Everywhere you turn at the moment, somebody in Europe seems to be holding a referendum, threatening to have a one, or coping with the messy aftermath of one. While those of us in Europe have probably had ample opportunities to read and listen to news stories about the Brexit and Catalonia referenda (with the latter being declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain), there are others outside of Europe that deserve our collective attention.
The Kurdish referendum would be a prime candidate. In September 2017, an independence vote for the area of Kurdistan in the northern portion of Iraq revealed that over 92 per cent of voters wanted to declare independence. Some three million people voted. While the referendum was declared to be non-binding, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) nonetheless used the overwhelming result to posit a vision of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. The authorities in Baghdad, unsurprisingly, have taken a different view and have been swift to question its legality.
The Kurdish referendum was the culmination of a process that started somewhat earlier. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Kurdish separatists were already mobilising their political energies in favour of separation from a country that was created artificially in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Independent from the UK in 1932, Iraq’s territorial and ethnic composition has been subject to schism in the past. But in the post-Saddam era, there was a 2005 referendum which recorded over 95 per cent support for independence from Iraq and in 2014 plans were again afoot to hold a second referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The 2014 plans were put on hold because of the disintegration of Iraq and the onset of civil war and the onslaught of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As the authority of Baghdad receded, opportunities existed for the KRG to enhance its autonomy and sense of distinct regional and ethnic identity. The (now ex-)Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, working with Kurdish political parties such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party agreed upon a referendum for September this year. Apart from a general sense of disillusionment with the Iraqi government, the KRG was also angered by Baghdad’s attempts to prevent Kurdish authorities from exporting oil via Turkey.
International support for the September referendum is divided. Turkey and the US were not in favour of it and threatened sanctions fearing that it might add further to the destabilisation of not only Iraq, but also Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
The referendum occurred at a time when Iraq is having to come to terms with a post-Islamic State era – an epoch where a country has to come to terms with months of devastation and wreckage. But to put the blame on ISIS is to miss a wider context. In 1975, the US betrayed Kurdish separatists at a time when Iran was a close ally. In 1991, the US backed away from previous support after fearing a geopolitical vacuum in Iraq. Post-Saddam Iraq is populated with Iranian stakeholders and their interests.
Devastated cities in Iraq will need rebuilding. Thousands of people have been internally displaced and/or driven into exile. The position of ethnic and religious minorities inside and outside of Iraq, including Kurdistan to the north, will be precarious. Non-Kurds have already complained that the KRG is using the legacy of conflict to consolidate its control. Anyone who is not Kurdish is likely to face more, not less surveillance and endure marginalisation and dispossession of property. But the KRG is also bearing the price for outsiders reaffirming the territorial and constitutional integrity of Iraq.
There are parliamentary elections in Iraq in 2018 and Kurdish parties are eager to press their demands (and associated grievances). A large minority, namely Sunni Muslims (who make up about 30 per cent of Iraq’s population), is also resentful of Shia-dominated Iraq (with links to Iran). Suspicions and mistrust linger across the country.
Baghdad is wary of Kurdish separatism, and held military exercises with Iran and Turkey in a deliberate attempt to secure regional support for its territorial integrity. Kurdish airports have also been subject to sudden closure by the central government in a deliberate show of force. Visitors to the northern Kurdish region often have a far easier time entering the country than those travelling to Baghdad because the KRG is keen to showcase its regional autonomy and encourage Kurdish connections with the wider world.
The position of the US and Russia will be interesting to watch. Kurdish political leaders might look to Russia for help after encouraging the latter to invest in a pipeline to the Black Sea region. The plan being to bypass Turkey if Ankara’s support cannot be assured. The United States faces a dilemma – having supported and then betrayed Kurds in the 1970s and 1990s. Does the Trump administration undermine the authority of the central government in Baghdad?
Iraq is likely to move against key Kurdish actors who voted in favour of independence in the September referendum. The US and UK have pledged their support for a federal and democratic Iraq. The question remains whether Kurds will garnish enough international support for an independent homeland.
This was published in the December 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.