The Kurdish Dream: Looking Back at Reactions to the Kurdish Referendum in 2017 in Iraq

By Margaux  Marzuoli

In September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum to vote on the independence of the autonomous region of Kurdistan located at the northern border of Iraq. Although 92% of Iraqi Kurds voted for the independence of the region, the referendum was not recognized as legitimate by a wide range of external political actors and, as such, was unsuccessful in granting Iraqi Kurds further independence and recognition of their identity. But who said what? Who supports the Kurdish identity and who doesn’t?

The Response of Iraqi Kurds

The results of the referendum (92% in favor of Kurdish independence from Iraq) showed that a Kurdish identity was being internally legitimized in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. The high turnout (73%) demonstrated that the population adhered to and engaged with the political idea of the KRG and an independent Kurdistan. Moreover, the fact that all Kurdish parties voted despite their numerous disagreements on how to achieve self-determination, further legitimized the KRG. Mullah Bakhtyar, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) claimed that the referendum should have been postponed (after seeing the reactions of international actors). Nevertheless, Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG at the time of the referendum and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), argued that he and three million people in Kurdistan think otherwise, further adding that it was a correct, legal and constitutional decision and that it’s a natural right of the people of Kurdistan. Even so, the results were contested by the Iraqi Kurdish political party GORRAN Movement for Change, criticizing the referendum for having no observers from Kurdish parties, arguing that the process was not professionally supervised.

It is important to note that the legitimation of the KRG is crucial if Kurdistan is to become independent because a nation-state’s right to rule (sovereignty) comes from in part from internal legitimacy. In addition to internal legitimacy, sovereignty requires external legitimacy – the recognition of the state by other sovereign states. While the Kurdish identity and its embodiment in the KRG are legitimized within the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, these lack external legitimacy.

The Response of Iraq

Iraq had two clear responses to the referendum. First, the Iraqi government proclaimed that it was unconstitutional. Although Iraqi Kurdistan has a special status under the Iraqi constitution – which would imply that it could have a said self-determination status – the constitution does not grant the right of secession. It does however recognize Iraq as a state of multiple nationalities brought together in free union. Thus, in calling the referendum unconstitutional, Iraq chose not to recognize the nationhood – the status of being a nation and having a national identity – of Iraqi Kurds. In doing so, Iraq delegitimized the political identity of Kurdistan, through external legitimacy. 

After doing this, Iraq launched an attack on the city of Kirkuk. The resulting conflict in Kirkuk between the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) resulted in a loss for the KRG. The Peshmerga weren’t the only symbol of Kurdish identity that were crushed in this defeat. The oil-rich nature of the northern region of Iraq has long allowed Kurdistan to promote its identity through trade. Indeed, the choice of entities such as Chevron, ExxonMobil and Total SA to trade directly with the KRG, ignoring possible threats of legal action from the Iraqi government, have been a great source of external legitimacy. Nevertheless, having lost 40% of the land in their jurisdiction, including a considerable percentage of their oil fields, Total and Chevron decided to halt their investments in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Hence, in addition to losing economic sovereignty and legitimacy, this was seen as a major setback in Kurdish hopes for an independent nation. Also, in order to end conflict in Kirkuk, the KRG had to sign a pledge to not seek independence again.

Since then, Iraq has shown to recognize some forms of Kurdish identity, as the government made it mandatory for Iraqi schools to teach Kurdish as a second language in 2019. However, Iraq’s choice to legitimize solely the cultural aspects of Kurdish identity, has given limited sovereignty and legitimacy to the political identity of Iraqi Kurdistan. As a whole, this shows that Iraq is not willing to legitimize the aspects of Kurdish identity that could lead Iraqi Kurdistan to being more politically independent.

The Response of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Israel

Regionally, not many approved of the referendum, thus having a negative impact on the legitimacy of Kurdish identity. Turkey, a long-standing ally of Iraqi Kurds, did not approve of the referendum at all. Iran shared the same opinion arguing that the timing was not right. Syria also rejected the referendum arguing it only “recognize a united Iraq and reject any procedure that leads to the fragmentation of [it]”. Knowing that all these countries host parts of Kurdistan, their rejection of the self-determination referendum is arguably because they do not want Kurdish populations within their borders to claim independence. 

Nonetheless, Israel seemed to legitimize the referendum. Although Netanyahu’s government initially refused to comment on the referendum, officials confirmed Israel’s position on Iraqi Kurds, legitimizing the referendum and Kurdish identity. Yair Lapid, a former minister in Netanyahu’s conservative coalition, stated that “the Jewish people know what it is to struggle for a homeland” and argued that “the Kurds have a moral right to a state of their own”. Relations between Israel and Kurdistan are ambiguous, as they share many similarities and differences. In addition to a shared struggle for sovereignty, Israel and Kurds in Iraq have maintained discreet but close military and business ties. However, Israel and Kurdistan do not always align in their political motives. One Kurdish official even called this relationship “unsolicited and damaging” arguing that opponents of Kurdistan have attacked them based on the impression that Kurdistan is a “second Israel in the region”. Hence, it is unsure whether the support of Israel in Kurdistan’s fight to be sovereign has given Kurdish identity further legitimacy.

The Response of the World

Internationally, many actors spoke out against the referendum, delegitimizing Kurdish identity and legitimizing the political identity of Iraq. The UN Secretary Council announced that it “[respected] the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq”. The US Secretary of State at the time, Rex Tillerson, also announced its support for “a united, federal, democratic, and prosperous Iraq” adding on that “the vote and the results [lacked] legitimacy”. 

Indeed, the legitimacy of the results were heavily debated amongst the international community. This greatly affected the external sovereignty of the KRG. Despite the claims made by several members of the international community, foreign observers of the referendum confirmed that the vote was “free, open and transparent”. Referendum observer, Henry Lévi issued a formal statement on the election stating it was an “exemplary vote according to International standard of democracy”. Hence, in addition to not recognizing the referendum and thereby not recognizing Kurdish identity, the doubt of the international community in the legitimacy of the KRG’s political system had a negative impact on the Iraqi Kurdish identity. 

To conclude

While the Kurdish people played a role in internally legitimizing the KRG and the political identity of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish identity has been heavily delegitimized by the international community.

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska, Illustration by Kelly Ville