The Kurds are known as the “world’s largest number of people without a nation”. There are over 30 million of them scattered around the world, although they live mainly in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. They have used their large numbers and history of being oppressed to justify a demand for independence and statehood. The autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan government in Erbil argues that only a nation with secure borders can guarantee their rights to the Kurds.
However, calls for independence, although most likely to receive support inside Kurdistan, will meet strong opposition in the rest of Iraq and neighbouring countries. Iran, Syria and Turkey will resist any political actions which might bolster and mobilise their own Kurdish minorities to follow similar trajectories. Furthermore, the US will also oppose the creation of an independent Kurdistan, particularly if Baghdad does not approve.
The Kurds have endured years of victimisation and discrimination. During the dispensation of Saddam Hussein they were subjected to Arabisation which imposed cultural assimilation; scores of dissidents died and thousands more were displaced during that period.
On 25 September, the Kurdish people will hold a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, the objective of which is to seek a mandate to separate from Iraq. The results of the referendum are a foregone conclusion, with polls suggesting that an overwhelming number of Kurds will vote “Yes”. According to the Washington Post, the Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani is assuring everyone that approval will not lead to an immediate declaration of independence, but rather to a two-year or longer process of negotiation with Baghdad over the terms of the divorce, including the borders of the new state.
The oil rich region of Kirkuk lies within Iraqi Kurdistan. This will present a challenge to the negotiation process, as Baghdad will not hand it over easily given its particular riches. The negotiations are going to be tough and lengthy and will probably require a broker; in all likelihood this will be the US, even though Washington has already let it be known that it will support proposals from Baghdad as it is more interested in the stability and development of Iraq as a whole.
Meanwhile, Kurds across the Middle East seem united in their ambition of creating a Greater Kurdistan covering Northern Kurdistan in south-east Turkey; Western Kurdistan, which is part of northern Syria; Southern Kurdistan in the north of Iraq; and Eastern Kurdistan, which is currently in north-west Iran. It is clear that the realisation of a Greater Kurdistan is likely to trigger regional instability as it lies across territories belonging to various independent states.
Nevertheless, the creation of an independent Kurdistan in Northern Iraq is likely to increase the political momentum of those Kurds in neighbouring countries. As the war in Syria against Daesh nears an end, Kurds there are readying themselves to receive an “independent state” as a reward for their efforts against the extremists.
There are certain very important political implications to be considered as Iraqi Kurdistan heads for its referendum. Although Turkey enjoys a cordial relationship with Erbil, an independent Kurdistan there might damage relations, not least because the government in Ankara has been battling the proscribed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) for years and has resisted all attempts to promote a Kurdish sociocultural identity inside Turkey, let alone a state. The creation of Kurdistan in Iraq and perhaps in Syria will certainly motivate other Kurdish separatists groups, including the PKK, and may well be used as a political springboard for “bigger things”.
The wars in the Middle East are redrawing the map of the region. Iraq and Syria, for example, will certainly have different borders when the dust settles. The establishment of another nation will create additional instability, adding to an already crowded arms race. What’s more, Syria has been pushing its Sunni citizens toward Idlib province, which suggests that it is destined to become an independent — or at least autonomous — Sunni state.
The Middle East is beginning to disentangle itself from the geopolitical chaos of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which lumped together and separated people haphazardly, disturbing the centuries-old social fabric and relative cohesion. When the French and British were sharing the spoils and restructuring the Middle East after the First World War, they completely ignored Kurdish aspirations for self-determination. The referendum on an independent Kurdistan carved out of Iraqi territory, at least, is one way that the mistakes of the past look like being redressed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.