September 2017

The Kurdish Independence Referendum

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It's no secret that Iraq is a land deeply divided by religious and ethnic identity tensions. Since the founding of modern-day Iraq, the Kurdish area of the country has been at odds with the government in Baghdad. This tension reached new heights this week as the Kurdish people voted in a referendum for Kurdish independence. As could be expected, the referendum appears to have passed by over 90% (according to the Kurdish officials themselves of course). Though a shaky agreement between the Kurds and the Iraqi government has held for several years, the referendum is threatening to tear the country apart even further. This week, we'll review the Kurdish situation in Iraq and the fallout from the Kurdish referendum vote.

Much like the Rohingya, the Kurds are a culturally, religiously, and linguistically distinct people who do not have a formal nation-state of their own. They are actually spread out across several different countries (Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey), but lack substantial representation in most of these. In Iraq, the Kurdish areas are especially controversial because they contain much of Iraq's oil reserves (especially near the city of Kirkuk). The Kurds in Iraq have faced widespread persecution throughout most of the country's modern history. Around the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam escalated his campaign of violence against the Kurds, and the Kurds launched an uprising in response. As a result, the United States stepped in during the 1990s to create a no-fly zone over parts of the Kurdish territory to prevent Iraqi airstrikes against the Kurds.

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Following the American invasion in 2003, the Kurds allied with the United States military to help overthrow Saddam and provide regional security. As a result, they were granted their own autonomous territory and a substantial amount of independence from the Iraqi central government. However, they were not recognized as a sovereign nation. Keep in mind that the Iraqi central government at this time was established almost entirely by the United States, so its authority to speak for the Iraqi people was limited. More recently, they served as one of the the only real fighting forces capable of taking on ISIS. They made large territorial gains as a result of removing ISIS from parts of the country and feel that they are owed something more than just an autonomous nation for their troubles. Both the Kurds and the Iraqi central government are critically important to the interests of the United States in the Middle East. So think of this situation like a fight between your two best friends, where they each want you to take their side against the other. It doesn't go over well when you're all drunk at a bar, and it doesn't go over well in international politics either.

Now they are emboldened by this success and are looking to capitalize on it with an independence referendum. Though the result is legally binding for the Kurdish regional government, the Iraqi government has already stated that it won't recognize it. Now that the Kurds have succeeded in their vote, they will have to decide whether to formally declare independence or not. The president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, has stated that this vote will essentially be used to strengthen their hand in negotiations for greater autonomy (and possibly more control over disputed cities in northern Iraq). But part of the problem here is that the Kurds themselves are not really united. There are several Kurdish political and military factions both inside and outside Iraq that disagree over the matter of secession.

Kurdish president Barzani, seen here rocking a sweet mustache

Kurdish president Barzani, seen here rocking a sweet mustache

Naturally, Turkey doesn't like the independence referendum since it would embolden their own Kurdish population to push even harder for independence. Israel likes this development it since it has the potential to divide Iraq even further (Iraq being one of several regional power competitors). And the United States, Britain, and the United Nations don't want to be caught in the middle of an increasingly destabilizing situation. Especially one in which they will certainly be called upon to pick a side. On the one hand, the United States needs the support of the Iraqi government in order to maintain a presence in Iraq. On the other, the United States also needs the support of the Kurds and would look hypocritical denying a movement of democratic self-determination.


No matter the result, the referendum was sure to only make the situation in Iraq worse. The United States would do well to attempt to stay neutral since there is really no way to win here. Already, the aftermath of the referendum vote has been worrisome. Iraq and Turkey are conducting joint military drills near the borders of the Kurdish regions. Turkey has also threatened to shut off the oil pipelines that carry oil from the Kurdish regions through Turkey to global markets. For now, this appears to just be military posturing. After all, neither the Kurds nor the Iraqis want to start fighting a war between each other when they have barely even wrapped up the war against ISIS. But if this escalates to yet another regional war, the United States may end up having to tow a very fine line between two very critical allies.