Unprecedented tensions have been building between Iran, Turkey and Iraq and between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s staging of an independence referendum, the consequences of which may lead to a regional conflict against the Kurds.
The Kurds have been aspiring for their own country for a century and the first step to achieving that goal took place in 1992 when they garnered autonomous rule in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. They followed that up in 2005 by gaining federal privileges in the constitution and in 2008, then expanded their control in the region by reaching Kirkuk. Their power was further cemented by their success in combating ISIS in the region since 2014 and with western backing.
The referendum, scheduled for Monday, will likely awaken separatist sentiments in Kurds in Iran and Turkey, which is what Tehran and Ankara are trying to curb through diplomatic means. The Iraqi government in Baghdad has meanwhile warned that it may resort to military force to combat the independence vote. This has sparked fears of an ethnic conflict in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS, meaning the country may be headed to a new bloody phase, this time with nationalist undertones.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Region has stuck to its intention to hold the referendum on September 25, despite international and Iraqi demands to postpone it. This sent a message to the world that it will head towards independence regardless of the conditions and pressure.
“There is no longer time to postpone the process,” it stressed, especially after it denied that it had received a better alternative to the referendum that would appease the Kurdish people.
On June 7, all Kurdish parties, except the Change Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group, had voted in favor for holding the referendum. The decision was made following failed negotiations between Iraq and Kurdistan on resolving pending issues between them.
Baghdad had rejected the referendum from the moment it was announced. This stance was also adopted by Iran, which had called on Irbil to cancel the vote. The United States, according to Kurdish and American officials, “does not stand against the referendum, but it believes that the timing is not right for it” because it affects the war against ISIS. This position was echoed by Russia, France and Britain, all of which had called on Kurdistan to postpone the vote, urging it to resolve problems with the Iraqi government within the framework of a unified Iraq.
For its part, the Kurdish government believes that the independence referendum is a right granted to it by the international community and Iraqi constitution. It also accuses Baghdad of violating, since 2005, 55 constitutional articles related to the Kurds and their rights. It said that Iraq has rejected partnership, marginalizing them from all aspects of the Iraqi state.
The Kurdish political leadership has alleged in its meetings with international delegations, which have intensified their visits to Irbil recently to persuade it to delay the vote, that Baghdad and its policies have pushed Kurds to pursue independence.
Head of the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party Mohammed Haci Mahmoud told Asharq Al-Awsat that the US, Britain, France and United Nations had proposed discussing the autonomous region’s affairs, including tackling the referendum at the UN, in exchange for postponing the vote for two years.
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, as well as the ambassadors of the US, Britain, France and the UN delegation in Iraq, had made this proposal to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani on Thursday, but he had rejected it. They warned that the region will have to suffer the consequences of this refusal. Kurdistan had however said that it will not turn away from dialogue and negotiations with Baghdad and the international community over gaining independence in the post-referendum phase.
Kurdistan Democratic Party MP Farhan Jawhar told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The idea of holding a referendum was born the moment the Iraqi government violated the rights of Kurdistan and its people. It then cut the region’s budget, as well as the salaries of employees, and it did not commit to the constitution. We therefore had no choice but the referendum.”
Asked if all Kurdish political parties backed the vote, he replied: “All the people of Kurdistan support this operation and the political parties as well, except the Change Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group, who have asked that it be postponed. They added however that they will support the referendum if it is held.”
A statement for the higher referendum council issued on Thursday voiced its commitment to the independence vote, explaining that Kurdistan did not receive the “desired alternatives to it.” The referendum will therefore be held as scheduled.
Jawhar revealed that if the Baghdad government boycotted Kurdistan after the referendum and refused to negotiate with it, then Irbil will immediately announce the establishment of a Kurdish state. He ruled out however that Iraq or any other neighboring country would take such a measure against Kurdistan.
The independence vote will not only include the Kurdish regions that enjoy autonomous rule, but also disputed areas that are covered by article 140 of the Iraqi constitution between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government. The disputed regions include the Kirkuk province and a number of cities and provinces in Mosul, Diyala and Salaheddine. These areas enjoy Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian populations and they have been under Peshmerga control since 2003. The Iraqi Kurdistan Region had assured the disputed regions that the upcoming Kurdish state will not be a nationalist one, but it will be based on a civic basis.
Fears remain however among the Kurds in the autonomous region and the disputed areas over the eruption of problems and violence as a result of the threats of the Iraqi government and Shi’ite militias. They also fear that Tehran and Ankara may close their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan and impose an economic siege against it.
Kurdistan Islamic Union MP Haji Karwan told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We have not ruled out any possibility and we are prepared to deal with them. Some threats were made by some unofficial sides. We are dealing with the Iraqi government, not the Shi’ite militias, which we consider illegal.”
“Our borders are fortified by the Peshmerga and no force, whether Shi’ite or Sunni, will cross them,” he stressed.
It appears that the Kurdish referendum has allowed Iraq, Iran and Turkey to overcome their differences and they have been united in confronting the vote. They vowed in a joint statement released on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly earlier this week that they “will take measures against the Iraqi Kurdistan Region if it went ahead with the independence referendum.”
They expressed a concern that the vote may squander the gains achieved by Iraq against ISIS, warning that the referendum may spark new conflicts in the region that would be difficult to contain.
Dr. Sami Nader of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Lebanon said that the joint statement was like a “declaration of a cold war in the Middle East.”
He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the war will pit Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Russia against the US, Israel and Kurds in the region. Arab countries that have an interest in Turkey expanding its influence in the region and Iran limiting its power will also be involved in this cold war.
Iran and Turkey fear that the independence vote will lead their own Kurdish minorities to demand a similar vote. Russia has meanwhile adopted a cautious approach, while Saudi Arabia urged the Kurdish leadership to abandon the vote, warning of its consequences. The only regional power to support the referendum was Israel, which has long backed Kurdish goals because they represent a non-Arab buffer zone in the confrontation with Iran.
Lebanese researcher on regional and Iranian affairs, Dr. Talal Atrisi ruled out to Asharq Al-Awsat the possibility of the eruption of a direct military confrontation as a result of the Kurdish referendum. He also said that the vote for independence does not mean that independence will be automatically achieved because such a goal needs complicated procedures.
Kurds make up a fourth of Turkey’s population of 80 million. Kurds believe that they are the largest national population in the world that has been deprived of their right to establish a state after decades of displacement in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria in wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
Turkey currently hosts the largest Kurdish population and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has since 1984 been leading a separatist movement there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned before the UN on Tuesday Kurdish authorities against “ignoring the clear and firm Turkish stance” on the referendum.
Turkey is not alone in its fierce opposition to the establishment of a Kurdish state, but it is not clear whether it was willing to take the risk of making a tangible response to the vote.
Ankara’s stance meets that of Tehran, which has faced various rebellions led by Kurdish groups. Turkey and Iran have long cooperated in suppressing nationalist Kurdish movement.
Atrisi predicted that Ankara will likely take economic measures against Irbil. Turkey is in fact Iraqi Kurdistan’s closest ally in the region as it has allowed it to export oil through its territories and they both share an opposition to the PKK. Iraqi Kurdistan in turn has become one of the greatest importers of Turkish consumer products. Furthermore, the alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds has allowed the former to expand militarily in Iraq and set up a military base in Bashiqa in the north.