Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Expert of Oriental Studies, Doctor of Historical Sciences
The Kurds, whose number in the world, according to different calculations, varies from 30 to 40 million, remain one of the biggest nations that do not have their own state.
The non-existence of the Kurdish state is due to both external as well as internal factors: clan-tribal, linguistic, religious, ideological divisions and confrontations, non-favorable international environment, no access to sea and large states taking advantage of their inner confrontations. It should also be noted that historically, much like in the rest of the Middle East, the idea of a classical (Western) nation-state was foreign to Kurdistan and the main factor for defining one’s identity was community affiliation.
The Ottoman Empire ceased its existence after the First World War. As a result the Kurds found themselves scattered throughout four states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria). Today about 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, about eight million live in Iran, about 5.5 million in Iraq and about 1.7 million in Syria. It might sound quite paradoxical at first, but it is a fact that the relatively less numerous Kurdish populations of Iraq and Syria managed to obtain more rights than their kin living in Turkey and Iran. The reason for this is that both Turkey and Iran have long-standing traditions of statehood (and therefore more experience of being in charge of the political situation), whilst Iraq and Syria are relatively new and unstable states with a shorter experience of statehood.
One of the major issues in the Middle East today is that of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Despite unthinkable repressions, assimilation and subjugation (the Saddam Hussein regime even used chemical weapons against the Kurds) the Kurds living here have been fighting to preserve their unique identity for decades. For decades they have been promised special rights; however, they only managed to obtain de-facto autonomy in October 1991 when Saddam Hussein, defeated by the international coalition formed under the leadership of the United States of America, was forced to remove his military units from the region. The de jure autonomy, on the other hand, was only obtained after the collapse of the Hussein regime and the adoption of the 2005 constitution. However, the internal political confrontations in Iraq and the consequent instability did not allow for a factual enactment of the autonomy. This was complemented by the capture of Iraq’s central part, mostly settled by Sunnis, by Daesh (or ISIS), because of which Iraqi Kurdistan was now disconnected from the central government territorially as well. That said their armed forces, the so-called Peshmerga, managed to halt the advance of ISIS. In addition, they also managed to occupy the oil-rich disputed territories (including the city of Kirkuk and its surroundings) on 12 June 2014, further boosting the ambitions of independence.
Situation Today – Referendum and its Results
Despite many difficulties, the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan managed to unilaterally hold numerously postponed independence referendum on 25 September 2017, where about 92.7% of voters supported the secession of the region from Iraq. Holding a referendum did not automatically mean declaring independence. Based upon the results of the referendum, the local government planned to start negotiations with the central government of Iraq and the neighboring countries. In addition, Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, hoped to regain his popularity among the Kurdish voters by holding a referendum.
It should be pointed out that despite external threats, which should have fostered the consolidation of the Iraqi Kurds, political fragmentation among them remained ever strong. If the right wing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is dominant in the Erbil governorate, the left wing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is controlling the Sulaymaniyah province. In the Kurdish provinces bordering Turkey, Iran and Syria, the Marxist oriented terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has strong support. Confrontation between these three has often turned into a serious bloodletting. Even today, when it comes to the occupation of the city of Kirkuk by Iran supported Iraqi armed forces and Shia Hashd Al-Shaabi without almost any fight on 16 October 2017, the KDP and PUK accuse each other of treason and serving other states’ interests.
By holding a referendum, the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan managed to fuel the tide of patriotism and unite various forces around the idea of independence; however, it apparently did not manage to calculate a very clear negative attitude by external actors towards the independence referendum. Not to mention a starkly negative attitude of Iraqi central government towards the idea of the aforementioned referendum, Barzani managed to antagonize now already former partners like Turkey and Iran, which are very sensitive towards the Kurdish issue. Other Arabic states and Russia also expressed their solidarity towards the central government of Iraq.
Even the main ally of the Iraqi Kurds, Washington, supported Iraq’s territorial integrity in the given situation, as it does not wish to see the Iraqi Project fail. The United States fears that in the case of the separation of Kurdistan, the current Iraqi central government led by Haider Al-Abadi may collapse and the power in Baghdad will be grabbed by radical Shia forces, which will fall under Iranian influence completely.
Israel turned out to be the only country in the region which, taking its own interests into account, openly supports the aspirations of Iraqi Kurds towards independence. However, in Erbil they understand that the support of a strong, but not immediate neighbor will not be enough to halt the sanctions already instituted by Turkey and Iran (airspace is on the lockdown and the transport of Kurdistan’s oil through pipelines has been reduced), which could turn into a full land blockade at any given moment.
This is exactly why on 25 October 2017, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan put forward an initiative of suspending (not abolishing) the results of the referendum. It should be noted that this turned out to be not enough for the central government of Iraq and its allies and the attacks on Peshmerga positions continued.
The 29 October 2017 statement by President Barzani about his resignation does not alter the situation either, as his successor will represent the very same clan.
- Iran and Turkey view the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan as an existential threat. Ankara and Tehran fear that it could turn into a certain type of example and/or the center of gravity for the Turkish and Iranian citizens of Kurdish origins. Iran clearly remembers that in 1946, with the encouragement from the Soviet Union, the father of Masoud Barzani, Mustafa Barzani, created the Republic of Mahabad on the territory of Iran. It is true that this entity proved to be short-lived (it did not last even a year), but it turned into a considerable precedent of the Kurds living in different countries coming together. Hence, two strong regional powers, Turkey and Iran, started joint actions against the government of Iraqi Kurdistan together with Iraq.
- In the Middle East they also fear that Iraqi Kurdistan can turn into a sort of Pandora’s Box (especially dangerous would be the unilateral declaration of independence) and its example could be followed by other minorities in the region. This could lead to chaos and unmanageable situation.
- There is also a risk of the beginning of a long-term ethno-confessional confrontation inside Iraq itself, which could lead to the dissolution of the country in even smaller parts. Apart from Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians and Yezidis also feel subjugated in Iraq. These groups could easily turn into so-called proxies in the hands of large states. Similar situation fostered the strengthening of the positions of Daesh in the Sunni part of the country.
- Were the events to develop in this way, another humanitarian catastrophe and a new wave of refugees should be expected towards both the neighboring countries (including Georgia) and Europe as well.
- Despite the fact that the problem of Iraqi Kurdistan differs from those of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region, it is still possible for it to be used as an important topic in this regard as well. The central government of Iraq subjected the Kurds to ethnic cleansing and deportation multiple times, which, in the case of Georgia, happened vice versa – the occupation regimes were the organizers of destroying the lives of ethnic Georgians or chasing them away from these regions. However, this does not mean that if the Kremlin is given a chance, it will not start pointing at the example of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Referendum was followed by many complications; however, it is a fact that the issue of independence in Iraqi Kurdistan moved from a theoretical discussion to a specific process. In addition, it is important to note that this issue managed to unify the Kurdish parties and groups previously treating each other as enemies.
The only real solution in the given situation is a political dialogue between the parties, which should be overseen and sponsored by the international community. Otherwise, the conflict could turn into a serious military confrontation and bloodshed, likes of which the Middle East has witnessed many times in the past.