Iraqi Kurdistan de facto is already an independent entity pursuing a separate domestic and foreign policy from Baghdad. However, the declaration of independence in the international legal sense will inevitably affect the distribution of forces in the region.
Who needs it?
The Turkish Foreign Ministry called the decision on the referendum a terrible mistake. "Preserving the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq is a fundamental principle of the Turkish policy towards this country." The reaction is understandable, and the fact that Ankara actively interacts with the government of M. Barzani, for example, in the oil trading business, does not give grounds to believe that Turkey could advocate secession of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Cooperation with Erbil and military assistance to him does not contradict Ankara’s strategy. The well-known principle of "divide and conquer" operates here. Supporting Erbil, the Turks thereby tying him over themselves economically and politically, and the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan becomes unprofitable to oppose. At the same time, a wedge is driven in between Erbil and the Kurds of, say, Syria, who are more rigid towards Ankara. And if he suddenly acquires legal independence, the Kurds from neighboring countries will have an example of a real and at least partially recognized by the international community national state, which undoubtedly can activate separatist tendencies within Turkey itself. It should be noted that in its southeastern regions there is actually a civil war between the Kurds and the authorities, and many settlements in their condition do not differ from the Syrian ones. Accordingly, it is more profitable for Ankara to maintain the status quo, in which Erbil is, in fact, independent, but formally and legally remains autonomy within Iraq.
However, Turkey is not the only player who is sickened by the emergence of a new state on the political map of the world. Neighboring Iran also does not want an independent Kurdistan to appear next to it, since it has a problem similar to Turkish one. Kurds also live on its territory, and a significant part of them, due to cultural and socio-economic reasons, are striving for independence from Tehran, on the basis of which clashes occur regularly between a number of organizations and the authorities. Consequently, any actions that could increase tensions would be perceived by the Persians as a threat to national security. The situation is complicated by the fact that Tehran, through the Iraqi People’s Mobilization Force (Hashd al-Shaabi), actively interacts with the Kurdistan Workers ’Party (PKK), which is in opposition to Barzani, and participated in the liberation of Mosul from terrorists. In addition, everything that weakens Baghdad automatically reduces Tehran’s influence in the region. For this reason, the Persians also will not support the independence of the Kurds. In addition, Tehran provides assistance to parties opposed to Erbil, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Goran. There are a number of contradictions between Barzani and the PKK with opponents in the domestic political camp, which external forces will undoubtedly take advantage of. In addition, a referendum on independence carries strategic risks for Iran.
Despite the fact that the Syrian Kurdistan (three cantons) is also de facto independent of Damascus, for the latter a referendum may pose a problem. Any inclinations in the direction of legal independence will cause a powerful opposition. At the moment, the real independence of the Kurds was not constituted solely for political reasons: the separation of the cantons (Afrin, Jazeera and Kobani), the confrontation with the Turks and participation with the support of the American coalition in the operation to capture Raqqi. However, if the referendum in neighboring Kurdistan ends with an easily predictable result, then the situation may well change after some time and the question of holding a referendum in Syrian Kurdistan will be raised again. Of course, this does not mean that Damascus will oppose the military way, because its capabilities are limited, and the Kurds themselves are still fighting against a common enemy - the "Islamic State" (a banned organization in the Russian Federation). In addition, the Turks, according to available information, are considering a military operation against Kurds in the Afrin region to break through the corridor to pro-Turkish terrorist units in Idlib province, where their proxies have recently suffered a series of defeats from the jihadi conglomerate Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham. Accordingly, in the short term, the Kurds are unlikely to decide on actions similar to those that their brothers are going to take in Iraq, but given the extremely unstable military-political situation in the conflict zone, this possibility cannot be discounted.
About the depths of independence
It is important to note the economic dimension of the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. We are talking about Kirkuk and its oil-bearing regions, which, in accordance with the plans of Erbil, should be part of the newly formed state. However, there are currently PKK military formations supported by Tehran in Kirkuk; it will be very problematic to knock them out. At the same time, local ethnic groups have already declared their readiness to take part in the referendum, which Barzani personally contributed to.
According to the vice-president of al-Maliki, the Iraqi forces in the battle for Mosul suffered huge losses - among the military and police, about 20, thousands of people were killed and wounded, and the most combat-ready units suffered. This means that Barzani, in view of the presence in Kirkuk of troops under his control, the Peshmerga chose the optimal time for self-determination. Even if Baghdad nevertheless decides to go to a force rally with the aim of returning Erbil to control, it will be very difficult to implement such plans. In relation to the government of al-Abadi is still worse. Despite the spirit-raising talk about the capture of Mosul, in reality, everything is somewhat different. The militants of the Islamic State (banned in Russia) continue their subversive activities; sleeping cells in other cities of Iraq have been preserved. That is why even the failure of the offensive and the numerous statements about the release of the second largest population of the metropolis are so important for al-Abadi. In the end, if, during his leadership, the Kurds gain independence, this factor, multiplied by the huge losses in military operations against jihadists, as well as the economic and political crisis in the country could provoke the departure of the current government. And then the chances of a return to the power of al-Maliki increase. At the same time, Barzani opposes him, since the former Iraqi Prime Minister is a consistent opponent of Kurdish self-determination and threatened with a forceful reaction to the referendum. Radical Shiites, followers of M. al-Sadr, also oppose the return to power of al-Maliki.
Thus, there is a very tangled tangle of contradictions within Iraq and in neighboring countries. Turkey supports Erbil, but opposes the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran supports the Shiite militia, actively interacting with the PKK, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization. The PKK is in serious conflict with Barzani, seeking independence from Baghdad. In addition, the leader of the Kurdish rebels, A. Odzhalan, who is serving a life sentence on Imralla Island in Turkey, also spoke out against the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.
What if "yes"?
Of course, these contradictions are by no means all that exist in the region and that can affect further events. Consider a situation in which the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will be real and will lead to the most radical consequences. By undermining the security of a significant part of the region, namely Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, Barzani is able to intensify the ongoing conflict, transferring it to a new phase. There is a possibility that the Iraqi leadership will decide on a military operation against the Kurds. Pro-Iranian formations from Hashd al-Shaabi and special services (Kods MTR) can help them with this. It is more difficult to calculate the reaction of Ankara, since it has seriously invested in the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan. Probably, Turkey will take a waiting position for some time, tracking how the independence of the Kurds in Iraq will affect the situation in the region as a whole. An interesting option is that Ankara can become Tehran’s situational ally if it decides to assist the Iraqi government in bringing Kurds under Baghdad’s control. In this case, a certain coordination between Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad cannot be ruled out in the common cause of eliminating Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent geopolitical entity. The end result of such joint efforts could be the removal of Barzani from the presidency of the new country and the bringing to power of someone from the opposition, whose figure would be consensus for all three main regional players.
On the other hand, such a scenario would be an extremely powerful destabilizing factor that neither Turkey, nor Iran, nor Iraq can take into account. A coalition demonstration against the Kurds is likely to lead to a certain consolidation of the latter inside Iraq and will provoke a wave of instability beyond its borders. Thus, there is a rather unusual situation where any outcome will inevitably aggravate the situation in the region.
You also need to understand that a joint statement by the Iran-Iraq or the Iran-Iraq-Turkish coalition will lead to another genocide of one or another ethnic group and there should be no illusions here - just look at what is happening in Mosul and other Iraqi cities to understand how they will lead themselves militias against the local population. Who will be appointed a terrorist and an adversary will be such. The Kurds, too, are far from exemplary in the territories where they live in a foreign (usually Arab) population, as eloquently shown by the actions in Rakka. Consequently, the destruction of the infrastructure that ensures survival and the increase in the resource base for terrorists, who necessarily use circumstances to their advantage, will continue.
Glance from Washington
The United States, represented by the D. Trump administration, distanced itself from the referendum, saying that "they appreciate the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan," but "support a united, stable, democratic Iraq." It is the position of the United States that could become a barrier to a joint military operation against Erbil. Americans continue to see Kurds as the power they can use to build the geopolitical balance they need in the Middle East. It should be understood that, despite the change of leadership in the White House, modern technologies for the elimination of states through the creation of controlled instability have not gone away, and the United States will never give up such a powerful tool of foreign policy for the elite and the military intelligence community. Trump and his comrades consider the same “Islamic State” as a tool of the previous administration and part of elite groups behind it, and therefore in today's American approach there is a pronounced anti-Silov component. On the other hand, the Kurds are in fact the current US tool for creating controlled instability in the Middle East. One of the main foreign policy priorities of the Trump administration is the weakening of Iran. If he is drawn into a war with the Kurds, this will meet the strategic imperatives of the current White House.
Risks for Russia
During the last visit to Moscow, al-Maliki pointedly reminded that "Russia had a weighty presence in our country politically and militarily." However, acting on the side of Baghdad will put our leadership in a very difficult position, since Moscow is in favor of a dialogue with the Kurds. Direct military assistance to the Iraqi government can undermine their confidence in Russia. On the other hand, such a gesture would be appreciated both in Ankara, and in Tehran, and in Damascus. But the potential benefits of Russia look, to put it mildly, dubious. If the Kremlin decides to provide services to Baghdad and specifically al-Maliki in the interests of, for example, Russian big business - through the obligation to consent to providing access to the fields in Kirkuk in the event of a victory over the Kurds, as well as developing oil fields in Mosul, narrow interests with nationwide. Currently, the supply of a significant amount of armored vehicles and other weapons to Baghdad looks like a sufficient level of interaction.