At this stage, the recent referendum on Kurdish statehood is an unmitigated failure. It seems to have set the Kurds back once again. The Kurds have fundamental issues to sort out, both at home and abroad, before anyone will take a bid for independence seriously.
“I was born for the independence of Kurdistan…,” declared outgoing Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani in June. “I want to die in the shadow of the flag of an independent Kurdistan.”
Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq appeared to be edging closer than ever to that dream. On September 25, 2017, the Kurdistan Region (KR) held a non-binding referendum on independence from Iraq, which passed with an overwhelming 92% in favor. Barzani maintained it was no mere symbolic measure.
The Kurds in the KR might desire freedom from Baghdad, but achieving that dream is more complicated than simply voting.
A referendum is an important statement, but developments since the vote have shown that it is not nearly enough to get them there.
The Kurds face a dizzying array of obstacles, both internal and external, on their path to independence. Some of these barriers present grave dangers to the viability and security of a newly-independent Kurdistan. If indeed the Kurdish leadership are serious about creating a democratic, prosperous, and secure state in a dangerous region – something that the West should support, despite its disappointing stance of late – it must recognize and address these issues. Otherwise, the latest push for Kurdish freedom – if that’s indeed what it was – will end in another round of disappointment, even more bloodshed, for the Kurds.
The Slow Advance
The Kurds are a West Iranian ethnic group numbering between 30-45 million. Their homeland stretches across parts of the modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Kurds speak a spectrum of dialects collectively called Kurdish, not all of which are mutually intelligible. The vast majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are significant numbers of Shiites, Yazidis, Jews, Yarsans, and Zoroastrians as well.
The Kurdish telling of their history reaches back into ancient history. They see the Medes as their forefathers, an Iranian people who conquered Nineveh in 612 BCE. Modern Kurdish nationalism emerged in the aftermath of the First World War, as European powers divvied up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Despite promises from the victors in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, the Kurdish homeland was carved up between Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
The Kurdish push for autonomy within Iraq began early on. Masoud Barzani’s father, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946. As Iraq went through revolutionary convulsions in the 1950s and 1960s, the Kurds under the elder Barzani moved toward open rebellion against the new Baathist rulers, with Israeli and Iranian support. A war between the Kurds and Baghdad (1961-1970) resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Kurds. An autonomy agreement ended the war, yet the two sides soon returned to hostilities in 1974. The effort ended in a Kurdish defeat when Iran, their erstwhile ally, signed an agreement with Iraq in 1975 and abruptly cut off support.
The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s saw another Kurdish revolt against Baghdad with Iranian backing. In response, Saddam Hussein initiated the Al-Anfal campaigns, in which over 180,000 Kurds were killed and even more exiled.
The 1991 Persian Gulf War brought about sustained autonomy for the first time. An uprising by the Kurds at the end of the war was brutally suppressed by Saddam, triggering the concern of the international community. The US and UK established a no-fly zone over parts of Kurdistan, and the region functioned independently from the Arab south of the country, despite embargoes and intra-Kurdish fighting.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition strengthened Kurdish autonomy even further. The Kurds were enthusiastic supporters of the military effort, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces (meaning “those who confront death”) fought alongside Allied soldiers. The 2005 Iraqi constitution fully recognized the government of an autonomous Kurdistan region, and its executive, legislative, and judicial authority within a federal Iraq.
As a legally recognized autonomy, the Kurds continued to move toward increased independence. The KRG sent representatives to dozens of countries around the world. Accusing Baghdad of violating its budgetary responsibilities, the KRG signed independent deals with foreign oil companies, and even created a crucial pipeline to export oil through Turkey without Baghdad’s permission.
With the rise of social media, and increased prosperity in Kurdistan, ties deepened between Kurds across the Middle East, and with Kurds in the diaspora. The dialogue that emerged further augmented Kurdish national identity and demands for freedom.
The advent of the Islamic State, and the 2014 invasion of Iraq to within 15 kilometers of Erbil, placed enormous stress on the KRG. But it also created opportunities for the Kurds to move further away from Iraqi control. Despite disappointing performance in initial battles, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces gained confidence and capabilities, asserting itself as one of the most reliable forces fighting IS. While their Syrian brethren were establishing control over new territory in Syria, Peshmerga forces saw similar opportunities, and moved into disputed zones in Iraq, especially the oil-rich Kirkuk region. The Iraqi central government’s hold on the country continued to slip, and Kurdish leaders promised a referendum once IS was defeated in Iraq.
The Kurds do have significant factors working in their favor. The federal government in Baghdad is weak and can’t do much to stop the Kurds on its own, though it is doing all it can – with Iranian help – to punish the Kurds after the referendum. Years of fighting against the Islamic State have left major Iraqi cities in ruins, in need of billions of dollars of rehabilitation. The conflict made it painfully clear that the Iraqi army was unable to conduct major operations without massive support from partners like the United States or Iran.
The fighting forced the Peshmerga to drastically improve its fighting capabilities. The United States and European countries – and Iran – donated hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, ammunition, and other aid. After a humiliating retreat in June 2014, Kurdish forces recovered to stabilize the lines, then go on the offensive. As result, Peshmerga forces are far more experienced, better trained, and better-funded than they were before the fighting.
The fight against the Islamic State from 2014 gave the Peshmerga the opportunity to establish control in the oil-rich Kirkuk Governate and the contested city of Kirkuk, since lost without much a of a fight. The Kurds had pledged not to relinquish the crucial region, despite threats from the Iraqi armed forces and Shiite militias. “Areas liberated by the Peshmerga forces are no longer disputed and we will not hand them over to any party. We have sacrificed blood for them and are willing to do so again against any party that fights us,” a Kurdish leader made quite clear after Kurdish flags were hoisted over public buildings in the city.It turns out that most of the forces around Kirkuk were not willing to stand their ground, and retreated in the face of Iraqi army and Iranian-backed militia forces.
Despite these mostly favorable developments, the path to independence is blocked by significant obstacles. Kurdistan faces both internal and external challenges that hold the potential to put the whole project in jeopardy.
Internal Divisions and Party Militias
In order to create a sustainable governing system, political parties will have to agree to work within the context of a constitution, and to accept the results of elections as the basis for power. That is far from the case today.
Historically, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) have been willing to partner with foreign governments to gain an edge, even if it means killing other Kurds. During the civil war from 1994-1997 that left thousands dead, the parties turned to Iran, Iraq, and Turkey in the fight against their Kurdish adversaries.
The Peshmerga consists primarily of militias belonging to the two major parties. Though the Kurdish parliament instructed the KRG to unify the militias under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, most units remain under KDP or PUK control. The KDP Peshmerga controls the party’s Erbil and Dohuk strongholds, while PUK forces control the Suleimani Governate. Other senior politicians, like PUK leader Kosrat Rasul Ali and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani from the KDP, have their own personal units under their control. The parties’ intelligence agencies are not on speaking terms, despite their common enemies. “We, as a Zanyari agency, have good relations with more than 30 countries, exchanging information with their intelligence services, but we do not cooperate and share information with the KDP’s Parastin agency,” emphasized PUK intelligence chief Lahur Talabani.
The unification of the Kurdish forces into a military loyal to the elected government and not to political parties is a prerequisite to a functioning state and crucial for international recognition.
The unification of the Kurdish forces into a loyal military is a prerequisite to a functioning state and crucial for international recognition.
If monopoly over the use of force is not attained, some fear that after independence the two militias will eventually turn on each other, a repeat of the civil war. If that does happen, it will likely be a long stalemate, as both sides will seek outside help – from the very countries that are now threatening to starve the Kurds into submission – to ensure their survival, which they will receive. Neighboring powers are always eager to increase their control over Iraqi Kurdistan by sponsoring a side.
There are credible allegations that Iran convinced the PUK to withdraw it fighters from Kirkuk recently by promising support for the party at the expense of the national interest.
Civil administration isn’t much more unified. Though a number of power-sharing agreements have been signed, the parties maintain two parallel administrations, the KDP based in Erbil, the PUK in Sulaimani. The two sides occasionally arrest or harass officials from rival parties.
The new Gorran (Change) party has allied with the PUK, and is at odds with the KDP over Barzani’s presidency. Gorran refused to extend Barzani’s expired mandate in 2015, though he remains in office. Gorran supporters attacked KDP offices in Sulaimani, resulting in dozens of casualties. In response, the KDP prevented the speaker of the Kurdish parliament, a Gorran member, from entering Erbil. The Kurdish parliament was closed for two years as Gorran rejected KDP’s proposals to reach an agreement. The reopening of parliament and a vote authorizing the referendum led to Gorran’s support for the measure.
Even with the Islamic State at the door, the two sides often seemed more interested in outmaneuvering each other than in defeating the invaders.
The Kurdish political culture will have to become one in which parties internalize that elections determine a party’s position in the political system, and are not simply another tool in a zero-sum power struggle between parties. Violent party rivalries undermine national cohesion and the chances to establish a unitary state.
The Gorran party represents some hope for a new political culture. Gorran appealed to young Kurds as it defeated the PUK in their Suleimani stronghold in 2013. So far, however, it has not delivered on its major promises, but the desire to move away from autocratic practices is clearly present among many Kurds.
Since gaining autonomy from Baghdad in 2003, Kurdistan’s economy has taken off. It has built two modern airports, shiny hotels and malls dominate the cities, and GDP per capita rose 1400% between 2003-2011.But the economy relies almost entirely on oil revenues and foreign aid.
Still, it has made impressive strides in developing its own gas and oil industry with the pipeline to Turkey and deals with foreign companies. Around 47 companies from 17 countries now operate in the region.
But Kurdistan can’t change geography. The region is landlocked, while the 20 leading oil-producing states have outlets to the sea.It will be entirely dependent on Turkey, which has said that all options were on the table after the vote, and has threatened to cut off the oil pipeline to the sea. It, along with Iran and Iraq, blocked all foreign flights into Kurdish airports, showing how vulnerable the KR is to the dictates of its neighbors.
The abundance of oil allows the KRG to ignore structural flaws in the economy. Ninety percent of KRG revenues come from oil and gas, a sector where there is little transparency. The region’s banking system is underdeveloped, as citizens hoard money at home while those who can invest their money in land.
The prospects of attracting significant foreign investment are not good.
The prospects of attracting significant foreign investment are not good. The KRG owes oil companies over $17 billion, and continues to lose international arbitration cases.During the KRG’s recent efforts to offer a five year, $1 billion dollar bond on the international debt market, it became clear that it would trade at 12%, far higher than Iraq or even Ivory Coast debt. In short, the market doesn’t have confidence in the KRG. After the referendum debacle, the situation will be even worse.
Corruption and nepotism are everywhere. The government sector is bloated, and payrolls – which are often not paid – are full of ghost employees who receive salaries without ever showing up for work. Public sector workers have barely been paid since September 2015, and some have been forced to take 75 percent cuts.
Barzani, whose eight-year term expired in 2013, finally agreed to step down on November 1, and his family has grown fabulously wealthy under his rule. Journalists critical of Barzani have been threatened, imprisoned, even murdered. Barzani’s sons occupy key posts in the KRG – Masrour controls the national security council and intelligence services, which he has used against political foes; Mansour is a Peshmerga general; and his nephew Nechirvan is the KRG prime minister. The PUK leadership isn’t much better, despite its origins as an alternative to KDP nepotism. Acceptance into university and even the granting of PhDs is influenced by party membership.
Should independence indeed come about sometime in the future, the country will be without its own currency, and has no prospect of creating its own. Nor is it at all clear what kind of economy Kurdistan will be. Will it be socialist, and centrally controlled? Or will the government reduce regulation to encourage private sector innovation? Kurdistan needs to sort out its economy to give it a chance to succeed as a free country.
The Kurdistan Region is quite diverse ethnically, which can be both an obstacle and an advantage for a new country. While Kurdistan has not seen ethnic violence in recent years, it does have to make decisions on the place of non-Kurds within the country. Minorities live in Kurdistan proper and other disputed regions.
Most Yazidis live in areas under Kurdish control. Yazidis have always had a tense relationship with Muslims, who consider them devil-worshippers. After Peshmerga units failed to defend them in 2014, leaving them to be kidnapped, raped, and massacred by the Islamic State, Yazidis have stressed their distinct peoplehood, bolstered by the feeling of lingering betrayal. Tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees languish in refugee camps in Kurdistan, and claim they are being prevented from returning to their homes by the KRG. Other minorities, including Assyrians, make similar claims.
Some Yazidis, along with other minorities, have called for autonomous regions in the Nineveh plains, territory that the Kurds assert will be part of a Kurdish state. The Kurdish government and society will have to prioritize the integration of minorities into the fabric of the new state. While they will not consider themselves Kurdish, the hope is that the minorities will adopt a proud Kurdistani identity in addition to their ethnic/religious one.
Kurdistan’s ability to adequately defend itself, by itself, is sorely lacking. Peshmerga’s fighters showed themselves unwilling to bleed for their “Jerusalem,” Kirkuk. No one will come to defend Kurdistan if Kurds are not willing to do so themselves. In addition, terrorism, and potential “counter-terrorism” incursions by Iran and Turkey remain distinct possibilities.
Kurdistan’s ability to adequately defend itself, by itself, is sorely lacking.
A half-century ago, the Peshmerga proved themselves capable and tough guerrilla fighters against the Iraqi army. When Israeli advisors tried to get them to form a conventional force in the 1970s, however, they failed. Moreover, during the initial invasion of Kurdish areas in Iraq by IS in 2014, Peshmerga units fled on the heels of their officers – many of whom were given command because of familial connections. Units are still filled with ghost soldiers whose salaries go into the pockets of commanders – up to 60,000 such “soldiers” are paid every month.
The KDP-PUK split has obvious effects on combat effectiveness and efficient use of the defense budget. Moreover, countries like Iran and Turkey will find it far easier to infiltrate when the two parties view each other as adversaries, not partners in building the Kurdish future. Iran took advantage of this rivalry as it sent its proxies to seize Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.
The Peshmerga will need new capabilities in addition to a new fighting spirit to transform into a force that can defend a country. It currently has no air power. It has a collection of captured Soviet tanks, with limited ammunition and spare parts. Its counter-terror forces are capable and experienced, but that is insufficient to defend its borders and project power. Kurdistan will need to invest in a long-term, carefully planned force design process.
The Kurds will need other countries and international bodies to recognize them if they are to flourish as an independent state. So far Israel has been the only country to explicitly state its support for an independent Kurdistan. In August, PM Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of Republican congressmen that he has a “positive attitude” toward a Kurdish state, as the Kurds are a “brave, pro-Western people who share our values.”In 2014, he was among a series of senior Israeli leaders to openly back Kurdish aspirations for independence.
But Israeli support isn’t close to enough. The Kurds need the backing of a world power, and the United States is the best bet.
The Kurds need the backing of a world power, and the US is the best bet.
Despite long-standing and close ties, successive US administrations cling to the idea of a unified Iraq, one that the US helped create.
That has not changed appreciably under President Donald Trump. The US State Department has acknowledged the Kurds’ “legitimate aspirations,” but reiterated that it “strongly opposes” the referendum, arguing it could jeopardize the progress the Kurds have made. It also argued that the referendum could damage the coalition against the Islamic State. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both asked the KRG to postpone the referendum.
Still, Trump has expressed his admiration for the Kurds on multiple occasions as a candidate. “They’re great fighters and we treat them terribly. And they’re the ones that seem to be the ones that really fight,” he said.He also started arming the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) directly with heavy weaponry over Turkish objections. It is possible that Trump will change his mind on independence, but it is more likely that American support is contingent on an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurds, which does not appear to be in the works in the foreseeable future. The Europeans will likely follow the American lead.
Given its role as KRG’s main trading partner, Turkish support is crucial for a Kurdish state. By 2013, the KRG had become Turkey’s third-largest export market. More than half of the foreign companies operating in the KR are Turkish.The oil pipeline to the Ceyhan port, which pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, is Kurdistan’s only outlet to the sea for its main export.
But Turkey is threatening to communicate solely with Baghdad over all Iraqi oil exports. Turkey’s major concern is the effect Kurdish independence in Iraq will have on its own Kurdish minority, elements of which are again fighting an insurgency against Turkish authorities. Turkey has repeatedly attacked PKK positions inside of Iraq. It has also vowed to thwart Kurdish aspirations in Syria, where the PKK has become a dominant player.
Still, there are potential benefits for Turkey in a Kurdish state. A stable, pro-Western state with oil on its border, dependent on Ankara, is preferable to the chaos of Syria or Iraq. A free Kurdistan would serve as a buffer zone with Shiite-dominated Iraq, and could check growing Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Turkey could leverage its recognition and economic ties into cooperation from Kurdistan in the fight against the PKK.
Because of the $7 billion worth of annual trade with the KR, Turkey has in the past separated its political and economic considerations. Turkey did publicly state before the vote that it would not close the border with the KR.Some interpreted that as an implied green light from Ankara. Its current position against the KR could soften if Iran overplays its hand, and the KDP looks to Ankara for support.
In the wake of the 2016 coup attempt and subsequent purge, Erdogan’s government has become more dependent on ultra-nationalists. This has manifested itself in harsh rhetoric against the referendum, but is far less likely to translate into persistent tangible measures.
Iran has even more to lose with the emergence of a Kurdish state. Iran dominates the Shiite-majority Iraq, and emphasizes its support for Iraq’s “territorial integrity and solidarity.” Tehran is not thrilled about the prospect of a pro-Western Kurdish state, allied with the US and Israel, on its borders. Reports indicate that IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani visited senior members of the PUK in April in order to explore ways of preventing the referendum. He also delivered a stark ultimatum to PUK commanders before the incursion into Kirkuk. Iran has close ties with PUK and Gorran, and has shown its ability to dictate what happens in Kurdistan. Its ability to influence Kurdistan is contingent on hostility between the parties, which gives it the opening to exploit the situation.
Iranian security services are deeply entrenched in Kurdistan. It strikes Iranian Kurdish activists deep inside of the KR. A Gorran official claims Iran has over 700 safe houses in his province.A real push for independence could invite an Iranian backlash that the Kurds would struggle to defend themselves against without outside – meaning American – help. Iranian-controlled PMF militias how hold lines around Kirkuk and other disputed regions, and pose a clear threat to push the Kurds further back.
And, of course, Iraq will play a major role in how Kurdish independence develops. Not surprisingly, it is punishing the KRG for the referendum. Beyond the seizure of Kirkuk, it announced no foreign airlines would be allowed to fly in or out of Kurdistan’s airports. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised there would “never be a dialogue about the referendum,” and demanded that the Kurds hand over all oil revenues and border crossings.
Still, an agreement could potentially emerge once the rhetoric dies down. With firm American leadership, and a Kurdish willingness to compromise on thorny issues like disputed territories and oil revenues, the sides could emerge with a more stable and equitable relationship.
The Kurds like to point to the amicable split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia as proof of the feasibility of independence. But they should not ignore the lessons from Eritrea, South Sudan, and Kosovo.
The Kurds have shown they are not ready for independence. Barzani’s bold move appears to have backfired badly, and it has resulted in him stepping down from the presidency.
To his credit, Barzani faced a difficult strategic dilemma. Patiently advancing toward independence, as the Kurds have done for decades, might have been prudent. But the window that opened, with Iraq and Syria badly weakened and the Kurds playing a key role against IS, would not remain open forever. Move too slowly, Barzani seems to have concluded, and he would be remembered as the leader who missed his chance.
If his driving motivation is the welfare of his people, and not his own personal and political interests, then Barzani’s successor must make real strides toward changing the adversarial relationship between the parties and their Peshmerga forces. A central authority is an imperative for a new state. He must deal with corruption, and diversify the economy.
These initiatives will strengthen the nascent state and will make it easier for other countries to support the push for independence. It will also make it easier to create a legitimate fighting force that is willing to stand its ground against powerful neighbors.
Many questions remain unanswered around the referendum and independence, but one thing is clear: that the idea of a Kurdish state is deeply unsettling to many, both in the Middle East and beyond. It undermines both the system of Middle Eastern states that emerged after World War I, and the current talk of Islamic solidarity regardless of ethnicity. It means that the Arabs, Turks, and Iranians who tried to suppress Kurdish identity for decades have failed.
But for Israel, the idea of a Kurdish state is extremely alluring. While it will take years before meaningful bilateral ties develop – which Iran and others would work hard to prevent – the emergence of reasonably friendly Muslim states in the region is a boost for Israeli interests.
The narrative of Israel as the state of a beleaguered minority that managed to carve out independence in a hostile Arab region, and not a European colony, will be strengthened by Kurdish independence. And, of course, there is a compelling moral element that Israelis connect to, watching another persecuted non-Arab people fight for self-determination and freedom.
“I don’t know whether it happens next year or when, but independence is certainly coming,” said Barzani during a visit to Washington, DC. Though the referendum pushed its arrival back significantly, his decisions, and those of his successor and political rivals, will determine whether the Kurds ever have a chance to their own state in the Middle East.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Public Domain, CIA (1992)
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