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Iraqi Kurds’ referendum: a step towards independence, or regional chaos?

Posted By on September 23, 2017 @ 06:00

The Kurds are flavour of the month. We are now familiar with media coverage of Kurdish fighters, many of them women, pushing back the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Pursuing separate political projects on either side of the Iraq–Syria border, Kurdish forces have won praise and considerable military support in the international campaign to unseat ISIS.

Boosted by surging goodwill and recent territorial gains, Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani has called a referendum to decide whether the semi-autonomous region that he heads should seek independence from Iraq. If jubilant rallies in Kurdish cities in Iraq are any indication, the ‘yes’ vote on 25 September will win emphatically.

The independence referendum, however, may well undermine the Kurds’ favoured status. Few Western governments would quibble with the Kurds’ right to seek self-determination. Deprived of a state at the carve-up of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish population was divided among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In each of those states they’ve since suffered numerous humiliations.

Numbering around 30 million, Kurds argue they deserve a national homeland: ‘Kurdistan’. That the Kurdish peshmerga have played an instrumental role in the struggle against ISIS adds weight to that argument. In Syria, Kurdish militia, under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, form the backbone of the force to retake Raqqa, the seat of ISIS’s so-called caliphate.

On both of these fronts the Kurds have made considerable territorial gains with the military backing of the US and allies. Kurdish foot soldiers in the campaign against ISIS have saved Western governments from putting their own forces in the line of fire.

But any goodwill the Kurds have amassed doesn’t extend to Western approval of the independence referendum. Both the US and the UK foreign offices have voiced their dismay at this unilateral move. Western diplomats have made last-ditch efforts to get the Kurds to abandon the referendum.

Western concerns centre on any disruption to the anti-ISIS campaign that might result from a subsequent Kurdish declaration of independence. The emergence of a fledgling state is unlikely to go unquestioned in the region. It will inevitably have an impact on the geopolitical balance. Received wisdom holds that existing borders, which deprived the Kurds of a state, are sacred, and that any change could trigger a domino effect.

A prospective regional realignment also worries Turkey. Ankara maintains good relations with the Iraqi Kurds but is highly sensitive to the aspirations of its own Kurdish minority. The Turkish foreign ministry argues that the Kurds’ referendum will undermine Iraq’s territorial sovereignty (an issue Ankara glosses over when it ignores Baghdad’s demands to withdraw unauthorised Turkish troops stationed in northern Iraq). But Ankara clearly fears that an emerging Kurdistan will incite heightened separatist sentiments among Kurds in Turkey. That has given rise to extensive tub-thumping from Turkish politicians and recent military manoeuvres on the Iraqi border.

Iran is similarly concerned at the intentions of its fractious Kurdish minority. Tehran is also closely allied with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Earlier talk of a ‘Kurdish corridor’ allowing Iran access to the Mediterranean through northern Iraq and Syria has proved nothing more than hyperbole, with Tehran firmly voicing its disapproval of the Kurds’ referendum. Military officials in Iran state that should the referendum proceed it would close its borders and terminate security agreements with the Kurdish regime. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards, has gone further, saying Iran will occupy the Kurdish region.

Meanwhile, not unexpectedly, Baghdad condemns the referendum. The Kurds made gains at Baghdad’s expense by claiming the disputed city of Kirkuk when the Iraqi army fled before ISIS’s advance. The Iraqi army has since regrouped and, with ISIS on the ropes, is more assertive. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi decries the referendum as an ‘invitation’ for others to violate Iraqi sovereignty. He has stated that any violence arising out of the referendum will provoke a military response from Baghdad.

Just how Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad will play this is difficult to determine. All have track records of brutal responses to Kurdish manoeuvring. Despite bellicose talk, none of them desires greater conflict, but the positions of all three mean that the Kurds are conducting their referendum in a highly charged atmosphere.

The Kurds have played a clever strategic game since the emergence of ISIS. In beating back the jihadists in Syria and Iraq, they have consolidated their own positions. Whether that means they are canny operators or shameless opportunists depends on one’s perspective.

It should be remembered that the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum is not an irreversible step towards independence. This may just be yet more jockeying to create political capital as the Kurds negotiate their place as a non-state entity living among overbearing neighbours.

Whatever the case, there’s little doubt the Kurds would like more diplomatic support from the West. Considering all they have endured, perhaps that’s not too much to ask.

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[1] women: https://www.reuters.com/.../us-mideast-crisis-mosul-womenfighters-idUSKBN12Y2DC

[2] jubilant rallies: https://aawsat.com/en/home/article/1017356/kurds-celebrate-launch-independence-referendum-campaign

[3] against ISIS: http://www.newsweek.com/battlefront-against-isis-peshmerga-457615

[4] Syrian Democratic Forces: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-raqqa/u-s-backed-forces-in-syrias-raqqa-say-they-take-old-city-idUSKCN1BC5AY

[5] US: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/09/274324.htm

[6] UK: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretary-statement-on-the-kurdistan-regional-governments-intention-to-hold-a-referendum-on-independence-from-iraq

[7] efforts: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-kurds/western-powers-press-iraq-kurd-leaders-to-shelve-very-risky-independence-vote-idUSKCN1BP19Y

[8] anti-ISIS campaign: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2017/06/271653.htm#IRAQ

[9] Baghdad’s demands: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/abadi-iraq-turkey-relations-move-170110180125210.html

[10] tub-thumping: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-will-not-allow-fait-accompli-in-iraqs-north.aspx?pageID=238&nID=118131&NewsCatID=510

[11] military manoeuvres: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-kurds-turkey/turkey-holds-military-drill-on-iraqi-border-before-kurdish-vote-army-idUSKCN1BT0WA

[12] Iraq and Syria: https://www.thenational.ae/world/risks-remain-as-iraqi-militias-press-ahead-with-iran-s-bridge-to-syria-1.53664

[13] Tehran: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/06/iran-opposition-iraqi-kurdistan-krg-independence-referendum.html

[14] referendum proceed: https://www.iraqinews.com/baghdad-politics/iran-close-borders-kurdistan-referendum/

[15] Iran will occupy: http://www.thebaghdadpost.com/en/story/16943/Qassem-Soleimani-says-Iran-to-occupy-Kurdistan-if-referendum-held

[16] decries the referendum: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/iraq-force-kurdish-referendum-leads-violence-49895674

[17] diplomatic support: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/opinion/kurds-need-more-than-arms.html?