Implications of an Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan

By: Morgan Lear

Relevant Background

The Kurds are “indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands” that mainly reside in five different countries: Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Armenia.[1] While the Kurds were some the original inhabitants of the Mesopotamian plains, after World War I (WWI), borders were drawn creating the countries that are currently recognized.[2] The Kurdish people were promised an independent Kurdistan, but instead were fragmented among the recognized countries.[3] This had a significant effect on the demographics of the Kurdish people. Kurds are considered one ethnic group but, as a result of the WWI drawn borders, have three different dialects and are the minority in all five countries they reside.[4]

In Iraq, in particular, Kurds are concentrated in three northern provinces: Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah.[5] This area has become known as Iraqi Kurdistan.[6] While the Kurds do not have their own independent sovereign state, they function as such.[7] In 2005, post Suddam Hussein regime, the Iraq Constitution “recognize[d] an autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).”[8] The KRG has its own parliament and armed forces, called Peshmerga.[9] In fact, Peshmerga has been at the forefront of the fight against ISIL.[10] Notably, the Kurds in Iraq are by far the most independent group compared to the Kurds on in the four other countries.[11]

Iraqi Kurdistan is important to Iraq because the land holds a great deal of natural resources such as oil and gas.[12] In fact, KRG has “long sought to craft an energy policy independent of the federal government in Baghdad, courting international companies and offering lucrative deals for potentially huge new reserves of oil and gas.”[13] However, in recent years, the tensions between Iraq and the KRG have increased because the Kurds insist on creating a Kurdistan, independent of Iraq.[14] In September 2017, the KRG put a referendum on independence on the ballot that would give the Kurds full autonomy from Iraq.[15] Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi government declared this referendum illegal and refused to acknowledge its legitimacy, notwithstanding its passage.[16] Iraq was not the only country to denounce this referendum.[17] The Syrian government also rejected the legitimacy of the KRG’s referendum, and further stated, “[W]e in Syria recognize a united Iraq and reject any procedure that leads to the fragmentation of Iraq.”[18]

Since the passage of the September 2017 referendum, the Kurds found themselves fighting Iraq to maintain previously established KRG territory.[19] Within one month of the referendum, the Kurds have lost 40% of their territory.[20] The biggest loss has been the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.[21]  While Kirkuk was never constitutionally controlled by the Kurds, they did control Kirkuk since 2014. [22]A significant portion of the territory lost by the Kurds was the land they had gained by fighting ISIL in 2014.[23]

The referendum has caused the Kurds and Iraq to turn away from fighting ISIL, and turn towards fighting each other.[24]

Issue Presented

What are the effects of the Iraqi Kurds referendum?


The Kurds push for independence has had larger implications than what first meets the eye. As an initial matter, this referendum has caused fighting between the KRG and Iraq.[25] The remaining countries with large Kurdish populations fear the referendum may cause a domino effect.[26] Neighboring countries feat this referendum because if Iraq, or other surrounding countries, honored the Kurds referendum, then Syrian Kurds, Armenian Kurds, Iranian Kurds, and Turkish Kurds may attempt to do the same in their respective counties.[27] This would require the middle east to re-draw longstanding borders and countries would have to give up territory.[28] Further, other ethnic minorities may follow the Kurds path, which would cause even more fighting in the middle east.

Given the political climate in Iraq, Syria attempted to ease tensions with Syrian Kurds by entertaining the idea of giving Syrian Kurds greater autonomy.[29] Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, stated that “[o]nce the military campaign of President Bashar al-Assad’s government against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group operating is Syria is over,” the Syrian government would be willing to discuss extending the Kurds autonomy.[30] Certainly, Syria would like to concentrate its resources on fighting ISIL before giving more power to the Kurds.

However, the Syrian Kurds do not seem interested in waiting until the war against ISIL is over.[31] The Kurds held and election, “marking the beginning of a three-stage process to set up news systems of governance in order to strengthen the Kurds regional autonomy in the country.”[32] While Syrian Kurds are insistent that independence from Syria is not their goal, it unsurprisingly creates tensions.

This referendum has become more than a middle east issue, but rather it has turned into a world issue. The Iraqi Kurds semiautonomous region has lost a significant amount of its oil-rich territory to Iraq due to the passage of the referendum.[33] Notably, the Kurds have contracted with oil companies, such as Exxon Mobil, which will now be difficult to execute considering their territory has been seized.[34] To make matters worse, in April 2017, “Russia’s Rosneft reportedly pa[id] 1 billion US dollars in advance for Iraqi Kurdistan’s crude oil, signaling growing Russian interest in the region’s natural resources.[35] Thus, this oil-rich land dispute draws in more countries to this civil war.

This fighting has also effected oil prices.[36] Iraqi Kurds built their own oil pipeline to Turkey from Kirkuk when they took over in 2014.[37] Without the pipeline to Turkey, the Kurds will not be able to reach international markets.[38] Given that Turkey is against an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey may stop this pipeline at any time.[39] Turkey has even offered support to Iraq in order to pressure Iraqi Kurds to stop fighting for the referendum.[40]


The complicated history of the Kurds in the middle east does not seem to be coming to a close anytime soon. The next few months will have a crucial effect on how the world will react to this civil war.



[1] Who are the Kurds? (Oct. 31, 2017), BBC NEWS,

[2] Syria to consider granting Kurds greater autonomy (Sept. 26, 2017), Aljazeera,

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Zach Beauchamp, Why Iraq and the Kurds are fighting over the city of Kirkuk (Oct. 16, 2017, 4:20 PM), VOX,

[6] Id.

[7] Syria to consider granting Kurds greater autonomy, supra note 2.

[8] Iraqi Kurdistan profile (Oct. 31, 2017), BBC News,

[9] Syria to consider granting Kurds greater autonomy, supra note 2.

[10] Id.

[11] Iraqi Kurdistan profile, supra note8.

[12] Syria to consider granting Kurds greater autonomy, supra note 2.

[13] Stanley Reed, Iraqi Kurds’ Independence Vote Exposed Risks to Energy Strategy (Nov. 3, 2017), New York Times,

[14] Iraqi Kurdistan profile, supra note 8.

[15] Syria to consider granting Kurds greater autonomy, supra note 2.


[16] Alia Chughtai, Territory lost by Kurds in Iraq (Nov. 1, 2017 14:39 GMT), Aljazeera,

[17] See generally, Damascus rejects Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, (Sept. 25, 2017 4:38 AM), Reuters,

[18] Id. quoting Foreign Minister Walid al–Moualem cited by the Syrian state news agency SANA.

[19] Alia Chugtai, supra note 16.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Zack Beauchamp, supra note 5.

[23] Alia Chugtai, supra note 16.

[24] Zach Beauchamp, supra note 5.

[25] Sergio Pecanha, How the Kurdish Quests for Independence in Iraq Backfired (Nov. 5, 2017), The New York Times,

[26] Syria to consider granting Kurds greater autonomy, supra note 2.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Sergio Pecanha, supra note 25.

[34] Id.

[35] Iraqi Kurdistan profile – timeline (Oct. 31, 2017), BBC News,

[36] Julian Lee, Kurdish Oil Tensions Show Iran Was a Trump Sideshow (Oct. 15, 2017 3:00 AM), Bloomberg,

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Sergio Pecanha, supra note 25.