Despite being beset with many problems, namely legitimacy issues, KRG referendum can still be turned into opportunity
Two weeks have passed since the controversial referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for the independence of the KRG-controlled areas in Iraq.
While the referendum had been declared long ago, with the date set as Sept. 25 about three months before the ballot day, many parties within and out of Iraq hoped for a cancellation until the last minute.
Global powers, from the United States to Russia, regional powers, such as Turkey, Iran, and of course the Baghdad government, all called on Masoud Barzani’s regional government in Erbil to cancel or postpone the referendum.
Even such local actors as Gorran, the second-largest party of the closed Kurdistan parliament after Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the NRT network, the second-most influential Kurdistan media outlet after the KDP-controlled Rudaw, pointed out the legitimacy problems regarding the referendum call.
Three-fold legitimacy issue
The legitimacy problems were threefold. At the regional level, the legitimacy problem stemmed from the controversial extension of Masoud Barzani’s regional presidency twice after its expiration and the closure of the regional parliament in 2015.
At the national level, the referendum included the disputed lands over which the KRG does not have de jure authority and it also lacked the necessary observation mechanisms for a fair count.
And thirdly, at the international level, the legitimacy problem stemmed from the prospective absence of countries to recognize an independent Kurdistan -- with the exception of Israel -- on top of the vagueness of international law on the limits of national self-determination.
Nevertheless, despite the expectations of numerous international and local actors, and despite the likelihood of negative national and international repercussions, Masoud Barzani did not back down on his referendum call.
Once it became clear that there was no turning around, all the regional actors, including Gorran, united for a “yes” vote, which would otherwise cost any local Kurdish actor its popular basis and end its political presence in the region.
In addition, the referendum united three sovereign states neighboring the KRG region: Turkey, Iran and the home Baghdad government, with all three condemning the KRG’s referendum efforts.
Toning down the tension
The referendum took place under such circumstances but the real problems surfaced with the referendum.
Simply put, it has reshaped the alliances not only within but also outside Iraq. Turkey and Iran, which were already coming closer in the process of Astana negotiations as they started to bridge their disagreements over Syria, stood with the Baghdad government and came closer and closer in an almost unprecedented way.
Both countries have faced separatist terrorism which has a transnational character due to the instability and power vacuum in northern Iraq, plaguing some areas more than others.
While the two countries had opposite views on many issues, from the future of Syria to the power distribution in Iraq, they are now learning to discover their common interests.
Both Turkey and Iran seem to agree on two interrelated principles: Iraq should remain united and the region needs no further bloodshed.
Their joint efforts with the Baghdad government led the Erbil administration to tone down its insistence on independence.
For one, the KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani strongly emphasized  that the referendum has nothing to do with Turkey’s current borders, which runs against the popularly shared Kurdistan maps during the referendum process that showed parts of Turkey under the banner of Kurdistan.
Barzani also stressed -- against his earlier implications -- that they have no intention to go to war but want to solve their problems with Baghdad through dialogue.
And this is how the gates for dialogue became possible. The mounting tension, particularly during the referendum weekend, is now deescalating with the cautious and careful steps of the actors involved.
The prominent Iraqi Shia scholar and political figure Ayatollah Ali Sistani, for example, called for dialogue, which was immediately welcomed  by the Erbil government.
Furthermore, Iraqi Vice Presidents Ayad al-Allawi and Osama al-Nujaifi met  Masoud Barzani to discuss the lifting of the sanctions and setting a mechanism for a constant coordination.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim  also stressed that Ankara cares about the mutual interests of Turkey and the Kurdish people of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Finally, Iran has also sent signals of softening both in discourse and action, as symbolized by Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif’s attending to the funeral of Jalal Talabani, the prominent Kurdish politician and former president of Iraq, in Sulaimaniyah.
Four great risks
This rapprochement and the continuous positive signals from all the parties of the tension show that the dispute is probably in the phase of de-escalation, but there are still a number of risks involved.
For one, the referendum is over and cannot and will not be revoked by the KRG. You simply cannot undo a referendum. It is done and gives great leverage to the KRG for a future unilateral declaration of independence whenever the circumstances turn favorable.
In turn, the Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad governments have jointly showed that a unilateral declaration of independence will come with its high costs and the KRG will have to face this unified front all alone.
Second, the disputed territories, but especially the oil-rich Kirkuk, pose a great risk to the maintenance of peace and stability. Any future tension in the city has the potential to grow into a conflict that might quickly engulf the entire region.
Third, Daesh’s easy gains in Iraq in the past, both in the KRG and central-government-controlled areas, on top of the endless disagreements over the share of oil revenues and the national budget, are just two examples of the vulnerability of Iraq due to the lack of cooperation and coordination between Erbil and Baghdad on a number of issues from defense to economy.
Last but not least, the terrorist PKK controls the part of the territories that the KRG claims along the borders with Turkey and Iran. The PKK is the number one security threat to Turkey and is constantly sending terror squads into Turkey from its bases in Iraq. Its presence in the region not only produces terrorism within Turkey but also threatens to destabilize the Iraq Kurdistan Region and the neighboring areas further.
Dealing with the risks
All four of these problems, the last three of which date back to before the referendum, make the situation hard to solve but this crisis can still be turned into an opportunity.
While all the parties know that the referendum cannot be undone, it is still a good start that Erbil will not go for immediate declaration of independence and will seek dialogue, which is now not optional but rather obligatory given the tough and joint stances of the Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad administrations.
Since it is now clear that a unilateral action will likely lead to a hot conflict, the referendum cannot be undone but might be frozen for the foreseeable future. Second, all the disputed lands and most importantly Kirkuk need a clear status. They can be shared between the KRG and Baghdad authorities.The most critical and most diverse locations such as Kirkuk can have a special status with a power sharing mechanism that will not exclude any significant local community.
Third, Iraq’s incompetence to defend its Western territories against the Daesh offensive in 2014 shows the need for closer cooperation between the Baghdad forces and the KRG peshmerga and such a cooperation has the potential to spill over toward the economic realm.
No place in Iraq for PKK
Finally, the PKK has no place in Iraq. It was once rooted out from Syria -- although it came back and is currently protected by international actors -- and now can be rooted out from Iraq.
Any concrete action against the PKK would guarantee Turkey’s strongest support for the peaceful future of Iraq. The KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) has long allied with Turkey against the PKK, but obviously it lacks the muscle, will, or both, to put an end to the PKK’s presence in the region once and for all. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq together can and should root out the PKK in Iraq.
This is an agenda, if not a roadmap, to bring long-lasting peace and prosperity to the region. Not an easy one to follow but the negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil have already started, the involved parties have already toned down their threats on top of Turkey and Iran’s further potential for a possible mediation process in the future with the support of their long-lasting economic and political ties, respectively, in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
The Syrian case once again showed that wars bring no good to the region and the last thing the region needs is a second Syria. A joint effort can reverse the process and open up possibilities for a lasting collective security and prosperity mechanism.