By James Gao
While the age of imperialism is widely regarded as having ended after World War II, the global fight for greater autonomy has not ended. For people on the streets of Catalonia and the classrooms of Texas alike, a want for independence is an unshakeable principle-- and a cause that many are willing to fight for. However, independence, while bringing self-government to the global roundtable, sparks instability as well.With an independence movement now brewing in the Middle East, the fragile political balance of the world’s most volatile region is being put to the test.
The Kurds are a Sunni ethnic minority in the Middle East, with sizeable populations in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Their population numbers more than 30 million, earning them the title of the “largest ethnic group without a homeland”. They have been consistently, systematically oppressed by the governments of the Middle East, who see Kurdish unity and sovereignty as a threat. Most notable of those is Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, who committed the Anfal genocide in the late 1980s, killing over 100,000 Kurds.
Kurdistan was established in the 1970s as an Iraqi autonomous region after an outburst of violence between the Kurds and the government of Iraq. While it is difficult for Kurdish citizens to forget that they were recipients of a mass genocide just a few decades ago, it has not stopped the Kurdish compromise from becoming a functional Kurdish-majority state. A strong central government located at the capital city of Erbil, Kurdistan takes advantage of rich oil reserves and a relatively organized militia, hinting at a Kurdish plan to accomplish something greater. Despite this, it looks like the prospects of the Kurds’ ultimate goal of establishing their own country still remains unfulfilled.
Now, the Kurds have taken the matter into their own hands; on September 24th, 2017, they held their own independence referendum within Iraqi Kurdistan, governed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Unsurprisingly, the result was overwhelming positive, with around 92% of all voters advocating for an independent Kurdish state. However, as KRG authorities were quick to remind, the Kurds’ vote was nonbinding and merely an indicator for their continued want for independence.
Despite their insistence on the relative insignificance of their referendum, international actors want to nip the thought of Kurdish freedom in the bud. In the days leading up to the vote, Iran, Iraq and Turkey all condemned the holding of the referendum as “illegitimate” and demanded its cancellation. When it was held regardless, the Middle Eastern leaders followed up on their word and instituted harsh punitive measures. Iraq immediately announced it would be holding joint military drills with Iran and Turkey and threatened to retake control over Kurdistan. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has boldly stated that he “would do whatever was needed to protect Iraqi unity,” but called for peace and objected to the potential use of military force. For al-Abadi, the implications that independence would have on the Kurds have not even crossed his mind; his only interest is protecting Iraqi stability.
Several major world powers seem to share al-Abadi’s mindset. The United States and other Western nations were uncharacteristically outspoken against Kurdish independence, despite historically backing the Kurds in their endeavours. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson labelled the referendum as “illegitimate,” while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized its “potentially destabilizing effects.” Their dissent stems not from a hatred of the Kurds, but rather, protecting stability in post-war Iraq. Al-Abadi, seen as an ally to the United States, is up for re-election next year, and U.S. foreign policy officials fear Kurdish actions may undermine his chances at electoral success. In addition, the Kurdish “peshmerga” militia is a critical ally in the U.S.’s fight against the Islamic State. American military experts see this new referendum as a distraction from the fighting, causing a lapse in military focus that could allow the terrorist group to regain some of its former power.
Israel, however, has broken rank with its American ally and has come out in full support of the Kurdish push for autonomy. While parallels can be drawn between the Kurds and the struggle for Palestinian statehood that Israelis actively oppress, the country is nonetheless ecstatic to see its largest oil trading partner pushing for statehood. As Israel is denied access to crude oil by its rivals in the Gulf States, it relies heavily on Kurdistan to ebb that wound; 77% of all oil imports into Israel come from Kurdistan. The stronger of a nation that Kurdistan becomes, the stronger of a prospective ally Israel has in the Gulf. Together, Israel hopes, they and Kurdistan can unite in their hatred of the Iranian and Iraqi hegemony and push back against the Arab World’s uncontested control over the Middle East.
Another conflicted actor impacted by the Kurdish referendum is Turkey. Turkey itself has a sizeable Kurdish population, one that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labelled as a “terrorist group” and heavily antagonized. The last thing the Turkish government wants to do is encourage Turkish Kurdistan to follow in Iraqi Kurdistan’s footsteps. Erdogan’s policy towards the KRG, however, has fluctuated over the years; Turkey is Erbil’s largest trading partner, and Iraqi Kurdistan is so reliant on Ankara to the point where it has effectively become a “Turkish vassal state”. These vastly different relations between Turkish Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan are a result of Erdogan’s whimsical foreign policy, and have sent a mixed message to the Kurds. Now, Turkey is attempting to clarify its feelings towards Kurdish opposition by telling the KRG “no”. Now, they have taken bold actions like cutting off crucial oil trade with Kurdistan and increasing military drills. Regardless of whatever attempts at friendship may have occurred between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in the past, it is clear now that they have no soft spot in their heart for the Kurds.
In recent weeks, with Iran and Turkey increasing their aggression towards the Kurds, many are considering the Kurdish referendum as a huge failure for the Kurds.The issue stems from the important Kurdish city of Kirkuk, originally under Iraqi control until the government was forced out by a 2014 ISIS offensive. Quickly afterwards, the Kurdish peshmerga stormed the city, displacing ISIS and claiming the economic powerhouse of a city known for its oilfield. The Iraqi government has retaliated by forcefully wresting control of the territory, with a surprise Iraqi attack in mid-October taking Kirkuk from Kurdish hands. This unexpected military action has thrown Iraqi Kurdistan into disarray, with unorganized peshmerga quickly conceding huge amounts of territory to the Iraqi government. In addition, Kirkuk’s fall has fractured the KRG, with bitter internal divisions resulting in many major Kurdish leaders being forced out of their positions. Before the referendum, conservative leaders warned that pushing for independence would result in opening “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East. Now, with Kurdistan weak and divided, it is hard to call their prediction incorrect.
For the Kurds, long victims of oppression, this independence referendum was a desperate plea to the international community for greater representation and fairer treatment. Unfortunately, in today’s atmosphere, the wants and rights of minority groups come second to maintaining the careful power balance that keeps Middle Eastern violence to a minimum. In our current geopolitical climate, the impacts of Kurdish independence cause much more harm than it does help. After one hundred years of waiting for a country to call their own, it looks like the Kurdish people may have to wait just a little while longer.