The Kurdish quest for an independent state has persisted for over a century. Yet, the territory known as Kurdistan today remains divided among four different countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. However, there is potential for change following the recent and decisive referendum conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan that overwhelmingly voiced support for an independent Kurdish state. Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, spearheaded the movement that ultimately led to September 25th’s remarkable vote.
After the US invasion of Iraq, the northern Kurdish region became a self-governing state within the Iraqi federal republic. This gave Iraqi Kurdistan a certain economic and political independence from the central government. However, tensions between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rose between 2011 and 2012 as issues of authoritative struggles, territorial control, and oil production intensified, garnering international attention. These disputes reached a climax when the KRG threatened to secede from the central government. Clashes ensued between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga, leading to the KRG gaining control of the governorate of Kirkuk. Barzani cemented this victory by promising an independence referendum multiple times, and finally set a date for September’s vote in June of 2017.
The prospect of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has become increasingly likely following the outburst of the Syrian conflict and growing tensions with the Iraqi central government. However, even though Kurdish voters nearly unanimously back the creation of their own autonomous state, an independent Kurdistan can only succeed if it is economically feasible, which is a big ask of a region whose geopolitical position puts it at a great economic and political disadvantage in the face of the numerous challenges and threats it will undoubtedly face if it is indeed to become an independent nation. For the past few years, the KRG has continually ignored the interest of regional parties in their quest for independence. However, this strategy has only resulted in further tensions with the Iraqi central government and neighboring countries. The KRG will have to incorporate the interest of the Iraqi government and neighboring countries for their dream to come true.
The result of the 2017 referendum was clear even before the actual vote was conducted on September 25th. In 2005, a similar referendum was held and saw 98.88% of Iraqi Kurds in favor of independence. Despite the historically consistent support for an autonomous Kurdish state among Iraqi Kurds, one must question the impact the referendum will have in the Middle East. Soon after Barzani’s announcement that a vote would be held, the central Iraqi government, the US, EU, Turkey, and even the UN, urged the Kurds to call off the referendum. Nevertheless, Barzani was determined to conduct the referendum—and did indeed do so. However, with all the regional and international opposition, it’s unlikely that many countries will recognize Kurdistan as an independent state despite its own overwhelming call for self-determination. The US State Secretary, Rex Tillerson has already called the referendum illegitimate, and Iraq has cut off all international flights to the Kurdish capital Erbil.
The KRG will have to incorporate the interest of the Iraqi government and neighboring countries for their dream to come true.
If Iraqi Kurdistan gains its independence, Syrian Kurdistan, or Rojava, is also likely to conduct a similar referendum in the future to join the independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Rojava is already functioning as a self-governing state, separate from the Syrian government, and has had close ties to the KRG since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The prospect of the two regions uniting is rather high. However, an independent Kurdish state spanning the southern Turkish border—the result of such a potential union—would concern Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish officials. In fact, Turkey has already intervened to stop the advances of the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) in northern Syria, fearing they would embolden the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its agenda for independence. This is amplified by the fact that the Turkish government views the PKK as a terror group on par with ISIS, and has anti-Kurdish sentiment deeply rooted in their politics. If the Kurds declare an independent state across Turkey’s southern border, Turkey would almost certainly take military action. Indeed, they have already been engaging in intimidation: on September 18th, the Turkish army conducted military drills near the Turkish-Iraqi border crosspoint, which military sources say were due to last until Sept. 26, a day after the planned referendum.
Regional opposition does not stop at Turkey. The idea of a US-allied Kurdish state that has great petroleum natural gas fields at its border is a nightmare for the Iranian regime. Iran is also concerned about a potential weakening of its influence in Iraq, since the new Kurdish state would have strong ties to the US and the Gulf states, considering that the US is already backing the Kurds in Syria. Furthermore, several Gulf states have significant investments in Kurdistan. The UAE has a consulate in Erbil and Kuwait probably has the clearest reason to want a weaker Iraq, considering the impact of 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Moreover, Iran fears the successful formation of an independent Kurdistan would incite an awakening of Iranian Kurds to seek their own independence. While this could prompt groups such as the Kurdish Democratic Party-Iran (KDPI) to revive Iran’s Kurdish national liberation movement, Iranian Kurdish groups lack the support and resources to achieve a successful insurgency against a regime that is at the peak of its power since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Furthermore, Iranian Kurds suffer from severe under-development due to systematic oppression by the Iranian government. Nonetheless, while the impacts of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may not be seen immediately in Iran, they could affect the Islamic Republic enormously in the unforeseeable future. Therefore, Iran will do what it can to hinder the formation of an autonomous Kurdistan.
This begs a question regarding the mere economic and geopolitical feasibility of an independent Kurdish state given the current political climate in the Middle East. If Iraqi Kurdistan secedes from Iraq, it will be a landlocked country bordered by four states that will refuse to recognize its independence and do everything within their ability to make sure Kurdistan’s efforts to assert autonomy fail. For example, all of the Kurdish oil exports today are transported through the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Pipeline, which passes through Turkey. Kurdistan’s other options for exports are limited to Iraq, Iran, and Syria, none of which will be cooperative in the near future. During the UN general assembly, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to impose sanctions against Kurdish northern Iraq. Turkey has even warned that “the disruption of Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity will ignite a bigger, global conflict with an unseen end.
Thus, in the current political climate in the Middle East, an autonomous Kurdish state is simply politically and economically infeasible. The continued disregard of regional players towards the Kurdish government’s desires for self-rule will not benefit their quest for independence. The Kurds will have to take a more diplomatic approach towards the issue if they are to ever achieve their dream of an independent Kurdistan.