An upcoming referendum concerning granting independence to Iraqi Kurdistan may cement the creation of a new Kurdish state entirely separate from the country.
On September 25th of this year, the Kurds of Iraq will have a chance to vote for independence from their country. This referendum if passed and acted on will make the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan its own state, completely separate from the government of Baghdad. This would mark the creation of the world’s first Kurdish country.
The initial decision to hold such a referendum came on July 1st of 2014, announced by Kurdish Leader Massoud Barzani. Barzani, who has been president of Kurdistan since 2005, said of the current state of Iraq that it had already been “effectively partitioned”. No doubt as a result of the political vacuum left by the deposition of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Islamic State.
The referendum itself is a joint effort between Kurdistan’s two prevalent parties: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. But the referendum is by no means non-partisan. Other Kurdish political parties such as Gorran are calling on internal problems to be fixed before the referendum takes place.
These internal problems including the absence of parliamentary meetings and accusations that the 2017 referendum is an effort by Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party to gain political sway. With that said, if held, the referendum will probably pass. A recent National Democratic Institute survey states 96% support for independence, but passing the referendum does not guarantee Kurdish independence.
What happens after the referendum?
The September 25th referendum is essentially a starting point towards a pragmatic move towards independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. In essence, the referendum by itself holds no legal bounding but serves to strengthen Kurdish legitimacy in wanting independence from the rest of Iraq. The referendum, therefore, is a means to show authority and ability to Baghdad’s government, proof that the Kurds are willing and capable of mobilizing an independence movement. Furthermore, if the referendum is indeed passed, moving forward Kurdish officials must justify independence to their neighbors including hostile Turkey; an altogether difficult matter that will not be solved by a referendum vote. The Kurds will have to maneuver through the obstacle of creating a state in a region where instability, sectarian violence, and hostile neighbors are the norm. The creation of a Kurdish state does not exist isolated from the current state of global affairs, therefore; and Kurdistan’s neighbors and the wider world have already started considering that.
The world’s response to an independent Kurdistan
Turkey is perhaps the greatest diplomatic barrier between Kurdistan and independence. Turkish authorities fear that an independent Kurdistan may provoke and mobilize their own Kurdish population; a minority in Turkey that has had a history of oppression. Any threat to Turkey’s already dangerous geopolitical situation makes Ankara weary of change. To put it in Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s words: “We have enough problems in our region…it is not correct to create a new area of conflict”.
This response is similar to Kurdistan’s other neighbor, Iran. A foreign ministry spokesman for Iran, Bahram Ghassemi also spoke of the instability in the region and urged for “an integrated, stable, and democratic Iraq”. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni spoke of the importance of a united Iraq, saying that “Iraq, with its roots and historical and cultural civilization, must remain integrated”.
The United States feels the same way. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson renewed the rejection of Kurdistan’s referendum and spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed sentiments about how a referendum would distract from Iraq’s other crisis; such as ongoing conflict with ISIS and deteriorating economic and political conditions. But not everyone is opposed to the referendum. Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media company associated with religious Zionism wrote well of the Kurdish referendum arguing that Israel should support the vote. They also cite that this could cultivate relations between them, and help Israel’s position in the region.
Conclusion: A divided Iraq
Iraq, notorious for its sectarian violence may not be able to handle such a separation. Minorities like Yazidis, Chaldeans, and Mandaeans are facing near elimination. Leaders in the country’s government undeniably want a united country, but if the referendum goes through Iraq will be divided into a state of dissolution. Instability and crisis will without a doubt come to pass if an independent Kurdish state is made separate from Baghdad. Indeed, the country may not be able to stand such a move and the creation of a Kurdish state may mean the downfall of the Iraqi one.