The independence referendum held in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on 20 September led to a decisive vote of 92% in favour. While the Kurdish capital of Erbil has been filled with celebrations for days, neighbouring states have expressed their strong opposition to the referendum.
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan said that the referendum risks an “ethnic war”, while the Turkish parliament has approved the extension of a mandate that allows for troop deployment in Iraq. Iranian leaders have warned of the disintegration of Iraq and the danger the referendum could pose to neighbouring nations.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi has stated: “we will impose our federal authority over all of Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, as per the power of the constitution and the law”. He did not exclude the possibility of using military means. Iraq, Iran and Turkey have all started conducting military exercises near the border of Kurdistan in the last week, and the Iraqi government shut down foreign flights to the Kurdish capital of Erbil on Friday, 29 September.
Meanwhile, the KDP, the governing party of the Kurdish Regional Government has claimed that it only wants to peacefully negotiate about the possibility of an independent Kurdish state “like good neighbors”. That said, it added that the Kurds in Iraq refuse to be subordinate to a “theocratic, sectarian state”.
Kurds as a persecuted minority in the Middle East
The Kurdish referendum is a landmark in that it is the furthest any Kurdish group in the Middle East has come to obtaining independence. Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the region, but when Britain and France drew the map of the Middle East in the beginning of the 20th century, they did not allocate any land to the Kurds to establish their nation. Since then, Kurds have been dispersed over the border regions of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
They have lived as an ethnic minority in these states for the last century, and – in the face of Turkish, Arab and Persian nationalism – have been victim to human rights abuses in all of these states. Kurds often went unrecognized as a group that is culturally different from the ruling majority. In the 1960s, 40% of the Kurdish population in Syria was stripped of citizenship, accused of being Turks and Iraqis residing in the country illegally.
In Turkey, the government makes it difficult for children to get an education in the Kurdish language. The Kurdish language, folklore or any Kurdish cultural expressions have been prohibited at one point or another in all four states with Kurdish minorities.
The Kurdish struggles in Iraq
In Iraq, the Kurds have fought for self-determination and independence since the days of the Ottoman Empire. The persecution of Kurds reached a peak during the 1986-1989 Anfal genocide, when the Ba’athist government killed between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds using bombing campaigns, chemical attacks, and mass executions even detaining people in concentration camps.
Under British and US influence, the Kurdish leadership signed a shaky agreement with the Iraqi government in 1991, on the basis of which Iraqi Kurds managed to establish a de facto independent region in the north of Iraq. This independence was followed by a period of internal turbulence and hardship. Throughout the nineties, Kurdistan was subjected to a double blockade: one imposed on the Saddam Hussein’s government by the United Nations, another imposed on Kurdistan by the Iraqi regime.
After the ousting of Saddam Hussein during the US-British invasion in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan experienced an economic boom that lasted until 2014. The region saw a rapid economic development, transforming Kurdistan from a state of oppression and poverty to an economically developed and stable area. Erbil is now full of expensive hotels and new housing complexes, and the streets with expensive cars.
“Sultanistic” political system
It appears that the rapid economic development of Kurdistan has taken priority over old nationalism and historic divides. In 2012, there were around 41 oil companies from 16 countries in Iraqi Kurdistan – three even from Turkey. In 2014, the KRG sealed a 50-year energy deal with Turkey. Kurdistan’s oil export pipeline now now runs through its northern neighbour, making cooperation with Ankara essential to the Kurdish economy.
This pipeline is vital for Kurdistan to remain independent from Baghdad when it comes to oil export. Turkey has reaped the obvious economic benefits of energy cooperation with Kurdistan and has developed itself into a regional energy hub, whilst using Kurdistan as a buffer against Baghdad and Tehran.
Since its de facto independence in 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan has been ruled by two parties and two families – the Barzanis and the Talabanis. The current president of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, is leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The other party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), ruled by the Talabanis, shares control with KDP over the security sector, intelligence services and the military units.
The speedy economic development has clearly been beneficial for Kurdistan, but much of the power and capital have remained in the hands of the ruling families and political elite. Wealth generated through oil revenues has turned Kurdistan into an oligarchic autocracy, blurring the lines between politics and business.
The political system in KRG has been as far as described as “sultanistic” by some. When Barzani refused to step down as president after his tenure expired in 2015, hopes for a democratic Kurdistan were lost. Journalists have been persecuted for criticizing the Barzanis, and it is no secret that corruption exists in the highest levels of the KRG government.
The Kurdish Regional Government and other Kurdish groups
The relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and other Kurdish groups, like the YPG in Syria and PKK in Turkey – two allied leftist armed factions – is not always clear. Forces loyal to PKK and YPG clashed with Masoud Barzani’s troops in Sinjar last March. The clashes came right after Barzani made a visit to Turkey. The YPG has also accused the government in Iraqi Kurdistan of imprisoning foreign fighters who come to join their forces in Syria.
It is unsurprising that the close cooperation between Turkey and KRG has strained the relationships between the Kurdish government and PKK. Indeed, prior to Barzani’s last visit to Turkey, Erdogan’s spokesperson claimed that Barzani was “on the same side as Turkey against the PKK”. Barzani himself stated he wants to be a peace negotiator between Turkey and the Kurdish guerilla forces. Peaceful protestors expressing their opposition to the clashes between their government and the PKK were arrested in Erbil last March.
It remains unclear what will happen next. So far, the only state that has endorsed potential independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is Israel, referring to so called “historic ties” between the Jews and the Kurds in the Middle East. The real reasons are quite obviously geopolitical, as an independent Kurdish state could help destabilize their enemies Iraq and Iran.
Kurds in Iran have been celebrating the referendum, hoping the creation of a Kurdish state on the Iranian border would benefit them in their struggle for self-determination. Other Kurdish groups, like PKK or YPG have not released any official statements.
In the end, the question remains: if Kurdistan obtains its independence, and the national liberation struggle is won, will Kurdistan be a democratic and pluralistic state that can have a positive impact on the rights of Kurds in other areas? Or will it be just another oligarchic autocracy in the Middle East?