Alexander Snow – Research and Editorial Intern, THO

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq held a referendum on September 25, 2017 to decide on possible
independence from Baghdad. The Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission has said that nearly 78
percent of more than five million voters turned out to the ballot box, and the referendum is expected to pass. [1]

The referendum has sparked controversy and tough responses from even close allies of the KRG, including Ankara and
Washington. The KRG and many Iraqi Kurds see independence as a foregone conclusion. While both the U.S. and
Turkey have played a role in the growth of Iraqi Kurdistan over the last two decades, neither country supports KRG

Quick Facts About Iraqi Kurdistan [2]

  • Regional government: Autonomous federal entity recognized by Iraq and the United Nations.
  • Geography and population: Made up of three governorates – Irbil (Capital), Suleimani, and Dohuk – comprising approximately 40,000 square kilometers with a population of approximately 6 million.
  • Parliament: Parliamentary democracy with a 111-seat national assembly. The coalition government is made up of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council, Turkmen representatives, Communists, and Socialists.
  • Ethnic groups: Kurds, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis, and other communities.
  • Energy: Home to rich oil resources estimated at 43.7 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 25.5 billion barrels of potential reserves. The Kurdistan Region has the capacity to export over 100,000 barrels of oil per day. Per the Kurdistan Region Oil and Gas Law (2007), the KRG shares oil revenues with the Iraqi Federal Government and receives 17% of all oil revenue.

History of the KRG

The Kurds of Iraq have largely been treated like second-class citizens since Iraqi independence (1958). This prompted
decades of intermittent rebellion against the Iraqi government, bolstered by a nationalist movement often hindered by
various international actors and intra-Kurd disagreement. The Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein was especially
brutal in its response to Kurdish irredentism, most notably during its 1988 genocidal Al-Anfal campaign, when it deployed
chemical weapons against civilian populations. After the first Gulf War and its subsequent (unsuccessful) Kurdish and
Shiite uprisings, a U.S. no-fly zone was established over Northern Iraq to prevent further retaliation from Saddam
Hussein’s government. This 1991 no-fly zone led to the 1992 foundation of a “precariously situated, unrecognized de
facto state” – the Kurdistan Regional Government. [3]

These modest gains were almost immediately put to the test, as tensions between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two most prominent
political factions – Massoud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s PUK – promptly boiled over. The two parties waged a
civil war between 1994 and 1997, during which time the KRG fell apart. While a peace treaty was brokered by the U.S.
government and signed in 1998, it took until 2005 for the KRG to form again. Under the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, the
Kurdistan Region was granted autonomy within the new federal Iraqi state.

Today, the two parties rule as in a KDP-led coalition, and the improved relations have borne fruit. Since 2006, the KRG
has governed a region that stands out as increasingly safe, prosperous, and stable. Nevertheless, the region’s political
landscape is still fragmented, due in large part to the ruling coalition’s penchant for corruption and human rights abuses.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo led to the 2009 founding of the liberal and reformist Gorran Movement, whose rallying
cry centers on uprooting corruption.

The continued disunity in the region is reflected in the fact that not all political parties and movements in Iraqi Kurdistan
were in agreement on whether the Sept. 25 referendum should go forward.

U.S.-KRG Relations

For decades, the U.S. viewed the Iraqi Kurds through a Cold War, utilitarian prism. This often meant ignoring their plight,
as evidenced by U.S. inaction following Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal campaign during the Iran-Iraq War. This approach
changed when the U.S. established and enforced a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan. The 1991 no-fly zone was a
foundational moment towards Kurdish autonomy, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq served as an even more definitive
step in that direction. [4]

Since then, the Iraqi Kurds have been a reliable U.S. partner in the region. Irbil and Washington have cooperated
intensely in efforts to combat ISIS, with the U.S. Air Force stepping in at a crucial moment to check a 2014 ISIS offensive
on Irbil. [5] Iraqi Kurdish forces have also played a pivotal role at several stages of the ongoing conflict against ISIS.

Turkey-KRG Relations

Turkey’s historical suppression of Kurdish identity among its own Kurdish population – as well as a decades-long war
with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization – has complicated Ankara’s relations with Iraqi
Kurdistan. In 1991, Turkish President Turgut Ozal broke with Turkey’s policy against negotiating with any Kurdish groups
by meeting with Iraqi Kurdish politicians. [6] Ozal later opened doors for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, first by lifting Turkey’s
objection to communication between the U.S. and Iraqi Kurds, and later by allowing the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone
from Incirlik Air Base. Turkey’s relations with the KRG have also been helped along by the latter’s adversarial
relationship with the PKK.

However, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq posed problems anew for relations between Ankara and Irbil. Turkey was
unsettled by the conflict’s potential consequences, not least of which was the possibility of an independent Kurdistan.
Relations between Turkey and a newly-empowered KRG were therefore initially rocky, but by 2009, ties had become
remarkably robust. [7] The bedrock of this friendship has been economic ties; between 2007 and 2013, Iraqi Kurdistan
went from Turkey’s 19th largest export market to its third largest. [8] Turkish companies’ domination of Iraqi Kurdistan’s
business sectors; intensified border traffic; and increased infrastructure collaboration have all solidified the economic
relationship between Ankara and Irbil. [9]

Strategically, the KRG’s desire for rapprochement was based on an understanding that Ankara could serve as an ally in
disputes with Iran, Syria, and Baghdad. [10] Turkey likely made a similar calculation, given its often uneasy relations with
those same countries. Turkey would later take KRG President Barzani’s side in a 2012 political crisis between Irbil and
Baghdad. [11] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2009 campaign to soften Turkey’s attitudes towards its own
Kurds and his government’s negotiation of a ceasefire with the PKK in 2013 also helped relax some tensions between
the Irbil and Ankara.

Washington’s and Ankara’s Responses to the Referendum

Even though both Ankara and Washington have had robust relations with the KRG, especially in the past decade, both
the U.S. and Turkey strongly urged the KRG not to go forward with the referendum.

Following the referendum on September 25, both Washington and Ankara have reiterated their displeasure with the
KRG’s decision to hold the vote. Turkish President Erdogan called the vote “a betrayal” and threatened the imposition of
an economic and energy blockade on the KRG. [12] Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Turkey would
no longer communicate directly with the KRG and would go through Baghdad instead. [13] The U.S. State Department,
for its part, expressed its “deep disappointment” that the vote went ahead but refrained from downgrading relations with
the KRG. [14]


[1] Iraqi Kurds count referendum votes. (2017, September 25). Al Jazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/

[2] About Kurdistan. (n.d.). Kurdistan Regional Government-Iraq, Representation in the United States. Retrieved from

[3] Gunter, M. (2016). The Kurds: A modern history. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Weiner Publishers, p. 70.

[4] The time of the Kurds. (n.d.). Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/interactives/time-kurds#!/?cid=socat-

[5] Gunter (2016), p. 85.

[6] Gunter (2016), p. 38.

[7] Gunter (2016), p. 78.

[8] Cagaptay, S., Bache Fidan, C., & Sacikara, E. C. (2015, March 16). Turkey and the KRG: An undeclared economic commonwealth.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Retrieved from http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/turkey-and-thekrg-

[9] Gunter (2016), p. 77; Cagaptay et al. (2015).

[10] Cagaptay et al. (2015).

[11] Gunter (2016), p. 82.

[12] Barzani’s decision to hold referendum ‘betrayal to Turkey,’ Erdogan says. (2017, September 26). Hurriyet Daily News. Retrieved
from http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/barzanis-decision-to-hold-referendum-betrayal-to-turkey-erdogansays.
aspx?pageID=238&nID=118415&News CatID=510

[13] Ankara says it does not want Barzani’s representative back in Turkey. (2017, September 26). Hurriyet Daily News. Retrieved from

[14] Fahim, K., & El-Ghobashy, T. (2017, September 26). Turkey condemns Kurdish independence vote as Western opposition
softens. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkey-condemns-kurdishindependence-