Iraqi Kurdish leader signals independence talks with Baghdad after Mosul falls

KurdistanBy Ethan Leyshon, CIB Middle East Desk
Analytical question: 
Will the prospect of an independent Kurdish state become viable in 2017?

With the joint operation to clear the Islamic state from its territorial control of Mosul in full swing, a prominent Iraqi Kurdish leader has signified that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will pressure Baghdad for its independence following the battle. This seems to signify that, despite cooperation between the KRG and the Iraqi Government in their joint endeavor to clear ISIS from Mosul, the autonomous Kurdish government is still intent on seeking an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

In late September, KRG President Massoud Barzani traveled to Baghdad to speak with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in regards to the ongoing disagreements between the Iraqi government and the KRG. After that meeting, a joint press conference was held where the two leaders indicated a desire to resolve ongoing disagreements, primarily over oil revenue-sharing and the funding of government employees. There was also a joint resolve in the planning of the operation to clear ISIS from Mosul, as a main priority of the two parties. This cooperation became apparent a few weeks later, when the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga forces of the KRG launched the anticipated operation against ISIS militants in and around Mosul.

Last Friday, however, in an interview with the German daily Bild, KRG Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani indicated that, following the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, the Kurds would meet with “partners in Baghdad and talk about our independence.” Nechervan Barzani, who is the grandson of the revered Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani, and the nephew of the current KRG President Massoud Barzani, was direct in his call for a Kurdish nation. He told Bild that “we are not Arabs, we are our own Kurdish nation […]. At some point there will be a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, and then we will let the people decide.” In the same interview, Nechervan highlighted the progress of Peshmerga forces against ISIS in taking territory from ISIS, and reiterated that working with Iraq to remove ISIS from Mosul is its top priority.

Calls for Kurdish independence are certainly not new. In February of this year, President Barzani made similar statements in proposing a referendum for independence, though he never established a timeline regarding the implementation of his statement. This, coupled with decades of on and off struggle with the various central governments of Iraq, indicate that the sentiment of Kurdish independence inside of Iraq is unlikely to cease. In recent years, the KRG has taken steps to further empower its own autonomy —most significantly the construction of its own pipeline, so it can move oil through Turkey, independent of the central government of Iraq. It is possible that Nechervan’s statement to Bild, was made after the KRG were emboldened by Turkey’s recent actions in support of Peshmerga forces, when Ankara provided artillery support to Peshmerga’s siege of Bashiqa, in spite of Iraqi demands that Turkey stay out of the operation. It should be reiterated, however, that the sentiment of the Barzani family, who have been at the forefront of efforts for Kurdish independence in Iraq since the 1950s, has and will remain unchanged. The only variable, as it relates to my analytical question, it seems, is whether or not the economic and diplomatic forces at play are favorable for the KRG to make the move toward independence. There is little question as to whether or not ISIS will be removed from territorial control of Mosul, and this is likely to happen well before the end of 2016. If Prime Minister Barzani’s words are taken seriously, they lead to the conclusion that the KRG will move to resolve the question of its independence with Baghdad.

As several reputable media outlets have reported on Prime Minister Barzani’s interview with Bild, it can be stated with high confidence that the Kurdish Regional Government does intend to press Baghdad for independence when the operation for Mosul is resolved.  However, this does not mean that a successful resolution to these talks will come to fruition. The Iraqi government has a great interest in maintaining its current boarders, and will likely push back against Kurdish demands. Therefore, I cannot change my current judgement that, with high confidence, the prospect of an independent Kurdish state becoming viable inside of Iraq during 2017, will remain about even.

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Coles, I. (2016, February 2). Iraqi Kurdish leader calls for non-binding independence referendum. Retrieved from Reuters.
Goran, B. (2016, September 29). President Barzani: Agreement reached with Baghdad to resolve all issues. Retrieved from Kurdistan 24.