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The Iraqi Kurdish Referendum: How It Affects Middle East Geopolitics

Syrian Kurds wave the Kurdish flag, in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on 27 September 2017, during a gathering in support of the independence referendum in Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdish region.  (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • With ethnic and nationalist trends coming back to the fore, akin to the heady days in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1989, and new separatist tendencies in Catalonia and some other regions, the Kurdish issue is likely to remain a major pinprick in the Middle East in the times to come.

The Kurdish people are an ethnic group of approximately 25 to 35 million people quartered in the region comprising South Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria and Iraq, and the North West part of Iran. A very small sliver of Armenia also has their presence. They have been in the news from time to time, especially because of the internal conflict that the Turkish segment was part of, for separation from Turkey, more prominently since the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Iraqi segment has suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and long fought the Iraqi Army.

Today, the deep international interest in the Kurdish people arises from the 25 September 2017 referendum initiated under the Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani to decide through a vote the freedom of the Iraqi segment. This interest is generated for quite a few reasons beyond just the recent referendum.

First, the Kurds of the entire region are one of the largest ethnic segments without a nation and their aspiration for the creation of a greater Kurdish state (call it Kurdistan) creates geopolitical problems across a swathe of sensitive territories in the Middle East.

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Second, with the ongoing Syrian civil war, the dynamics of influence and control is changing rapidly and no one wants a change in the power balance. Creation of even a single independent Kurdish enclave in one state may have a cascading effect among the Kurdish people in the other states.

Third, each of the four main nations, which have a Kurdish minority, do not wish to see any redrawing of boundaries because that has its own unpredictability of the manner in which geopolitics play out.

Fourth, a trigger of any of the segments seeking breakaway will be considered by the international community as one more contributory factor towards the turbulence and instability in an already highly turmoil ridden region, the effects of which are having impact much further away from the boundaries of the region itself. The creation of a diversion can actually give a reprieve to the Islamic State (IS), which is on its last legs after defeats at Mosul and lately at Hawija, which lies in the Kurdish territory.

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Although the current international interest is thrown up by the decision of the Iraqi Kurdish segment to conduct a referendum for independence which isn’t the first time that the Kurdish Iraqi segment is at conflict with the government of Iraq. After years of battling the Iraq government a settlement was reached in 1970 for limited autonomy. It was never implemented leading to a second civil war, which continued into the 1980s even as the Iran-Iraq war raged from 1981 onwards.

In 1988, the Iraq government allegedly used chemical weapons to cause large-scale casualties against the Iraqi Kurds. The situation somewhat improved after the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Gulf War I, and the declaration of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The Kurds rose again, almost in sync, with the Iraqi Shias in the South and the Kurdish resistance army known as the Peshmerga succeeded in pushing the Iraqi forces out of the Erbil region thus leading to de facto autonomy but not independence. The bone of contention for the Iraq government was always the oil rich Kirkuk area which was largely inhabited by Kurds. Saddam Hussein had initiated the 'Arabisation' of this area through displacement and resettlement, an issue now causing problems in that region of Iraq.

So, why are the Kurds suddenly taking to this brazen expression of independence; what has triggered it? Firstly, the actions of the Iraqi Kurds are not in isolation or without consultation with the pan-Kurd movement. The Turkish separatist group PKK in South Eastern Turkey is sensing a weakening of Turkey with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s steps, which are taking Turkey away from Europe and have created sufficient cleavage with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Iraqi Kurds have played a major role in the defeat of the IS through the Peshmerga’s role in the north. They also sense that post the final defeat of IS and the end of Syrian civil war, there could be a demand to redraw maps.

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The Referendum of 25 September 2017, which was in favour independence, was also driven by a sense of frustration with the government of Iraq which under the Shia dispensation has not been the fairest of governments. The Kurdish segment of Iraq has witnessed an economic boom after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein but now that is flattening. In addition, the positive role of the Peshmerga against IS has given the Kurds a perception that they deserve independence just for this.

France is playing a pro-active role in preventing a crisis being precipitated just when the IS looks to be disappearing from Iraq. With Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi visiting Paris, France’s President Emmanuel Macron is leading the efforts to ensure that dialogue between the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs begins at the earliest. This dialogue is being looked at as the instrument for unity, integrity and sovereignty of Iraq, while recognising Kurdish rights. Will the Iraqi Kurdish segment be willing to give up their demands in a situation in which they perceive they can maximise what they wish to achieve,will be the question?

The role of Iran will be crucial. The leadership of Iran and Turkey has just met to ensure that there is no trigger for Kurdish nationalism beyond what has already happened in Iraq. However, given the fires of nationalism and the desire to prevent more armed conflict in a fatigued region, Iraq may well be forced to grant much more autonomy to Iraqi Kurds with little federal control. However, the initial responses of the Iraqi government have been completely knee-jerk in nature; preventing the banks in Iraqi Kurdish territory from conducting foreign currency exchange and stoppage of direct foreign travel to the northern region.

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Israel is accused of provoking and sponsoring the rise in separatist trends as it wishes to see the hold of Iran and Syria balanced out by a Greater Kurdistan, particularly in the Levant region. However, this has been denied by Israel.

Since the attention is now focused on the potential future dispensation and management of Middle East affairs in the presumed post-IS era, the Kurdish issue comes as another unpredictable factor. The US is unlikely to support the independence of the breakaway Kurdish regions although it had supported the Peshmerga’s fight against Saddam Hussain.

With ethnic and nationalist trends coming back to the fore, akin to the heady days in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1989, and new separatist tendencies in Catalonia and some other regions, the Kurdish issue is likely to remain a major pinprick in the Middle East in the times to come.

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