Kurdish Referendum: Dilemma or a Puzzle

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Sumera Bashir

For the second time in 12 years, Kurds in Iraq expressed their wish to be free from the rest of the country. A referendum was held on 25th September 2017 in which at least 90 per cent of the people voiced “Yes”.  Nonetheless, the Kurdish referendum within Iraq has the potential of being a precarious conflict of the future in the region.

The overwhelming response of Kurds in Iraq doesn’t come unexpectedly. The desire of freedom first came when the Kurds felt cheated by the central government during the World War I. They (Kurds) fought the previous governments that had suppressed their aspirations and confined them to a minority status. Plausibly, Kurds view independence the only escape from further misfortunes.

However, Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria have yet a long road ahead.  A huge affirmation in the referendum will not offer independence but it is a reminder for leaders in Baghdad that Kurds wish to split off from the country where they always felt alienated and dejected. They want to end an unwanted and unmatched bond which has been abusing Kurds since centuries. They feel it is a high time that they should break off from mainland Iraq.

In the past as well, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region called for staging a referendum but didn’t push the matter, however, this time he went as far as possible to stage a referendum. Despite an overwhelming yes in the referendum, Barzani cautioned Kurds about the possibilities of gaining independence ASAP (As soon as possible). The only reason for 25th September referendum was his concern that if and when the Islamic State is defeated, the US and its allies may desiccate, along with the diplomatic leverage that comes with it.  Barzani fears that the support of West for Kurd’s independence bid may be closed soon.

Since long, staging a referendum has been a bargaining strategy rather than an undeniable promise for Barzani. He chose the timing of announcement of the vote and the event very carefully. His bargaining strategy was loaded with a fair amount of threats and intimidation. Barzani repeatedly announced that “he would accept nothing less than guaranteed international support in negotiations with Baghdad leading to independence within a period of two years or so”.

The US is a friend and an ardent supporter, on the contrary, is willing to facilitate and mediate negotiations with Baghdad over the terms of their future relationship, but not for separation of Kurds from mainland Iraq. Unfortunately, the US is an ally of both Baghdad and Kurds who are a major supporter of the US fighting ISIS and civil war in Syria. The strain in the US – Kurdish ties can put the US interests in jeopardy. Hence the US wasn’t happy with the referendum and it tried its best to delay it but now it has rejected it outright.

Not only the US and her allies are against Kurdish referendum but Turkey, Iran and Syria oppose this move.  Turkey is fearful of the Kurdish referendum because it believes that such a move could encourage its own Kurds to demand a separate statehood. Turkey’s anti – Kurdish stance makes it more vulnerable than ever. In view of the Ankara’s ethnic profile, it is anxious about the repercussions of Kurdish referendum in Iraq.  Turkey houses roughly 14.5 million Kurds, Iran 6 million, 5 – 6 million in Iraq and less than 2 million in Syria according to CIA factbook estimate.

Moreover, Turkey has been parroting Iraqi Kurdish referendum as an ‘Israeli Project’ on the premise that Iraqi Kurds and Israelis get along well. No doubt Israel is the only voice which has spoken in favor of Kurdish referendum.

Iraqi Kurds, however, have a reason to demand the right of self-determination or go for a referendum.  They suffered a lethal genocide under Saddam’s regime. Thus, they have been exercising self-rule since the Gulf War. Soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many rounds of negotiations were held to strike a deal among Kurdish leaders and Baghdad, especially in 2005 but nothing on ground happened. The resentment has grown to an extent that the Kurds no longer feel bound to live under the banner of Iraq.

Generally speaking, the Kurdish issue with its neighboring countries is not new. The history of Kurdish issue and the hostilities among its neighbors dates back to the Ottoman Empire.  Since the issue grew in magnitude, experts believe that it is and might continue for a while. After the treaty of Lausanne – the Kurds spread in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Armenia but were reduced to the minority status. Among all Kurds, Iraqi Kurds continued their struggle to reclaim their identity, did not succeed but they never let the flame fade and their resilience became the key to the dimension of the crisis.

Kurds in general (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia) didn’t take the back seat though. They continued their struggles for autonomy. However, the case of Iraqi Kurds has been contentious and painful. They were promised autonomy in the past as well but on the conditions that they fight for greater Iraq. This is the reason why Kurdish fighters were used in great numbers in many wars.

However, in Turkey, their idea of autonomy was not entertained. From the Turkey’s government, there was a clear negation for a separate Kurdish land. The bitterness and lack of justice kept simmering. Turkish Kurds felt disparaged and demoralized.  Consequently, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took the lead role and became the hub of attention.

Aftermath of Iraqi Kurdish referendum

The referendum which was staged on 25th September 2017 witnessed a massive support from Iraqi Kurds, nevertheless, the overwhelming victory in favor of the free Kurdish homeland has annoyed and agitated the neighbors. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria view the referendum as a threat that could possibly set a precedent. Iran and Turkey felt the direct heat of the referendum. They fear the colossal victory in favor of a free homeland and boldness of the Iraqi Kurds could incite Kurds in Iran as well as Turkey.

The neighbors are anxious that the heat might spread to their own domestic political realms. It is highly likely that Kurds in Iran and Turkey might also stand up to demand or bid for secession. Such a future scenario would surely put their security structures in sluggishness and as a matter of fact disrupt their political balance.

Additionally, 25th September referendum has multiplied Turkey’s worries. A la Iraqi Kurds, PKK would follow the line. It can initiate an uproar which might hit Turkey’s economy. To alter the impact of Kurdish referendum in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria have joined hands to deter any upcoming clash or demand.

For this reason, Iran blocked its airlines and sanctioned oil trade to the Kurdish areas as a result of the referendum held in Iraq. Iran regards the referendum chaotic, thus it stood by its long-time ally Iraq. Also, Iran considers the referendum as a threat not just to its own borders but it fears that it could lead to uprisings in Iran as well. The referendum in Iraq as per Iran has greater strategic and political dimensions. Iran views that Kurds could uproot and interrupt the Golden Belt of its own influence in the region.

On the other hand, Syria’s reaction to the referendum is on a conditional basis. It announced that Syria’s support of the Kurdish referendum in Iraq depends on the political state of the country once the ISIS is thrown out of Syria. Analysts view this as a highly politicized deal.

Another dimension of Kurdish referendum in Iraq is that it has given birth to new alliances which were considered implausible in the past. Turkey has allied with Iran and Iraq but in the past, there has been ideological and political antipathy among them. Iraqi Kurdish referendum created a paradigm shift in the region. It brought unlikely states together with political and security-related benefits.

It is also believed that these emerging regional dynamics could trigger something raw since the entire band of Iraq and Syria are already involved in a war. Any clash inside Iraq will pull Turkey, Iran and other states in trouble as well.

Since Iran and Turkey have come closer to cope with the aftereffects of Kurdish referendum, they have held joint military drills and vowed to hold down their forts militarily if the need arises. The intimacy between Iran – Turkey is the outcome of Israel’s support to Iraqi Kurds called Israel factor and any push in hostilities between Turkey – Iran – Iraq and the Kurds and then Israel’s support to the Kurds might turn into a future clash. Such an equation will put the zone in a huge cauldron of complexities.

Lately, there is a wave of empathy by the Arabs towards Iraqi Kurds and the reason for that is the close alliance between Turkey – Iran – Iraq. However, social analysts are doubtful of the Turkey – Iran – Iraq alliance and they question the sustainability of the honeymoon between them.  Iran, Turkey and Iraq may survive for a while but Israel & Syria will be key components in the conflict.

The region at present is a hub of international politics and Kurds in Iraq have shown readiness to negotiate with the Iraqi government but oil compensation issue might restrict the entire process. This intricate equation makes the situation frivolous and complicated. These are the circumstances that make Kurdish referendum a problem and a contradiction rather than a path to freedom. 

The author is Associate Editor of The Legitimate and can be reached at sumera.reshi@gmail.com.

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