THO Hosts Panel On KRG Independence Referendum And Regional Realities

Iraqi Turkmen leader and former ambassadors agree that the KRG made the wrong assessment
On October 18, 2017, Turkish Heritage Organization hosted a panel discussion in Washington D.C. titled “The KRG Independence Referendum and Regional Realities.”

During the event, Amb. Lukman Faily (former Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S.) and Amb. James Jeffrey (former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Iraqi; Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) discussed the regional impact of the September 25 independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.

Joining via Skype, Mr. Arshad Al-Salihi (Iraqi Turkmen Front leader and member of the Iraqi Parliament) discussed the referendum’s impact on the Iraqi Turkmen community and the overall stability of Iraq.

The discussion was moderated by THO Executive Director Yenal Kucuker. THO President Ali Cinar provided opening remarks.

The KRG miscalculated with the referendum

Amb. Faily said that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was a “key player in the formation of” post-2003 Iraq, playing important roles in both Baghdad and Erbil.

He noted that, up until this point, the Kurdistan Region can be seen as a “success story”; however, he said that the decision to hold an independence referendum was a miscalculation. The KRG has not been able to align its own aspirations – namely, independence from Iraq – with the relevant domestic, regional, and international communities.

Amb. Jeffrey agreed, saying Erbil had made a “wrong assessment” in believing that partners like Washington and Ankara would see the world the way it does. He said in Erbil there is a growing concern about growing Iranian influence in Iraq. 

These concerns have fueled a belief that, following the defeat of ISIS, and coupled with the possible departure of the U.S. from Iraq, Baghdad would be unstable and even more susceptible to Iranian influence.

As such, regarding the decision to hold the referendum on independence, many people in Erbil were likely thinking, “It’s either now or never.”

The view from Washington

When asked if U.S. opposition to the referendum was tantamount to the U.S. abandoning the Kurds, both Amb. Jeffrey and Amb. Faily stressed the importance of looking to the future rather than focusing on where the fault lies for the referendum result and its consequences.

Calling the Iraqi Kurds the U.S.’ “friends,” partners,” and “brothers in Battle,” Amb. Jeffrey emphasized that “it’s very important not to point fingers at anybody,” especially given the delicate situation in northern Iraq. Instead, Amb. Jeffrey said that the U.S. “did not abandon Kurdistan” and that the parties involved – including the U.S. – should be focusing on how to move forward.

For the U.S., this means gaining a better understanding of the realities on the ground in the region. 

“The only people I know, in the region or here in Washington, who thinks [sic] that there is still a ‘collective common fight against ISIS’ are people in the U.S. government,” Ambassador Jeffrey said. 

For actors on the ground in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq, there may be worries about “Al-Qaeda 2.0 of ISIS 2.0,” but the more pressing issues include “the future of Iraq, the future of Syria” and how major players like the U.S. and Iran will be involved in the region.

Amb. Faily agreed with Am. Jeffrey’s assessment, calling the focus on ISIS a “somewhat out-of-date reading.” While he noted that it was understandable and necessary to address the security implications of ISIS, many other issues need addressing in Iraq, such as mass displacement and the destruction of infrastructure. 

In addition, Amb. Faily emphasized that while it may make sense for a country like the U.S. to be focused on ISIS, in Iraq, sectarian and ethnic tensions are taking priority. As soon as ISIS was driven from Fallujah, Iraqis became aware that the terrorist group could be defeated, and so they began preparing for what would come “the day after” the group’s full defeat. According to Amb. Faily, the KRG independence referendum was part of those preparations. 

The view from Turkey

Amb. Jeffrey emphasized that Turkey’s strong stance against the KRG independence referendum was in its own interests, given Turkey’s own Kurdish population, which he noted was the most integrated of any country. 

He noted that despite threats to do so, Ankara has not yet cut off oil pipelines in use by the KRG; he highlighted the fact that the economies of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey are heavily reliant on each other. However, he also emphasized that Turkey’s decision to stop flights from its territory to the Kurdistan Region forces individuals to fly to Baghdad instead, thus underlining the fact that the Kurdistan Region is part of Iraq rather than a separate entity.

Amb. Faily said that Turkey needs to be a more “mature” actor going forward in this crisis, including by being more “predictable.” He emphasized that given the previously close relationship between Ankara and Erbil, it is likely that they will have to be in close contact again in the future. 

Putting Iraq back together

Amb. Jeffrey called the popular mobilization forces (PMF) on the ground in Iraq the “single biggest danger” to the country’s independence. Her broke the PMF down into three categories:

  1. General militias of Sunnis, Turkmen, etc., which mobilized in response to the Iraqi army’s inability to defend against ISIS;
  2. Forces following Muqtada Al-Sadr, which are independent from Iran but strongly anti-American;
  3. Iran-linked militias that are either controlled by or coordinating with Tehran.
Based on Iran’s “model” with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, Amb. Jeffrey argued that Iran is angling for the same kind of influence in Iraq. 

Amb. Faily said that it was unlikely that the PMFs would disband anytime soon. He noted that while there had recently been discussion of how to disarm these militias, the KRG independence referendum has had the effect of halting that discussion and even providing fuel for the argument that the PMFs are still needed to address Iraq’s internal security challenges.

Mr. Al-Salihi was able to give a firsthand look at those security challenges. Speaking from Kirkuk, Mr. Al-Salihi told the audience he was unable to join in person due to the security situation in the city following the Iraqi central government’s move to reassert its presence following the referendum.

He said that the Turkmen community in Kirkuk was strongly opposed to the referendum and chose not to take part in it due to a belief that it would only cause further chaos in a region already badly hurt by ISIS.

He said that when ISIS arrived in Iraq, it displaced more than 250,000 Iraqi Turkmen, who fled either north to Turkey or to Iraq’s southern provinces. He emphasized that the arrival of ISIS plunged the geography of the Iraqi Turkmen community into conflict.

After having suffered the effects of ISIS’ rise, the KRG independence referendum – and particularly its inclusion of contested territories like Kirkuk – came as a great “disappointment” to the Iraqi Turkmen community.

While the community was happy to see both Washington and Ankara take a stance against the referendum, it was frustrating to see the KRG move ahead with it, thus spurring greater chaos in northern Iraq. 

Going forward, Mr. Al-Salihi emphasized the need for cooperation between the different ethnic groups living in Kirkuk, such as Turkmen, Kurds, and Arabs. 

Amb. Faily expressed his view that the path forward for Iraq beyond the referendum should continue to include the use of decentralization to manage the ethnic and sectarian differences in the country.

However, he noted with regret that the referendum result and the Iraqi central government’s efforts to return the Kurdistan Region to its pre-2014 borders will likely instead reverse Iraq’s trend toward decentralization, leading to a more centralized government that will bring its own tensions and problems, especially given the current autonomous status of the Kurdistan Region.

Amb. Faily highlighted his belief that Iraqi Kurdish political parties will eventually return to playing a positive role in the Iraqi central government, as has been the case in the past. He expressed his view that, in the short-term, it is important for the KRG to resolve its own political divisions, which have been reflected in and exacerbated by the referendum.

Statement from Arshad Al-Salihi, Iraqi Turkmen Front Leader Member of the Iraqi Parliament Kirkuk, Iraq