Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish people have been dispersed into four sovereign nations where that have had uneasy relationships with their central governments. Throughout the 20th century, the Kurds have been marginalized and persecuted, particularly in Iraq and Turkey. The central governments in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey will not allow an independent Kurdistan to exist, for its existence would threaten theirs. Yet, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as the presence of the Islamic State, have put forth new challenges and opportunities for the Kurdish people. On September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government conducted a referendum on independence and whatever the result may be, the vote is likely to enrage tensions in the Middle East.
The quest for independence is essential to Kurdish identity. However, the ethnic communities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria speak different dialects and subscribe to different faiths and ideologies. With over a hundred tribes across four countries, the Kurdish groups focus their goals within specific countries. In addition, there are also Kurds who have established genuine political parties that have aspirations for political and cultural recognition rather than independence. Other Kurdish movements like the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons in Turkey have resorted to terrorist tactics by targeting civilians including their Kurdish brethren.
In Iraq, most Kurds believed that the central government in Baghdad has neglected their demands. Iraqi Kurds saw the referendum as a legal effort to increase their autonomy which they believe will resolve their issues. Iraqi Kurds are unified in their pursuit for independence, but they are divided along political lines. For instance, the Kurdish Democratic Party led by President Barzani, announced the referendum without the involvement of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, which, following a dispute between Barzani and the political opposition, has not been active for years.
Until recently, the Gorran Movement, which is the second largest faction in the Kurdish parliament, is concerned that Barzani seems to see the referendum as a political tool to conceal his power and financial malpractice. The fact that Barzani scheduled the parliamentary and presidential elections shortly after the referendum in early November 2017, supports the idea that the Kurdish president seeks to use the political referendum to rally political support ahead of the upcoming elections. Therefore, the referendum should be viewed through the prism of independence as well as power grabbing by the ruling party. The setup of political affairs shows the excellence by which Barzani combines Kurdish nationalism with subtle Machiavellian politics.
As the Islamic State dissipates, old wounds and divisions are bound to resurface. One example is the rivalry between Kurdish groups in Syria and Turkey. For Washington, the people’s protection units have been reliable partners in the uphill battle against the Islamic State and because of American support, Syrian Kurdish groups de facto rule many areas in northeast Syria. Yet, the Syrian based YPG group is connected with the Kurdistan Workers Party (also known as the PKK), which Ankara and Washington both consider a terrorist organization.
Once more, Iraqi Kurdish officials considered their Turkish and Syrian counterparts as rivals. The reason why Kurdish groups in Iraq have cooperated with Kurdish groups in Syria and Turkey is because of a common enemy in the Islamic State. Yet, as ISIS diminishes, old wounds amongst the Kurdish parties will bleed again at the slightest dispute.
Even though Barzani’s referendum is limited to Iraqi Kurdistan, its symbolic impact could expand into Turkey and Iran as well, which hold sizeable Kurdish communities. Government officials in Ankara and Tehran fear that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq could galvanize their own Kurdish populations.
For Turkey, the stakes are high. Ever since the Turkish military leaders endorsed harsh policies against the Kurds in the 1970’s, the PKK and the Turkish military forces have fought a lengthy and costly war over control of the water-rich southeastern provinces of Turkey. Today, many of the past Turkish policies have been demolished, but the Kurds still maintain a difficult relationship with the central government in Ankara. Hence, Turkey has no interest in granting the Kurds further autonomy, and the situation is further puzzling in Syria and Iraq. T
he Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have a complex love/hate relationship. Since Baghdad refuses to cooperate with Erbil, the latter has come to depend on Ankara to export its oil to global markets. This has cultivated a fruitful relationship which displaced Turkey’s influence over the well-being of Iraqi Kurdistan. On the other hand, the Turkish based PKK has a presence in Northern Iraq. The result is a complicating situation where the Syrian YPG and Turkish PKK compete with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, but since the YPG and the PKK have a presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, it compels the Turks to strike targets in the territory of their diplomatic partners.
At the same time, the pure Kurdish populations share a strong solidarity with one another and don’t really care about the political divisions. This compels the Kurdish Democratic Party to carefully manage nationalist sentiment with geopolitical realities. If Barzani fails to do so, the ruling party could lose ground to the opposition. Obviously in this complicated geopolitical environment, things do not go as planned, and when expectations do not match with realities, they backfire. Turkey could apply more economic pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan, but President Erdoğan is likely to continue with more restraint as he prepares for the 2019 presidential elections. Erdoğan wants to secure the votes of not only the Kurdish population in Turkey, but also for Turkish nationalists. Thus, considering the situation, Erdoğan’s reaction to the referendum will sway from outright opposition to support for Barzani.
While Ankara maintains its careful attitude towards the referendum, Tehran has been vocally resistant to the idea. Like Turkey, Iran fears that an independent Kurdistan will inspire its own Kurdish insurgency. In addition, Tehran maintains a close relationship with Baghdad along with the Shia militias in Iraq. In fact, much of Iraq’s domestic and foreign policies have commonalities alongside Iran’s.
Policymakers in Tehran believe that the Kurdish referendum interrupts Iranian geopolitical ambitions and Iran’s concerns are backed by disturbing trends in the region. As the Islamic State diminishes, Kurdish militias have surged, which have resulted in minor attacks against Iranian military outposts in the northwestern part of the country. Thus far, only Israel and Saudi Arabia have vested an interest in rendering assistance to Kurdish militias to undermine ‘s geopolitical ambitions. Iran is an incredibly diverse nation with many ethnic groups, but they are worried that the Kurdish separatist groups would seek to provoke other minorities such as Azerbaijanis, Balochis, and Arabs into an insurgency as well.
The extent of Israeli and Saudi support to Kurdish militias is yet to be determined but from the Iranian perspective, it is a major cause for concern. Furthermore, Iranian based Kurdish groups like the Kurdistan Free Life Party, the Kurdistan Freedom Party, and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan mostly operate across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan and have links with the PKK. In the meantime, Iran has mobilized its Shia Iraqi militias towards the Kurdish groups by altering the trajectory of the Islamic State. Tehran has also seemed to apply more military pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan. In a matter of time, as ISIS fades away, Iranian militias and Kurdish forces could find themselves on opposite ends. In this regard, the disputed territories in Iraq are set to become the next battleground between Iran, Turkey, and the Kurds.
We must understand that Iraqi Kurds primarily reside in three provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government. Nevertheless, Erbil has made claims to the adjacent regions that are beyond its jurisdiction in Kirkuk, Sinjar, and Diyala. These disputed areas also happen to host offshoots of the PKK, and the PKK presence in Northern Iraq draws in the Turks and the Iranians. The Kurdish role in the disputed areas has brought forth any attempt to fragile peace. Security is somewhat assured, but officials in Erbil also pursued a policy that has displaced non-Kurdish minorities.
In this framework, the Kurds seek to undo Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policy in the 1970’s, which displaced thousands of Kurds from the area. The Kurdish attempt to rewrite the demographics back in their favor has been a vocal point in the relations between Erbil and Baghdad. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan plan to include the disputed zone into the referendum as well, which will reinforce Kurdish claims on the area. However, because of the reverse oppressive policies, minorities such as Arabs, Turks, and Assyrians are skeptical of an independent Kurdistan. Adding to the tensions are the displaced people that have been affected by ISIS.
The response to an independent Kurdistan remains unclear. However, across the globe, the United States has also expressed concern over the referendum. Although Washington has been a long ally of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Americans believe that the timing of the referendum is misplaced. Moreover, the United States has spent billions of dollars and sacrificed many lives to keep Iraq unified. An independent Kurdistan could render these fruitless sacrifices. Officials in Washington are likely to seek for ways to exploit the Kurdish groups to their advantage, and Washington’s primary concern of a Kurdish breakaway could inflame tensions and distract the regional players from the battle against the Islamic State.
Ultimately, the outcome of the referendum is not in doubt since independence is a crucial part of the Kurdish identity. However, Barzani is not obligated to unilaterally declare an independent Kurdistan. In the immediate outcome of the vote, Barzani‘s legitimacy will strengthen ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections. He will also be able to negotiate with his counterparts in Baghdad from a position of strength. However, the referendum will also complicate rather than resolve the issues facing the Kurds face around the region. Most likely, Ankara, Tehran, and Washington will exploit Kurdish groups for their own political gains. It is these powers, not the Kurdish factions or the referendum, that will shape the future of the Kurdish people.