The Future of Iraqi-Kurdistan
On September 25th, the Kurdish people in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi-Kurdistan may have the opportunity to take a significant step towards the creation of an fully independent Kurdish state via a referendum. This vote has the potential to plunge the already unstable region into further chaos, while also allowing for the creation of an independent state for the 4th largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
Iraqi-Kurdistan is a region in northern Iraq populated largely by an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East known as the Kurds. The Kurds are made up of 25 to 30 million people. They are a significant minority population in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and populate areas of south-western Armenia. The Iraqi-Kurds have faced years of oppression, initially from their British colonial rulers following the fall of the Ottoman empire, and later under Saddam Hussein’s government. They coordinated with the U.S. army during both the Gulf War and the Iraq War and following the fall of the Hussein government, gained significantly more autonomy when Iraq’s constitution was written as it established their own government and military force still overseen by the Iraqi state and governed by Iraqi law.
The situation changed drastically when in 2014, ISIS threatened to invade the city of Kirkuk, which although not located in the official boundaries of the Iraqi-Kurdish state, is claimed by the Kurdish government and is home to a large Kurdish population. The military forces of Iraqi-Kurdistan known as the Peshmerga pre-emptively took the city following the Iraqi army’s retreat, and have held it since. The Peshmerga has served as a valuable ally to the Western forces in the War against ISIS, and has even taken ISIS-controlled territory in Northern Syria with the aid of Syrian and Turkish Kurdish forces.
The greatest challenge currently facing the Iraqi-Kurdish government is pressure from the Iraqi government and the international community. The Supreme Court of Iraq ordered that the referendum be postponed until its legality can be further examined, and on September 18th, the Prime Minister of Iraq voiced his clear opinion on the matter, calling on the government of the autonomous region to stop the vote. The U.S., U.N., and the neighbouring countries of Turkey and Iran have also called for the referendum to be stopped.
The concerns of the states differ greatly. The Iraqi government, as well as the United States fear that if the Kurds are allowed to separate, and especially if the borders that they draw include the city of Kirkuk, the response from ISIS and other Sunni militias in the group could be devastating. It could lead to a huge re-escalation of the conflict in Northern Iraq, and may even draw other Kurdish troops fighting elsewhere.
The concern from the neighbouring states of Syria, Iran, and especially Turkey is that if a Kurdish state is set up in Iraq, it would encourage separatist forces already established within those nations to push for their own independence. The geographic area where the Kurdish people are most highly populated is connected in the corner of each of the four states (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran), and the creation of a state within that area would encourage other neighbouring groups to follow suit.
The Democratic Unity Party, who represent the Syrian Kurdish population, have been highly affective fighting against ISIS and have gained enough strength that if a resolution to the conflict is to be reached, it would almost certainly require the creation of an autonomous state in Northern Syria. If the Syrian government were to ignore their calls for independence, it could plunge the country back into civil war.
In Iran, conflict has been constant since the end of the First World War with the significant Kurdish population in the north-west of the country. However, it is unlikely considering the strength of the Iranian government, and their ability to quickly quell any smaller uprisings that an Iranian-Kurdish state would be established.
In Turkey however, the concern that the Kurdish population in the south of the country would increase their attempts to separate is very strong. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is the militant Kurdish force in Turkey, and has been fighting for independence since the late 1970s. This group has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the governments of Turkey, the United States, and the European Union and is believed to have carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Turkey, most recently a car-bombing in the city of Cizre on the Turkish-Iraqi border that killed 11 police officers and injured 78 others. The Cizre bombing in late August 2016, re-escalated the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, which has complicated matters even further as the PKK has been effective fighting ISIS in Syria. The Turkish government would be vehemently opposed to the creation of a Kurdish state, and it is unclear what their response would be if it was created.
There are still a number of obstacles preventing the creation of an Iraqi-Kurdistan state. The Iraqi government may still intervene before the referendum. The referendum is itself non-binding, so the Kurdish government may be able to escapea difficult situation. Nonetheless, this referendum sends a clear message. The time for the Kurdish state is drawing ever-closer.