18 Sep 17 – Iraqi Kurdistan Independence vote is set for 25 September, but it has several critics.
Iraqi Kurds in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan are set to engage in a highly controversial independence referendum on September 25th. Both the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the Iraqi Supreme Court have formally ordered suspension of the vote citing questions of its legality. Although the vote is completely non-binding as it would just be a sample to see how many support independence, without actually making legal steps in doing so: even if it is a resounding YES vote. Polling shows that the results actually will be a resounding YES, and this is a major step in the direction of gaining international support for an independent Kurdistan, besides the MANY parties in the region that would be against independence.
How did this start? What is Kurdistan?
This, as with many of the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East, can be traced back to post-World War I division of land. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement between the United Kingdom and France after defeating the Ottoman Empire in World War I. It separated their colonial influence and drew nation state lines without regard to language, culture, or ethnicity. France got Syria (which had many later implications including how the Assad Family and their Alawite minority were placed into power, and lead to the current Syrian Civil War) and the UK administered Kuwait and much of Iraq. Kurdistan is an ancient culture and ethnic population that goes back to the time of Alexander the Great, and they inhabit areas of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Because of the political climate at the time they did not get independence, and the populations were carved up among the present-day named countries.
So, who would be against this and why?
There are a number of parties that are vehemently against an independent Kurdistan.
The most obvious would be the federal Iraq government. Through diplomatic efforts of the US government in the post-2003 Invasion Iraq, Kurdistan has prospered through a semi-autonomous arrangement that has been the closest to independence for any Kurdish population in the region. It has been the safest and wealthiest part of Iraq by far and has access to many lucrative oil fields in the north. Kurdistan maintains its own military and has been one of the most effective fighting forces in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. But losing a large population, many oil reserves, and the safest and wealthiest part of your country is not an ideal option for the Iraqi government. Additionally, the Shia-controlled federal government would not want to see a minority faction separate from the coalition that basically binds the government together.
The most unwavering opposition comes from Turkey. Turkey has the highest population of ethnic Kurds and there is a strong (although illegal) independence movement in Turkey, and one of their major political parties are centered around ethnic Kurds and their issues. Additionally, there is a violent extremist wing of a Kurdish Freedom movement in Turkey that is recognized by Turkey and the US as a terrorist organization. The PKK started as a leftist/Marxist independence movement for the Kurds and is credited for many horrible atrocities of bombings and murder in Turkey. Before ISIS, almost every bombing or terrorist attack in Turkey was the PKK against the Turkish government and people. Turkey has been very adamant about opposing any resemblance of carving out eastern Turkey for a Kurdistan. This is one step in that direction so they are absolutely against any progress that could lead toward that goal.
More opposition from Syria and Iran. Eastern Syria that was taken back from ISIS is all but officially governed by Kurds and their militias. The territory and governance gained in Syria after ISIS has definitely given Syrian Kurds and their Iraqi cousins optimism that when the Syrian Civil War concludes they will have some power to broker, possibly for their independence. Iran has less of a Kurdish population than Turkey, but it is a similar situation between their government and the Kurdish fighters there being seen as terrorists.