The fall of Iraq, the civil war in Syria and sociopolitical changes in Turkey are creating grounds for the Kurds to increase their calls for independence. These calls are complemented by the growing political influence of the minority community in the Middle East. Baghdad has been the focal point of the growing tensions between the Kurds and Arabs. Late last year, majority of the Kurds were in favor of independence in the just concluded referendum. After a near century of neglect, the Kurds were able to vote for their independence after the Kurdistan Regional Government staged a controversial referendum. The potential destabilization that may arise from Kurdish independence in the region is one of the many reasons why self-rule is unlikely for the community. The referendum offers the Kurdish people a starting point for negotiations regarding secession, but the Iraqi government as well as neighboring Turkey and Iran are against the separation.
The referendum largely endorses separation and Kurdish self-rule from Baghdad. According to McKernan, nearly 93% of the people who took part in the controversial vote were in support of Kurdish separation from Iraq (1). To be specific, 92.73% of the voters voted yes to the inquiry, ‘Do you want the Kurdistan region and locales outside the Kurdistani administration to become an independent state?” (McKernan 1). The voter turnout was high with nearly 75% of registered voters showing up for the exercise (Rasheed and Jalabi 1). The Kurdish people, who are roughly around 32 million individuals, were left without nationalities following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Spread across Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, the minority community has been a soft target for discrimination and violence by both legit governments and separatist factions. The referendum and its results open up a door for a new and elevated conflict between the Kurds and Arabs across the Middle East.
The destabilizing effect that will come with independence poses an immediate danger for increased religious extremism across all of the Middle East. Religious extremism has significantly increased in the Arab Peninsula over the last ten years. Given that ethnic minorities make up the larger number of members in these extremist factions, the Kurdish society is also struggling with matters of radicalism (Babir 2). While the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is governed by nationalist parties not ideologically associated with faith, fear is that this might not be the reality in the future. Secondly, the Iraqi government does not recognize the Kurdish Regional Government as a legit political power. Prior to the referendum, Baghdad was clear that Kurds should not participate in the exercise. Baghdad saw the effort as a Kurdish move to seize control of Iraqi oil revenues (Tharoor 2). On the other hand, Turkey and Iran oppose Kurdish independence based on security and economic reasons.
While the referendum accords the Kurdish National Party more political influence in Iraq, the call for complete independence is premature. For one, the Kurdish community is spread across three nations meaning independence will have to be sought from three divergent regimes. Secondly, the minority community already has a significant internal problem as it struggles with religious extremism. Refusal of Baghdad to recognize the Kurdish Regional Government and the referendum means that independence can only be achieved through military action. Given the amount of fiscal and human resources required to win a civil war, it is highly unlikely that the Kurds will beat Baghdad in warfare. Lastly, the European Union and the United States of America officially stated their disappointment with the Kurds over their referendum. This means that if a civil war was to erupt, the minority community will not receive international aid. All these factors combine to make Kurdish independence unlikely.
- Babir, Saad. Why Kurdish Referendum is Unlikely to End Iraqi Minorities’ Dilemma. Al Arabiya English, 26 September 2017, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2017/09/26/Why-Kurdish-referendum-is-unlikely-to-end-Iraqi-minorities-dilemma.html, Accessed 11 June 2018.
- McKernan, Bethan. Kurdistan Referendum Results: 93% of Iraqi Kurds Vote for Independence, says Reports. The Independent, 26 September 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/kurdistan-referendum-results-vote-yes-iraqi-kurds-independence-iran-syria-a7970241.html, Accessed 11 June 2018.
- Rasheed, Ahmed and Raya Jalabi. Baghdad Piles Pressure on Iraqi Kurds to Reverse Overwhelming Independence Vote. Reuters, 26 September 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum/baghdad-piles-pressure-on-iraqi-kurds-to-reverse-overwhelming-independence-vote-idUSKCN1C1127, Accessed 11 June 2018.
- Tharoor, Ishaan. Iraqi Kurds Voted in their Independence Referendum. Now What? The Washington Post, 26 September 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/09/26/iraqi-kurds-voted-in-their-independence-referendum-now-what/?utm_term=.70d17ba657c2, Accessed 11 June 2018.