Support for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region's independence referendum was generally opposed with the notable exception of Israel.

President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani arrives to cast his vote in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) controversial referendum at a polling station on September 25, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq. The non-binding referendum is taking place in areas under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. According to data released by the KRG Independent High Electoral Commission, over 5 million people are expected to vote in the referendum.
President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani arrives to cast his vote in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) controversial referendum at a polling station on September 25, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq. The non-binding referendum is taking place in areas under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. According to data released by the KRG Independent High Electoral Commission, over 5 million people are expected to vote in the referendum. (AA)

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which administers the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, is holding a referendum on support for independence on Monday. The referendum is being held in the semi-autonomous region as well as some disputed areas under the control of the KRG, which are not formally part of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. 

KRG President Masoud Barzani says if the majority is in favour it does not mean the KRG will establish an independent Kurdish state on the next day of the referendum. But in time, the ultimate goal, he says, "is independence for Kurdistan." 

Iraq’s central government is extremely concerned, even though the referendum is legally non-binding. Iraq’s Supreme Court has already asked Barzani to suspend the vote, ruling that it is unconstitutional. But the court decision has not stopped Barzani from going ahead with the referendum, as the court currently has no means of enforcing its rulings in KRG-held areas. 

In an interview with Associated Press, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi threatened to use military force if the planned referendum leads to violence. 

All neighbouring countries in the region and global powers support Iraq’s government in its objection to the referendum - except Israel, the only country in the region backing an independent Kurdish state. Here’s why:


Iran has voiced some of the strongest opposition to Monday’s referendum.

“The Kurdistan Region is part of the Iraqi republic and unilateral decisions outside the national and legal framework, especially the Iraqi constitution … can only lead to new problems,” said the foreign ministry of Iran. It has threatened to close its borders with KRG-controlled areas, if a “Yes” vote wins in the referendum. 

In a joint statement with the Iraqi government and Turkey, Iran reiterated concerns of new potential conflicts in the region and agreed to consider counter-measures in cooperation with each other. 

Iran is also halting flights to the KRG at the request of Baghdad.

The country is one of the most important allies of the Iraqi government. Iran has played a key role in largely funding and arming Hashd al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a Shia paramilitary umbrella group in Iraq. The group supported the central government in its fight against Daesh in Fallujah, Ramadi, Baji, Mosul and Kirkuk.

KRG is also holding the referendum in Kirkuk, where some Hashd al Shaabi forces are based.


The referendum has also been strongly opposed by Turkey, Iraq’s neighbour to the north. Turkey’s southeast border and the only border gate with Iraq is controlled by the KRG. 

Turkey, which has the largest Kurdish population in the region, has been facing a three-decade fight waged by the separatist, armed group PKK. For Turkey, the vote to support an independent Kurdish state is a national security threat. The PKK, which is listed as a terror organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, is mostly based in the mountainous areas of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region under the control of the KRG. Turkey is concerned that an independent KRG will be a safe heaven for the PKK.

The country plans both economic and military measures onto the KRG as a response to the planned referendum. As a landlocked territory, KRG-controlled territory’s biggest trade partner is Turkey, and it currently exports crude oil from Kirkuk province to Turkey’s Ceyhan district in order to sell it on the global market. The oil-rich Kirkuk is defined as a disputed area by the Iraqi constitution, but practically is under the control of the KRG. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish cabinet and security council will consider “their own stance on what kind of sanctions” they can impose.

After Erdogan’s comment, Turkish National Security Council released a declaration saying it will reserve its rights stemming from bilateral and international agreements if the KRG holds its planned independence referendum despite all warnings.

Ahead of the referendum, Turkish troops were deployed to the Iraqi border and carried out drills. Military sources said the exercise was due to last until the voting is over. And the Turkish parliament extended the mandate on military deployment in Iraq and Syria on Saturday, as a message to Barzani. 

The United State 

The United States has not shown any support for the referendum since the beginning but the tone of its opposition has changed over time. 

The first reaction of the US was pushing KRG to postpone the referendum indefinitely and inviting KRG to negotiation.

“Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS and to let nothing distract us,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters in August, after a meeting with Barzani.

But recently, the US’s willingness for negotiation has turned into outright opposition to the referendum. 

In a statement released late on Wednesday by US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, the US warned the KRG that “if this referendum is conducted, the international offer of support for negotiations will be foreclosed.” It said the referendum may jeopardise KRG's regional trade relations, and international assistance of all kinds.

“The United States strongly opposes the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum on independence, planned for September 25. All of Iraq’s neighbours, and virtually the entire international community, also oppose this referendum,” the statement said. 

The KRG was established in 1992 as a regional government after the US enforced a no-fly zone across the north following the Gulf War. Iraq recognised it in 2005, after a second military intervention by the US overthrew former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

The United Kingdom

Although raising concerns about possible consequences of the independence vote, the United Kingdom was more moderate in its opposition to the referendum. 

The government said, the UK understands the “aspirations of the Kurdish people” but described its timing as not right. 

“A referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political issues that led to Daesh’s rise,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement.


Similar to the US, Russia refrained from showing a firm rejection to the KRG’s referendum until very recently. Instead, it focused on convincing Barzani that it was not the right time for the referendum.

Offering to be a mediator between Iraqi central government and KRG in July, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked to Rudaw, a media organisation in the KRG that has very close ties to Barzani. He said that Kurds have the right to express their aspirations but these had to be implemented peacefully and KRG should take the views of Iraq’s neighbours into account.

A couple of days ahead of the referendum, on September 22, Russia clearly stated that Moscow is taking sides with Iraqi central government.

“The Russian side confirmed its constant support for the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said

But only few days before the latest Russian statement on the independence vote, Russian oil major Rosneft company took a step which would ultimately lead to economic support for the KRG. Rosneft announced that it will invest in the region. 

Two major Russian energy firms, Gazprom and Rosneft - currently operate in KRG-controlled areas, and are the basis for strong economic and trade relations between Moscow and Erbil. 


France joined the moderate opposition to the independence vote, with President Emmanuel Macron saying his country wouldn’t prevent “any democratic process,” as an answer to a question on the referendum, 

But France would rather “a referendum about a good representation of the Iraqi Kurds in the government, within the framework of the Iraqi constitution,” Macron stated

“What we need today in Iraq is territorial and political stability,” said Macron, urging the Iraqi government to achieve “a political balance which respects all minorities, in particular the Kurds.”

Macron was also one of the leaders who asked Barzani to postpone the poll.


Israel is the only country in the region showing open support for KRG’s referendum, and establishment of an independent Kurdish state. The country, which has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960’s, sees the minority in the region as a buffer against its adversaries, especially Iran.

A former general from the Israeli army, Yair Golan said “Basically, looking at Iran in the east, looking at the instability [in] the region, a solid, stable, cohesive Kurdish entity in the midst of this quagmire — it’s not a bad idea,” in a conference at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“[Israel] supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, in remarks sent to foreign correspondents by his office. 

Netanyahu said Israel still does, however, consider the PKK a terrorist group, taking the same position as Turkey, the US and the EU.

Israel considers the Kurds “another minority” in the Middle East, under an Arab country and deserving of an independent state, according to the former minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, Gideon Saar. He said, “The Kurds have been and will continue to be reliable and long-term allies of Israel since they are, like us, a minority group in the region.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies