Iraqi Kurdistan’s Vote for Independence and its Effects on Regional Stability
On Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 the people of Iraqi Kurdistan voted in a referendum for independence from the Republic of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan having been de-facto self-governing since 1991 is the majority Kurdish, autonomous part of Iraq. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of independence, with just under 93% voting to separate from Iraq.
The results were met with support from the Rojava, Syria’s ethnically Kurdish autonomous area, and by Israel. It was met with outrage by Iraq, Iran and Turkey, with Turkey even threatening military action. The US and UK, Germany and Spain expressed concern while other NATO members such as France, Poland, Greece and Italy expressed lukewarm or outright support for the referendum.
Turkey, having their own Kurdish population see this vote as exacerbating the already existing PKK rebellion. Iran, also having a sizable Kurdish population sees this as potentially sparking and independence movement in their country.
The Syrian government, on the other hand seems to be content with collaborating with the Rojava, its autonomous Kurdish area, as they are assisting in the defeat of ISIS and have also helped assist in the fight against Turkish backed rebels in Syria. That being said, they still expressed opposition to the referendum as it could spark a referendum in Syrian Kurdistan and legitimize the already self-governing Rojava.
The concerns of the US and European NATO allies are valid. The timing of this referendum at a time where the fight against ISIS is still raging is something to be of concern. Potentially, a conflict could arise out of this move for independence.
The Iraqi Government has completely condemned the referendum and Shia militias have said they may take action against a newly formed Kurdish state. The only issue is, Iraqi Kurdistan has had years to solidify control over the territory it was granted in 2003 after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Additionally, it seized additional land in the conflict against ISIS.
The central government of Iraq, however, has been severely weakened as a result of the conflict and has slowly taken back land from ISIS with the assistance of the US military and Iran. If the Iraqi government were to take action against the new Kurdish state, it would not be able to do so successfully without the help of Iran and Shia militias.
The Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s armed forces, are a battle-hardened fighting group that has had years of experience fighting jihadists ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. With the assistance of Iran however, the Peshmerga could be defeated. Turkey, while in staunch opposition to the referendum and Kurdish independence, would likely not take action in this conflict due to Iran’s already existing presence and influence in Iraq.
An Independent Kurdistan could prove to be a regional counterweight to Iran and Turkey, both of whom have grand aspirations of a caliphate, albeit in very different forms. The Kurds having an independent state in Iraq and potentially Syria would act as a roadblock to their goals of expansion and influence in the region.
This independent state would need the backing of the US and its allies to maintain its status as a regional counterweight. Israel already seems willing to develop friendly relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. The US however, seems weary of this proposition, as many Americans wish to find a way to no longer be bogged down in another middle eastern power struggle. Russia, on the other hand has vested oil interests in Iraqi Kurdistan and could fill the vacuum as the Kurds protector if the US doesn’t act.
The Russians have even assisted the Syrian Kurds in skirmishes against Turkish backed Syrian rebels. All of this being said, even though the US has had very warm relations with the Kurds going back to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, if it decides to no longer be the Kurds’ major supporter the Kurds will gladly take assistance from the Russians. If the Russians were to take advantage of this opportunity, however, they would have to play a delicate balancing act with Iran, whom they share support for the Assad Government in Syria.
In any case, the vote in Iraqi Kurdistan is the first step in securing official independence for an already de-facto autonomous state. Whether the US and its European allies continue to back the Kurds has yet to be seen.