On September 28, 2017, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a panel event on the recently-held KRG referendum, entitled “The KRG Independence Referendum.” Panelists included Daniel Serwer, the Academic Director of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS); Denise Natali, Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University (NDU); Kadir Ustun, the Executive Director of The SETA Foundation at Washington DC; and Lesley Dudden, a Research Assistant at The SETA Foundation at Washington DC. Kilic B. Kanat, the Research Director at The SETA Foundation at Washington DC moderated the discussion.
In his opening remarks, Kadir Ustun explored the history of the relationship between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Ustun identified the Resolution Process with the PKK in Turkey as the point when Turkish-KRG relations gained significant political prominence. After the collapse of the resolution process during the offensive against ISIS in Kobani, “Turkey and the KRG formed a front against the PKK.” Examining why Turkey has been so vocal in its opposition to the referendum, despite the mutual interests the two share in trade and security issues, Ustun listed four over-arching reasons for this decision. First, while Turkey already recognized the KRG as a regional power, it viewed the referendum as an untimely decision that tests Turkey’s patience. Second, Turkey’s unwavering support for the territorial integrity of sovereign states, specifically Iraq. “Turkey does not want to contribute to the breakdown of Iraq by midwifing an Iraqi Kurdistan” Ustun remarked. Third, Turkey disapproves of the lack of negotiations between the KRG either with the Iraqi central government or regional powers like Turkey or Iran. Fourth, Turkey sees the referendum as a tool KRG President Masoud Barzani is using in an intra-Kurdish power-play to halt the demands of the opposition for a presidential election, Ustun argued, and Turkey does not want to be a part of that.
Lesley Dudden began by elaborating on the mutual interests that Turkey and the KRG share in the energy and security sectors. She pointed out the enormous trade volume between the two – 80% of all goods in the KRG come through Turkey, making the KRG Turkey’s third largest trade partner with an 8.5 billion USD trade volume. Similarly, the two are highly interdependent in the energy sector. However, Dudden noted that Turkey still buys Kurdish oil as a complimentary source, getting the majority of its oil supply from other sources, unlike Israel which purchases 70% of its oil from KRG. Briefly summarizing the security partnership of Turkey and the KRG, Dudden pointed out Turkey’s concern over the possibility of the PKK settling in northern Iraqi territories taken back from ISIS, especially Sinjar, which some fear is becoming “a second Qandil.” With such over-reaching mutual interests, the possibility of Turkey imposing sanctions on the KRG in the face of possible independence is a real threat to the livelihood of the region, Dudden said. She stressed, “Turkey has influence on whether independence is economically viable.”
Denise Natali, who had just returned from a visit to the KRG, pointed out that the referendum had had a substantial unifying effect on the various Kurdish factions, despite their prior fragmentation. Natali argued that the unifying effect of the referendum shows how powerful the KDP and its leader Masoud Barzani remain. However, Natali asserted that unity still does not provide the Kurds any leverage at the moment because Iraqi Arabs and other ethnicities in the region have pushed away by the ethnic component of the bid for independence. While Natali expressed doubt at the possibility of military conflict between the national government and the KRG, she noted the possibility that various militias hostile to Kurdish independence, including both Shia, Sunni, and other ethnic militias, may conduct attacks against the KRG. Natali characterized the referendum as a deliberate attempt by Barzani to grab international attention and criticized it as an unthoughtful effort that has undermined the stability of the region. Natali asserted that it “squandered the good-will the international community had for the KRG” during the campaign against ISIS. Looking ahead, Natali suggested that the aftermath of the referendum will also be an experience for the local population to see whether KRG is able to sustain the well-being of the region and may show that as a landlocked region, the process cannot move forward without regional support.
Daniel Serwer argued that Kurds have more than enough reasons to seek independence and that they do not have much incentive to rely on neighbors like Turkey and Iran. However he warned, “you just can’t declare independence, you have to negotiate it.” Serwer contended that the better path to independence for the Erbil would have been to first negotiate with Baghdad. Issues should include, first and foremost, proper borders, in addition to who would control state property in the KRG, such as monetary reserves, oil supply, embassies, and sovereign debts. Similarly, Erbil and Baghdad must form the necessary arrangements for selling its oil and gas. Serwer noted the importance of negotiations with neighbors as well as prominent regional powers, but noted that in this specific case, neighbors like Turkey and Iran do not seem to be agreeable unless an agreement is reached with Iraqi central government first, and other actors like the EU and GCC do not seem very enthusiastic to become part of the process. Pointing out the importance of bilateral recognition in attaining international recognition, Serwer underlined once again that the only option for the KRG is successful negotiations with the Iraqi national government. “There are geopolitical concerns the KRG has to consider, not rights based.” Serwer was dubious about the willingness of either the Iraqi national government or the KRG to sit for any negotiations in the near future but expected that at some point in the near future, the US or other international partners will set up talks between the two to attempt to resolve the issue.