Kurdish vote reflects Middle East’s ‘existential quandary’


Erbil, Kurdistan. Credit: Creative Commons.


Turkey threatened potentially crippling restrictions on oil trading with Iraqi Kurds on Thursday after they backed independence from Baghdad in a referendum that has alarmed Ankara as it faces a separatist insurgency from its own Kurdish minority, Reuters reports:

Iraq’s Kurds endorsed secession by nine to one in a vote on Monday that has angered Turkey, the central government in Baghdad, and other regional and world powers, who fear the referendum could lead to renewed conflict in the region.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) once seemed to have synthesised Islam and democracy and looked set to capitalise on the chain of Arab upheavals against autocracy in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria in 2011. Now it is hard to imagine that it ever seemed possible, notes FT analyst David Gardner:

“The danger of a Kurdish independence spillover from Iraq into Syria is becoming a reality — the next step could be into Iran and Turkey,” says Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran commentator at the Al Monitor website. So alarmed is Ankara at the US empowerment of Kurdish fighters that Turkey’s state news agency took the extraordinary step in July of revealing the position of 10 American bases in Kurdish areas of northern Syria, with maps and troop numbers.

Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdistan regional capital, have escalated their rhetoric this week, as Kurdish officials reported 92 percent approval of the Sept. 25 nonbinding vote on independence for the region. The verbal volleys and intensifying actions risk triggering another outbreak of violent conflict, according to USIP analysts Sarhang Hamasaeed and Dr. Elie Abouaoun:

The danger will grow in the run-up to the regional government elections on Nov. 1 and Iraq-wide parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for April. Iraqi leaders and the international community need to act quickly to cool the incitement and facilitate a dialogue that prevents violence and produces a path forward.

If Iraq’s Kurds succeed in creating and sustaining a functioning state, Iran will certainly be deeply affected, Georgetown University’s Ariane M. Tabatabai writes for Foreign Affairs:

  • First, a successful independence movement in Iraq would almost certainly revitalize similar Kurdish efforts in Iran. And that, in turn, could lead other minorities to push for independence.
  • Second, the Kurdish region shared by Iran and Iraq has long been an easy zone to cross—a feature appreciated by smugglers and dissidents alike. … The ease of movement, shared language, and common media outlets between the Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish populations will make political spillover likely.
  • Third, the Kurds are known in the United States as forces for moderation. After all, they have typically sided with the United States against tyrants and terrorists, including Saddam and ISIS. But they, too, have more dubious groups within their ranks. Iran’s Kurdish areas are home to a number of Salafist groups, including some with ties to al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. And ISIS recruitment efforts in the region have added fuel to the fire. The referendum could serve to empower these groups, which is why it has, according to the United States, already hurt counter-ISIS efforts. 


The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East, according to analyst Robin Wright:

Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon.

During recent discussions with Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, I asked him why he wanted to hold the referendum now and why he was resisting pressure from the United States and others to delay it, notes Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration.

“He told me that while he likes Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as a person, he believes that a sectarian and authoritarian system is consolidating its hold in Baghdad and that it is intent on reasserting control over the entire country, including the Kurdish region. This regime, he said, is acquiring sophisticated weapons that will give it a military edge over the Kurds,” he writes for The Washington Post.

Kurds are disappointed at the lack of support from Western pro-democracy advocates, notes analyst Seth J. Frantzman. The questions people in the Kurdish region ask don’t have easy answers. Kurds are victims of history, he writes for The Jerusalem Post:

  • First, they were victims of the colonial era, being divided between countries carved out of the Ottoman Empire without a say. Despite being victims of colonialism, they did not benefit from the decolonization and anti-imperialism of the 1960s. Instead when they sought to struggle for rights in the 1970s they describe being betrayed by the US. In the 1980s the same international community that went to war for Kuwait in 1991 ignored them as they were gassed by Saddam Hussein.
  • Then in 2003 when the US sought regime change in Baghdad and supported democratization, Kurds agreed but asked for autonomy. They received it, but Kurdish leaders said in the lead-up to the referendum that Baghdad violated its promises to Erbil, cutting the budget and not resolving disputes.
  • Now in 2017, when they planned a referendum vote suddenly they found themselves ignored by cynical Western states that seem to be tired of engaging with the Middle East. Kurds who voted “Yes” for independence see immense hypocrisy in Western states that talk about human rights and democracy but have not had a strong voice supporting the Kurdish region’s decision to hold a vote.

But the region’s only liberal democracy is a staunch supporter of Kurdish independence, The New York Times reports.

Israel stands to gain a potentially valuable ally in its struggle with Iran, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former National Security Council official who visits Kurdistan frequently. “Israel is desperate for friends in the region, the Kurds generally want to be friends, and they don’t care about Palestine,” he said. …[Furthermore] “Iraqi and Iranian Kurds have deep ties…..And to create trouble for Iran, one way is to encourage independence for Iranian Kurds. The Iranians are terrified and furious about exactly that: that the Israelis are doing it, and that an independent Kurdistan will be a base for Israeli operations against Iran, via Iran’s Kurdish population.”

While United States policy is to try to preserve Iraq as one entity, the Israelis are more practical, said Peter W. Galbraith, a former diplomat with extensive experience in Kurdistan: “Why lose all of Iraq, when you could save part of it?”

Civil society groups remain concerned about illiberal and authoritarian trends within Iraqi Kurdistan’s current ruling elites, notes Nawaf Haskan, a former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow (right).

Throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, journalists currently face violence for reporting on sensitive issues, such as endemic corruption, leaving many reporters with a difficult choice to either flee the country or seek patronage and protection from specific political parties, he wrote for the Center for International Media Assistance. This dynamic forces independent journalists to choose between honest work and their own safety.

It is unclear whether civil society is sufficiently independent and democratically-minded to facilitate dialogue about the political future of Iraqi Kurdistan, Haskan told a recent presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Although Baghdad objects, there is a historical precedent for the KRG’s approach of using votes to determine borders, says Washington-based historian Andrew Apostolou. Germany and Poland divided Upper Silesia in a district-by-district plebiscite in 1921. That voting followed a few years of ethnic conflict and was held under international supervision, he writes for Democracy Post:

The precedent is, however, an unhappy one. The Germans accepted the loss of territory grudgingly. After Nazi atrocities during World War II, the Poles resolved the issue by expelling the Silesian Germans en masse. The Iraqi Kurds should want to avoid such a violent outcome.

“Given Iraq’s failure as a state, the Kurds will become independent eventually. Even Iraq’s prime minister concedes their right to self-determination,” Apostolou adds. “What the KRG must understand is that how it leads the Kurds out of Iraq is as important as the goal of an independent state.”

The United States has a long history of productive relations with the Kurds, adds Khalilzad (right), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

They play a vital role in the continuing fight against the Islamic State. We enjoy a valuable intelligence relationship with them and benefit from access to military facilities in their region. In addition, they are religiously tolerant, which is rare in the region, and have been welcoming of refugees and internally displaced persons.

For all these reasons, a break with them does not serve our interest regardless of how annoyed we might be with them for the moment. And, unlike in some other parts of the Middle East, the United States is loved and admired here. We should not put all of this at risk because we disagreed on the referendum.

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