Kurdish people living in Iraq voted in favor of independence for Kurdish controlled areas of the country on Monday, raising already high tensions with the government in Baghdad.
Information released by the electoral commission Wednesday stated 92 percent of voters were in favor of independence, according to the BBC. While an independence vote was expected, the referendum is non-binding and doesn’t carry any legal power.
Nonetheless, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded the vote’s suspension last week, while his counterpart in Turkey called the referendum an issue of national security. Baghdad also threatened the Kurds with new economic sanctions and military action if they continued to ignore the government’s warnings.
But why is this vote happening now, and why does it matter? The answer is complicated, and the referendum is only one step in an ongoing battle for statehood nearly a century in the making.
A brief history of the Kurds
The Kurds are a people inhabiting the northern part of Iraq known as the Kurdistan Region, itself just one section of Greater Kurdistan. Greater Kurdistan as a whole comprises northern Iraq, northwest Iran, northern Syria and southeast Turkey; Kurds are the majority population in these areas.
The Kurds lived for centuries as nomads before the First World War. Multiple empires and war leaders conquered the region through the centuries, including the Persians, Muslim Arabs, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols and later the Ottoman Empire.
By the late 19th Century, a Kurdish nationalist movement began gaining steam under the Ottomans. This nationalism reached its zenith after World War I, which led to the collapse of the Ottoman regime and hopes for an autonomous Kurdish homeland.
After the war, the Allies drafted the Treaty of Sèvres, which formally abolished the Ottoman Empire and laid the groundwork for Armenian and Kurdish nation-states. However, the new Turkish government rejected those terms, forcing the Allies to settle for the Treaty of Lausanne.
The new agreement established the borders of modern Turkey, but no longer included provisions for an autonomous Kurdistan.
This led to the Kurds being treated especially hard in the following years by Turkey, where their language was outlawed and they were reclassified as “Mountain Turks.” This suppression of identity and culture led to a number of uprisings not only in Turkey but also in Iran, Iraq and Syria, where restrictions were placed on the Kurds in the following decades.
During these uprisings and the violent crackdowns that followed, many Kurds fled the Middle East for better lives in Europe and North America. Today there are roughly 30 million Kurds, with anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 living in the United States.
After the Gulf War of 1991, the Kurds began establishing a mostly secure region in northern Iraq, becoming semi-autonomous after the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in the early 2000s, the Kurds agreed to rejoin Iraq under promises they would retain their marginal autonomy and perhaps even get their own borders.
This ended up not happening thanks to a deadlock in negotiations between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders, and hopes for an independent Kurdistan stalled.
So what’s the big deal anyway?
The 2017 referendum is a gambit by outgoing Kurdish President Massoud Barzani to realign his people on their road to statehood. Barzani’s hope is that a “Yes” vote gives Kurdistan much-needed leverage in its diplomatic deadlock with Baghdad.
A political edge, combined with Kurdistan’s credible economic strides in recent years, could theoretically lead to the United Nations recognizing Kurdistan as a state down the road.
The Kurds’ main economic advantage lies in their oil exports, about half a million barrels a day to be precise. This not only brings in cash from the Mediterranean, but it also makes the Kurdish homeland more appealing to investors and the international business community.
While statehood is all well and good for the Kurds, any major political decision they make has consequences. For Iraq, its neighbors and the world community, the cost of a new Kurdistan is regional stability.
Iraq painstakingly spent the last three years retaking territory from the so-called Islamic State, and an Iraqi region declaring independence is the last thing the country needs. If Baghdad goes through with its threatened military reprisals, it would be like pouring gasoline on a still burning fire.
The Kurds would naturally defend themselves, and the rest is easy to imagine; Iraqis and Kurds spend the next several weeks, if not months, fighting while giving radical militants much-needed breathing room.
The United States and its allies share this concern; Iraqis and Kurds butting heads while ISIS remains at large doesn’t exactly make a good bulwark for eliminating its malignancy. If ISIS does regain territory, it means more troops, and money, the U.S. and other Western nations must spend on the conflict.
The other issue is the Kurds living in Syria, Iran and Turkey.
All three countries worry the referendum will inspire new separatist movements within their borders. If there were a new wave of uprisings inside those nations, a situation similar to Iraq’s would arise.
That is, infighting would shift the focus away from ISIS. This would only further embolden ISIS and its followers, creating yet another headache for the Western coalition.
One thing about this referendum is certain; Kurdistan’s challenges are only just beginning, a small reflection of the larger strife in that part of the world.