Kurdish Independence Referendum, Put Simply

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By Sub-Editor William Fawcett

The Kurds are one of the largest “politically homeless” ethnic groups in the world, constituting the fourth largest ethnic population in the Middle East.

Spreading across south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and Syria, and the far north-western frontiers of Iran, there are around 30 million Kurds living in ‘Kurdistan’, with their own separate national identity, culture, and languages. A further two million or so Kurds reside abroad; most recently with a significant diaspora appearing in Germany.

Turkey has long repressed all notions of a Kurdish identity—let alone the possibility of an independence referendum—and currently is engaged in a long-running conflict with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group considered by many governments as a terrorist organization despite its assistance in fighting so-called Islamic State.

However, in Iraq, the Kurds have gained an unprecedented level of autonomy following the 2005 US-backed Constitution, which has resulted in many Kurdish officials and citizens believing they can govern themselves. Furthermore, the 2014 offensive and aggressive expansion of so-called Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria allowed the Kurds to set an example through their contribution to the fight against the insurgent group in areas where forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad or the Iraqi Security Forces had retreated. Moreover, during the fight to retake Mosul and push Islamic State out of Iraq, the Peshmerga (Kurdish military) played a crucial role, working alongside Iraqi security forces supported by large-scale military assistance from the US-backed coalition.

While Iraqi Kurdistan – made up of Dohuk, Erbil (capital) and Sulaymaniyah provinces and Iraq’s only autonomous region – has repeatedly called for referendums in recent years, they have been consistently disrupted by conflicts such as the ongoing Syrian Civil War and the expansion of the so-called Islamic State. However, on 25 September, following cooperation with Iraqi security forces in the liberation of Mosul, Masoud Barzani, the head of the KRG (Kurdistan Region Government), called a ‘non-binding’ referendum on Kurdish independence.

It is often easy to sympathise with the Kurds, and understandably so. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and with Atäturk proclaiming a Turkish secular republic, Kurdistan lost its first game in its push towards its own home. This was further hampered by the Treaty of Lausanne between Britain and France in 1923, which settled the borders of former Ottoman territories and recognised the new Turkish state.

Half a century later, during Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq, the Kurds were further subjected to repression becoming the victims of a campaign of horrendous war crimes committed by the regime. One in particular, the Halabja chemical attack during the closing stages of the Iraq-Iran war, killed 3,000 to 5,000 and injuring around 10,000 more.

Kurds are denied recognition in Turkey, face routine harassment in Syria, and in Iran they make up a tiny proportion of a largely Shia Islamic population (Kurds are mostly Sunni, and they are neither Arabs nor Persian).

As a result of the mistreatment at the hands of these states and the fracturing of the political bedrock of the Middle East, several Kurdish nationalist groups have emerged, stronger than ever, advocating greater autonomy in ‘Greater Kurdistan’. Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent call for independence represents the largest yet.

Representing just under 20% of Iraq’s 37 million people, the Iraqi Kurds arguably have gained de facto autonomy from Baghdad following the 1991 Gulf War; although, this has not stopped the current Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi from calling the referendum ‘unconstitutional’. However, while another controversial referendum takes place about a week after in Catalonia, Spain, the Kurdish referendum varies significantly.

Talking to the BBC, Barzani claims that the referendum – held in the three provinces where Kurds make up a majority and in areas of other significant populations – will not immediately trigger a declaration of independence. Instead, Barzani has stressed that the referendum is “the first step” in negotiations with the government in Baghdad towards the ultimate goal of independence.

However, with resources already strained, combined with the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, outside of Iraqi Kurdistan but with a major Kurdish population, a successful ‘yes’ vote could render the situation more precarious. Shia militias, among the many militant groups that operate clandestinely in Iraq, have vowed to never see an independent Kurdistan. Meanwhile, leaders of Turkmen political parties (another prominent ethnic group in Iraqi Kurdistan) have called on Turkmen to boycott the referendum. Most damningly on September 14th, the Iraqi parliament voted to remove the Governor of Kirkuk province in response to the referendum and the Governor’s sympathetic views on Kurdish nationalist claims.

Additionally, further afield, both the US and UK have criticised the timing of the referendum, citing to the ongoing fighting against IS, while Russia has declared its support for the “unity” of Iraq. In fact, the independence referendum has been resoundingly rejected outside of Iraqi Kurdistan’s jurisdiction, together with national governments and other regional actors.

With the battle against IS far from over, militarily and ideologically, the timing of the vote is perhaps far too early in a region where war has remained ever present since the end of the Second World War. Furthermore, Turkish officials fear that a successful ‘yes’ vote would spark nationalist flames in the south-eastern portion of the country, where groups such as the PKK – a designated terrorist organisation by NATO – are still in armed conflict with Ankara. This is further compounded by the situation in neighbouring Syria, where the Kurdish YPG, backed by the US-coalition, has gained significant territory as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (opposing Assad’s rule), and they too could push for greater autonomy when, or if, the war in Syria ceases.

However, the stability of the Iraqi nation is the greatest complication that further threatens peace in the Middle East. There exists no doubt that the Kurds have been denied statehood, and been designated second-class citizens in certain areas, through violent and/or political means since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

Perhaps it will never be the right time to hold a referendum regarding Kurdish independence, and the fact that the vote is both non-binding and merely a step towards negotiations with Baghdad, should be a welcoming sign for all. However, with significant Arab, Shia, Turkmen, Yazidi and various other ethnic and religious groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps a ‘victory’ for the Kurds come 25 September will only pour more petrol onto the already out-of-control blaze.

Sources and Further Reading

Importance of Oil in Kurdistan
History of the Kurds
Turkmen Call for Referendum Boycott
History of Iraqi Kurdistan
Spread of Kurds Across Middle East
Iraqi Parliament Dismisses Kirkuk Governor

Image Rights: Welat Nehri @ Flickr

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