by Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
Beirut: The impending independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25 could touch off a whole new round of fighting in Iraq. Kurdish aspirations for their own state will also have reverberations across the Middle East.
The immediate aftermath of the referendum could be renewed tensions and even possible armed conflict between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs. There are many issues at hand, especially when it comes to fixing the borders for a possible Kurdish state and the possible inclusion of ethnically mixed Kirkuk.
Already Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has come out against the referendum and went as far as saying that force could be used to put down any unrest the independence vote could cause. The vast majority of the Iraqi parliament has condemned the referendum as well.
There is even opposition from within Iraqi Kurdistan to the vote. Nearly one third of Kurdish MPs abstained from voting on the referendum. Assyrian Christians, many of whom now live in Iraqi Kurdistan, have also spoken out against the controversial vote. Current Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani though still insists must that the vote takes place.
Syria, Iran and Turkey have decried the vote in fears of emboldening their own Kurdish populations towards independence. Even the US has warned against the referendum, lending little international support to such an endeavor. The referendum, though, is non-binding and will not automatically lead to an independent state. Instead it will most likely be used by Barzani as a negotiating chip with the central government in Baghdad and to gain political points with his constituents.
But the drive for Kurdish autonomy and independence is not to be underestimated. Kurdish groups in northern Iraq have fought government forces even before the rise of the Saddam regime. But this time is different, as Kurdish fighters would now be facing off against a weak state with an army that only recently has been re-unified since it had fallen apart when it faced off against ISIS in 2014. And this is where it could spark regional tension. Kurdish groups extend from southern Turkey through northern Syria and Iraq and into Iran. Already Turkey has had its own conflicts with Kurdish groups and in Syria, Kurds have formed their own-armed groups and have nearly carved out an autonomous enclave for themselves.
There are no polls so far indicating how the vote will go but most signs over the past three decades would most likely point to yes. Since the American invasion in 2003, Iraq’s Kurdish north has maintained its own autonomy and flies its own regional flag. Its militias have proven stronger than the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIS and unlike much the rest of Iraqi territory, Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed stability and prosperity. It nearly operates already on its own, only paying lip service to the government in Baghdad. Even when ISIS came, Arab refugees were cordoned off in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Most assuredly there will also be conflict over oil-rich Kirkuk which is ethnically mixed between Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen. Kurds have long laid historic claims to the city and any armed conflict will most likely lead to ethnic cleansing.
Today, the Kurdish leadership also must ask themselves if this would even be a viable state? It would be landlocked, meaning it would have to strike deals for pipelines to pump its oil resources. Also it will be surrounded by states hostile to it, especially Turkey. Kurds will have to fight hard to gain Kirkuk’s oil supplies and establish fixed borders. And besides borders, its economy is not diversified enough to warrant being strong enough to support an independent state.
The Kurdish referendum could ultimately be a major mistake for Iraqi Kurds and only increase ethnic tensions in war torn Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan already has a large amount of autonomy in post-war Iraq and an independence vote will already exasperate how weak the Iraqi state is. Even if the referendum is non-binding and maybe only for the purpose of negations it would be more politically mature of the Kurdish leadership to work on its own domestic problems. They should take into consideration the current geopolitical climate in the region and realize it is a referendum that will only spur more fighting and not more rights for Kurds.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon