Research studies

The Kurdistan Referendum and Regional Cross Sectarian Reaction


Democratic Arab Center


During the battle to degrade ISIS in Iraq some voices have highlighted the importance of political reconciliation especially between Baghdad and Erbil. The speculations about the prospected tension between Arabs and Kurds find the way to show up on the political surface. Alhashed alshabby incursion towards bishmerga areas in the north of Iraq caused severe fears among the political elite in Kurdistan. Therefore, some Kurdish politicians expressed a punch of allegations against the Shiite motivations to enter Kirkuk. The swing allegations between Baghdad and Erbil did not stop, in the contrary, have raised the ceil of tension by the announcement of Barzani to organize a referendum over Kurdistan independence. In this regard, there is a need to shed light on the prospected scenarios of regional interaction towards the political turmoil in Iraq.

After the battle to liberate Mosul Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, announced his intent to organize a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, which will take place on September 25, 2017.

A question should be tackled concerning the motives of Barzani declaration in this period of time in which Iraq faces huge bunch of challenges. The second important question is that how this declaration will affect the regional interaction?

In the aftermath of Barzani declaration a consensus can be noticed among Iran, Turkey, and Syria along with Iraq. They unintentionally agreed for the first time since decade on a political position. In this regard, one can notice how Turkey shifted its position towards the crisis in Syria. The motive is that, Turkey fears that chaos in Syria will provide Kurds with the opportunity to create its entity along the common borders with both Iraq and Syria.

To understand the whole story there is a need to visit the recent strategic developments in the battle against Daesh. One of the most important developments is that Popular Mobilization Units reach for the first time the common borders with Syria in one hand, and interact in Sinjar and Tal Afar on the other. These developments found resonance of danger into the Kurds’ perception. They understand it as preliminary moves to approach to Kirkuk.

The growing role of Shia militias in the regional politics

       Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday 20 June against any measures that could weaken the Tehran-backed Shi’ite paramilitary groups, saying such actions would endanger Baghdad’s stability. Alhashd al-Shaaby according to Kareem al-Nouri (PMU senior) estimated to comprise more than 130,000 fighters. In the light of Mosul fall by ISIS on June, 2014, Popular Mobilization was founded. Its mission was to protect Baghdad but later they take the lead on several occasions in the battle against ISIS in Ramadi, Salahidin and Mosul. Some Iraqi Sunni figures such as Atheel al-Nijeefy and Khamis alkhanjar have asked for the PMUs to be dissolved or expelled from their Sunni-majority provinces. But, in reality February legislation makes PMU an official institution under the umbrella of the Prime Minister Haider al-Abady. Mohamed alkhalidy – Iraqi Forces Alliance – believes that this legislation will militarize the Iraqi society, and endanger the state’s capacity to handle the security tasks.

       Meanwhile, alhashed alshaaby PMU did not pay attention to these allegations, but in the contrary expanded its role. For instance, recently PMU reached Ba’aj. Some observers believe that PMU serve Iranian plan to secure ground routes across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon. They refer to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis statement in which he stated that “We are not leaving Ba’aj, this will be our main base in the area.” From Ba’aj two roads ahead the PMU: the first towards Syrian border and that gives them the opportunity to participate in the battle cross Syrian border. The second route heads towards Sinjar and Tal Afar whereby Beshmerga controls the land less than 30 kilometers from the Syrian border. These developments are pivotal in 4 ways:

  • the war against Isis;
  • the survival of al-Assad’s regime;
  • In Iraq’s politics after Mosul liberation.
  • On the regional balance of power.


Massud Barzani and Talal Silo Spokesman for Syrian Kurdish-Arab coalition (SDF) share a negative vision about the role of PMU. Their fear came along US officials’ perception that Iran would be further empowered by an Iranian corridor through Iraqi territory to Syria, as well as strengthening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This perception highlights an impression that PMU is unavoidable fact not only in the Iraqi politics, but on the regional level alike.

In this regard, the US will not abandon its role in this chaotic situation, in order to avoid theconsequences to which a power vacuum is an inevitable result. Hence, US’ administration perceives the PMU as immense danger.

The consequences

According to the recent developments one can assume that the regional political map is a subject of change. Two projects are under fire: the first is the creation of Kurdish entity within Syrian territory. It seems that PMU’ leaders was keen to cut the road off ahead Barzani’ plan to link geographically between Kurdistan of Iraq and the areas of Kurds majorityin Syria. The second project is the US’ prospected political victory in Syria.

Despite the complex nature of Iraq’s regional atmosphere, there is a belief that Kurdistan’s referendum will provoke the cooperation among the regional rivals such as Turkey and Iran. Some may believe that Saudi Arabia sooner or later will join this process of regional convergence, while Saudi’s motives to approach towards Iraq might differ than the process with Turkey. What is important that Baghdad finds itself in a very interesting position, where the geopolitical trajectories of major regional powers, such as Iran, KSA and Turkey may encounter and find a way to establish working relations. Therefore, Baghdad has the potential to become the major regional point of reference for reconciliation. In this regard, several meetings took place recently between KSA and Iraqi officials and figures, most importantly the visit of Moqtada al-Sadr to Riyadh on 30 July, 2017. This visit is the first since 2006.

No state with Kurdish community will accept the emergence of Kurdish state in the region. At the same time, this cross ethnic-sectarian convergence does not neglect the sectarian projects specially that of Iran to create the Shiite crescent. What is important here, how Iraq can handle this situation?. One of the most important opportunities is to redeem relationship with Turkey.

All developments refer to the conclusion that says Barzani declared the referendum as maneuver for political motive. He fears the role of PMU in steering the circumstances in the disputed areas in favor of Baghdad. Thus, Barzani wants to put pressure on all parties to guarantee control over Kirkuk and the surrounded areas. In the light of these developments, Turkey sways back between two options: the first pushes Turkey to collaborate with Barzani to fight PMU; the second encourages Turkey to support Baghdad against the Barzani independent Kurdistan.

        Nonetheless, there is no chance that Turkey will support the growing trans-border role of Iranian backed Militias. In meanwhile, it is in Turkey’s interest that PMU cuts the road ahead Barzani in the short time. As a result, al-Assad is the biggest beneficiary if Barzani insists on organizing the referendum. The best case scenario calls out the regional players to take common position to find a balanced exit to the Syrian crisis. The exit should be a political solution to which the Syrian opposition has a sufficient role to guarantee that Iran will not be able to establish the Shiite crescent cross Iraqi territory that reach the Mediterranean sea. Thus, rival axes with sectarian imprints will be paralyzed in the near future but not for a while. It’s in the interest of the international community that Iraq and Turkey reproach to each other and that will definitely strengthen regional peace.


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