recession. For them, Barzani manifests a plutocracy which has allowed a minority of people loyal to him and his allies to get wealthy while the people have gotten poorer. 

The gamble on the disputed areas

The most interesting aspect of Barzani’s referendum is the decision to include what is known as ‘’disputed areas’’ or what the Kurds call “the Kurdistani areas outside the region” in the referendum. This decision is not only the most controversial aspect of the referendum from the Iraqi point of view but it could be the most uncalculated part as well. 

The “disputed areas” is a constitutional term which was put in the Iraqi constitution to describe those areas which are disputed between Erbil and Baghdad. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution set several procedures to solve the issue. The disputed areas cover the entire Kirkuk province, and several parts of Ninewa, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces. The Iraqi army’s defeat to ISIS in 2014 proved an opportunity for the Kurds to control those areas militarily. The Kurds were present in Kirkuk and other disputed areas administratively before ISIS. However, Peshmerga’s effective role in filling the security gap caused by the Iraqi army retreat convinced many parties, international and local, that the presence of the Kurdish Peshmerga is the best possible option for the time being. 

The decision to include these disputed areas is a huge gamble by Barzani which might lead to unintended consequences. Kirkuk, for example, has a huge Arab and Turkmen presence. While Kirkuk Arabs have refused to recognise the legitimacy of the referendum, the Turkmens have not made up their minds. Traditionally, the Turkmen have been the party with the strongest opposition to the idea of annexing Kirkuk to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. In March 2017, Turkmens protested raising the Kurdish flag alongside the Iraqi flag on Kirkuk state buildings. They are also expected to follow the Turkish line of rejecting the referendum. If Turkmens and Arabs of Kirkuk reject the referendum or vote no in the referendum, not only will it affect the results, but it will also not go unnoticed from the eyes of the regional and international players. 

Some of the disputed areas are still under ISIS control. Hawija, a large town in Kirkuk province with a huge Arab majority, is still under ISIS control. Tuzkhurmatu, a town in Salahaddin province, which was scene to armed clashes between Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite Popular Mobilization Units, is another disputed area which may disappoint the Kurdish leadership in the referendum. The renewal of the clashes in the area or a ‘no’ vote victory in the town could lead to a long and bloody conflict. 

On the other hand, Sinjar, the homeland of the Yezidi minority is another hot spot in this equation. Many Yezidis hold the KDP responsible for the genocide they faced at the hands of ISIS in 2014 which led to the death of hundreds of Yezidis and enslavement of thousands of Yezidi women. The Yezidis see the KDP’s unannounced retreat from these areas as the reason ISIS could do this to them. Their animosity towards the KDP has been translated into a higher awareness of Yezidi identity. Many of them now support the PKK, a force which is present in Sinjar. Others have joined the PMU. But they all believe that the Yezidis need some form of autonomy which will ensure that 2014’s events will not happen again to them. If the referendum is going to be held in Sinjar, it is not sure if the people will turn out to vote or if they will vote yes. 

Barzani’s decision to include these areas are of symbolic importance to the Kurds as it resembles Kurdish territorial unity between the different provinces, but it is also an uncalculated move and a very risky gamble. 

No friends but mountains 

Barzani’s decision to hold a referendum for independence in September was met with condemnation, rejection and calls for restraint from the outside world. Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs came out first against the referendum calling it a ‘’mistake’’. The same Turkish position was later repeated by the Turkish prime minister and the Turkish president. Erdogan even went as far as signalling a possible repercussion when he said that the Kurds have sometimes used Turkish support for the wrong reasons. The Iranian government rejected the referendum and repeated its previous message of supporting Iraq’s territorial unity. The Iranian media launched a full scale attack on the referendum decision. A website close to Ayatolla Khamanei called the Kurdish state an ‘’ISIS state.” 
The U.S., the U.K., Russia and Germany made separate statements repeating their support for the unity of Iraq. The U.K.’s statement against the Kurdish referendum stood amongst the others in asking for the Kurds not to proceed with the referendum. The statement was made by Boris Johnson, the U.K.’s top diplomat, who was in Kurdistan in 2015. He drank Erbil tea, gave poses in Kurdish clothes and visited Peshmerga frontlines against DAESH.

There is almost a consensus among the major regional and international actors that the referendum is not a step in the right direction. Barzani should have known all this before making the decision to go for the referendum. He is also too pragmatist to wage a war against each and every neighbouring country and international power for the sake of a referendum which is not necessarily leading to independence. Thus, it is not yet clear how Barzani plans to manage this backlash coming from the different world corners. Being a president whose legitimacy is in question and whose popular support for the step is in jeopardy due to the political crisis, it is not clear if he has a plan or not. 

Some pro-KDP pundits talk about ‘secret’ support coming from Israel, Saudi and the UAE for Barzani’s referendum decision. The Qatari media had also claimed that the UAE is funding Barzani’s referendum for separation from Iraq. Israel had expressed support for Kurdish independence in the past, but it is not clear how they would do that. There has also not been any official statement from Saudi and UAE in support of the Kurdish referendum or Kurdish independence. Barzani’s relations with the Saudis and the UAE, especially the Abu Dhabi government is very good. However, up until a month ago, talking of possible Saudi support for a Kurdish referendum for independence would have been unrealistic. However, the Saudi-Qatari rift and Turkish-Iranian pro-Qatari position in the crisis could possibly mean a changed Saudi position on the referendum and Kurdish independence. Hoshyar Zebari attacked on social media the visit of Salim Al Jibburi, Iraqi parliament speaker, to Qatar accusing him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This statement, which is very much in line with the Saudi-UAE talking point against the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, could mean a KDP preference for the Saudi camp. But it only complicates KDP’s position with Turkey.

Barzani would be happy to get any help and support for his step from any government in the world, regardless of distance and political power. However, he knows very well too that a Turkish-Iranian veto on his steps means he has no chance of success. The KDP’s argument for independence so far has been using the pro-Barzani Turkish position as evidence that such a Kurdish state will gain Erdogan’s approval or he at least will turn a blind eye to it. However, Turkey and Iran have made it clear that not only are they against Kurdish independence but they reject even the referendum process. Now that Turkey and Saudi seem to be at odds on the Qatari crisis, Barzani’s position is even more difficult. While no Saudi support means no friends at all in the region, Saudi support means an escalated Turkish animosity towards his project. 

Referendum not independence 
Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent KDP leader and uncle of Masoud Barzani, seems to be the head of the referendum dossier. Zebari, who was holding a key position in Baghdad up until 2014, has now turned into the face of the referendum campaign. Zebari represented Iraq as Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs from 2003 to 2014 and then assumed the office of Finance Minister from 2014 to 2016 before he was removed by the Iraqi parliament from his position. Zebari attempted to stay in his position as Iraqi Finance Minister through filing a suit against parliament, but he lost the case. He then relocated to Kurdistan where he quickly became one of the fierce proponents of the referendum. He’s now appointed by the KDP as the head of the PR campaign for the referendum. 
Being a maven diplomat, Zebari has been quick to mark a clear difference between a referendum and Kurdish independence. On more than one occasion, Zebari has rejected to correlate the referendum for independence and independence itself. He has argued, especially when talking to an Arabic or foreign audience, that Kurds will hold the referendum but will not go for declaring a state immediately as state building is an entirely different process. He has also said that the referendum is not binding to the Kurdish political leadership. 
Zebari’s comments were also repeated by Qubad Talabani, Jalal Talabani’s son and KRG deputy prime minister. Qubad Talabani is also assigned to explain the Kurdish position to the outside world especially the Europeans. He, as well, has clearly made the point that Kurds are not intending to declare independence anytime soon.   
The KDP’s message in its local Kurdish speaking media is entirely different from what Zebari and Talabani tell the outside world. When the audience is local Kurds, the messages tend to be charged with a great dose of nationalism trying to equate the referendum to declaring independence and alienate any voice opposing the referendum. Some pro-KDP pundits have gone as far as asking for punishment for anyone opposing the referendum or urging people to vote no. 
This contradiction between the KDP’s message to the world and its message to the local Kurds strengthens suspicions by many that the main aim of Barzani’s referendum is using the process for internal political consumption while also having a card for negotiation against Baghdad and others. 

Fraud is inevitable 

Change Movement and the Islamic Group are most likely to stay neutral while continuing their criticism of the referendum process. They may also ask Kurds to boycott the referendum. But no Kurdish party will risk being labelled as ‘’anti-independence’’. No Kurdish party has or will be expected to ask people to vote ‘no’ in the referendum. However, the strong anti-referendum sentiment among the Kurdish youth, the suspicions of Barzani’s intentions with the referendum and bad economic conditions will affect the referendum results. Kurdistan does not have independent reliable polling firms and generally polling before referendums or elections are not a part of Kurdish democratic culture. However, given the circumstances, a huge portion of Kurds may boycott the referendum. The voter turnout may not exceed 40% in Sulaimani province. A noticeable number of protest ‘no’ votes are also expected. In 2009’s presidential elections, no Kurdish party had a candidate competing against Masoud Barzani for presidency. The other four people on the ballot paper were unknown persons with no public or even elite support. However, in Sulaimani province, which is the largest Kurdish province in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani lost to Dr. Kamal Mirawdawli, an academic with no popular base. A similar scenario is expected for the referendum as well.  

In the past, serious allegations have been made by major Kurdish political parties and NGOs accusing ruling parties of widespread fraud in the electoral processes. The fraud was conducted while there were rival political parties competing against each other for votes. In the referendum, the possibility of fraud is even higher. The case of the Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2005 can help us understand why. In 2005, all Kurdish parties except the Islamic Group, which was then a less popular party, were united in a coalition. On election day, fraud was conducted by the agreement of all Kurdish parties taking part in the coalition. For them, the coalition was an attempt to show Iraq the Kurdish unity and the number of Kurdish votes. Thus, the parties turned a blind eye to filing the ballots in large numbers for the benefit of the Kurdish coalition.  Under normal circumstances, there would have been no need to attempt fraud to increase voter turnout or increase ‘yes’ votes in the upcoming referendum, however, given the realities mentioned above, only an electoral fraud with the consensus of the supervising parties will increase voter turnout and yes votes, especially in Sulaimani province. 

Authoritarianism at home, chauvinism abroad 

The Kurdish dream to have an independent state still lives on. It will live on before and after the expected referendum regardless of the results, but it will stay a dream far from reality for a long time. Kurdish independence is yet far to be in sight. There are many internal and external reasons which make Kurdish independence more of Talabani’s “a dream in poems” rather than Barzani’s “I will achieve it” approach. 
The most important reason is the outright enmity of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria for the idea of an independent Kurdish state. A Kurdish state in Iraq means inspiration for Kurds from the other parts to dream of independence. They all know well that everything starts with a dream. They want to kill that dream from the beginning by not letting a state named Kurdistan grow and prosper among them. For many reasons, international powers are not ready to change the political map of the Middle East which was drawn after the First World War. They still stick to the old options of supporting central governments while recognizing the need to give Kurds more rights. That is why, the U.S., Russia and the Europeans support Kurds in their fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria but do not support them gaining more than what they already have. 

Another significant factor which makes independence political suicide is the fact that Kurds are not prepared for it. Iraqi Kurds, led by Barzani and Talabani, have done exactly the opposite of what is required to build a modern state. Statehood has been treated as a motto, a political talking point, a tool to suppress opposition and a dream to entertain with, but it has never been dealt with as a serious project. The political actions of the ruling families and parties in Kurdistan tell a story of absence of statesmen and strategic thinking. The Kurds have not united the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Peshmerga and security forces are divided on parties, families and political figures. The government is bankrupt and the KRG has done very little to have a modern transparent economy. More and more politicians act as war lords’ act, against the rule of law taking over lands and establishing shady businesses.  Freedom of expression is still seen a danger by some ruling families. Critics and journalists do not feel safe. The KRG experience has been a failure due to the strong tribal sentiments of the ruling families who envision a small kingdom and the powers of a Sultan for themselves and not modern states. Thus, the Iraqi Kurds are between a rock and a hard place. While neighbouring countries approach them based on the chauvinistic agendas that deem any Kurdish entity a danger to them, the Kurdish leaders are on an authoritarian path with no regard for laws and democratic norms. 


Barzani’s referendum is a hoax and not a calculated move with a real project for building a state for the Kurds. This hoax not only will not accelerate achieving the long lived dream of independence, but it may kill its chances. Internal divisions and external enmity put under question Barzani’s rush in holding the referendum while his legitimacy as president is widely controversial. In all cases, Barzani will use the referendum to tighten his grip on power in Kurdistan. It may be a good reason to delay and cancel the electoral process in the region altogether. Barzani knows better than anyone else that he will be living inside Iraq for some more time but he wants to stay with more powers and less commitment to democratic norms and regulations. 

Kurds, a nation who have gone through the worst fighting for their survival and their dream of an independent state, deserve protection from the international community so that genocides and weapons of mass destruction will never ever be used against them again. They also deserve better leaders with a vision for a democratic modern Kurdish authority which preserves the rights of the citizens and creates steps with a real and serious agenda towards the Kurdish dream of independence.

This article orginally appeared on NRT English.
Read a Kurd Net version here.