Iraq probably didn’t need to become any more fractious.
The country is deeply divided along sectarian lines with the Shiite government effectively making up for lost time spent under Saddam by marginalizing Iraq’s Sunni minority in the wake of the US invasion that ousted the Ba’athists.
Complicating matters is the presence of Islamic State (which in its early days recruited from the ranks of Saddam’s conquered security apparatus), who still control the country’s second-largest city as well as several oil fields.
And then there are the Kurds, whose semi-autonomous status has gotten less “semi” the more chaotic the country becomes.
As we recounted in detail back in November, a key point of contention between Erbil and Baghdad is oil revenue. SOMO wants the KDP to transfer some 500,000 b/d of oil production to SOMO and in return, the Kurds are supposed to get 17% of Iraqi oil proceeds.
Without delving too far into the specifics, just know that the two sides have never really been able to come to a comfortable and/or lasting consensus and so, the Kurds have moved to export their oil independent of SOMO to the tune of some 630,000 b/d. The revenue from those sales is Erbil’s lifeblood and the money also pays the salaries of the Peshmerga - the Kurdish fighters who have proven to be particularly effective at battling ISIS and who are allied closely with the American boots on the ground in the country.
Now, in a move that’s sure to irk Baghdad, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has declared that “the time has come and the situation is now suitable for the Kurdish people to make a decision through a referendum on their fate.”
In other words, Barzani wants to see what his people think about the prospect of declaring statehood.
“The chaos created by Islamic State's occupation of swathes of Iraq and Syria has given Kurds a chance to further their long-held dream of independence,” Reuters writes, adding that “the region is currently struggling to avert an economic collapse.”
Barzani was careful to say that the referendum wouldn’t necessarily lead to a formal declaration.
"That referendum does not mean proclaiming statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the Kurdish people about independence and for the Kurdish political leadership to execute the will of the people at the appropriate time and conditions."
Right. It's not entirely clear what's "appropriate", but one has to think that if ever there were a "time" that was not "appropriate," it would be now.
"Both the referendum on independence -- which Iraq's federal government opposes -- and the issue of which areas it covers will raise tensions between the autonomous Kurdish region and Baghdad, potentially complicating anti-IS efforts," AFP writes. "The region officially includes three provinces, but Kurdish forces now hold parts of four more over which the federal government wants to maintain control."
Specifically, Baghdad won't be keen on giving up Kirkuk, the oil-rich province in the north currently held by the Peshmerga.
It's also unclear if Barzani could count on Recep Erdogan to support independence. As AFP correctly notes, "Turkey fears that having a Kurdish state on its southern border, or even moving toward one, could increase calls for similar action within its own territory." In other words, it could embolden the PKK and the HDP whose politicians have called for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
Additionally, the harsh economic realities that accompany sub-$30 crude would make an independence push even more difficult. "There is no on-the-ground justification for a referendum now," Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst who spoke to AFP said. "You don't form a state when you are in the middle of an economic collapse."
Some have suggested that Barzani is simply attempting to foment a bit of expedient nationalism to rally the people. As Reuters goes on to point out, "Barzani's mandate as president expired last year, but he remains in office." In short, he could be out to create a distraction.
"The same way that Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec and other places have the right to express their opinions about their destiny, Kurdistan too has the right, and it's non-negotiable," Barzani declared.
We imagine Baghdad begs to differ.