Mosul offensive unfolding against backdrop of Kurdish independence calls

Kurdistan leaders have been insisting in recent weeks on secession vote · Harsh economic situation, war and deep divisions among Kurds raise doubts about secession likelihood

Kurdish Peshmerga throw away IS flag, in 2014.
Kurdish Peshmerga throw away IS flag, in 2014. Author: Kurdishstruggle on Flickr
Kurdish and Iraqi forces have intensified their offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. Weeks before that, a lot of talk emerged (once more) about the prospects for Iraq's Kurdish independence. One of the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP, insisted on the need for an agreed independence referendum with Baghdad, while the other one, the PUK, even claimed that it had ensured a commitment by Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi to allow Kurdistan go independent. But, what the links are between the offensive, the referendum talk and the region's economy? Nationalia has talked to three Kurdistan experts.

The Abadi story goes that, according to Kurdish news site Rudaw, the Iraqi Prime Minster said in August that his government was ready to acknowledge Kurdish self-determination as an "undisputed right." Rudaw quoted PUK official Saadi Pira as the source for Abadi's words.

Might this be linked to the Mosul offensive? Tel Aviv University professor and Kurdistan expert Ofra Bengio believes it may be one of the reasons, bearing in mind that Abadi's words were "quite unexpected." "Abadi seeks to ally with [Kurdish president Masud] Barzani because he needs the Kurds for the war for liberating Mosul, where [Abadi] wishes to neutralize the Hashd al-Shabi," Bengio says.

Military analysts point out that the Kurdish ground forces, the Peshmerga, are a key player to retake Mosul. A US-backed combined offensive bringing together the Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, and several Christian Assyrian and Iraqi-state sponsored Shia militias (the Hashd al-Shabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces) is battling ISIS since March 2016 to recapture the city from where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate in 2014.

Are there further reasons why Abadi would be ready for compromise over independence?

Bengio says the referendum issue is also now "part of the intra-conflict between Abadi and the former [Iraqi] PM [Nuri] al-Maliki, who is totally opposed to the idea of Kurdish independence and who is also acting to undermine the present PM. The way Maliki hopes to do so is by allying himself with the opposition [to the KDP] in the Kurdish camp, namely the PUK and Goran, which are vacillating on the issue of independence."

The Kurdish camp has long be divided between the KDP (led by the Barzani clan) and the PUK (by the Talabanis). They even fought a Kurdish civil war in the 1990s which cemented the division of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region into two separate areas of control (the KDP to the west with closer links with Turkey, the PUK to the east with closer links to Iran). Each of both parties largely control their own Peshmerga forces.

Another reason, Bengio says, is that Abadi "needs the Barzani camp for solving the acute problem of exporting oil, and for all these reasons he needs to give something in return to them."

"Ongoing power struggle"

But might allowing an independence vote be this "something" given by Abadi to the Kurds? Journalist and Kurdistan analyst Wladimir van Wilgenburg downplays the scope of the story, recalling that the whole thing must be understood in light of the "ongoing power struggle" between the PUK and the KDP. PUK officials, the analyst recalls, usually meet and work "with Maliki," not Abadi, who "is working with Barzani."

Geneva Graduate Institute professor and Kurdistan expert Jordi Tejel further elaborates on this view: "KDP dominates the Kurdish autonomous government's president and first minister posts. Thus PUK is seeking informal channels in order not to lose influence. I have doubts on the story quoted by the PUK official. It is rather a way to show public opinion that they [the PUK] have better relations and are more tactful with Baghdad."

Economy before independence

Even if Barzani and his KDP have long insisted that Kurdistan will hold a referendum sooner or later, in agreement with Baghdad or without it, in recent weeks they appeared to be leaning towards a more conciliatory discourse, saying that it is indeed important to reach a deal with the Iraqi government.

"Barzani has been using the spectre of the referendum for years, but by the moment there is nothing concrete. What is true, however, is that more and more Arab Iraqi politicians are more at ease with the idea that the Kurds decide their own future," Tejel argues.

"On Barzani's change of tone," the professor goes on, "you have to keep in mind that the Kurdistan Regional Government is close to economic suffocation." The KRG is not receiving the 17% of the Iraqi budget for itself, as it should be done as per a previous agreement.

Besides, "the KRG must take a large part of the expenditure occasioned by the arrival of Iraqi and Syrian refugees and by the war against the Islamic State." Before going independent, "the Kurds should therefore make sure to guarantee that their funding is guaranteed."

"A Kurdish referendum doesn't mean independence per se. The Kurds also did an independence referendum in 2005," Van Wilgenburg recalls. Almost 99% of Kurdish voters supported separation, but the vote yielded no immediate results.

"Ideally, the KRG would prefer separation with an agreement which would grant legitimacy to such a move both internally and externally," says Bengio. "All in all it seems that the Kurdish leadership is waiting for the right window of opportunity which might never come if the necessary courage for going the extra mile is lacking."