North Africa, West Asia

Kurdistan referendum: why now is the wrong time

It appears that the referendum is arguably nothing more than a bargaining chip used by President Barzani, whilst also covering itself as a clever ploy to lull the suffering Kurdish population away from the on-going problems.

Kavar Kurda
17 August 2017
Suhaib Salem/Reuters/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

A member of Kurdish security forces stands guard in Sinjar region, Iraq August 2, 2017. Suhaib Salem/Reuters/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Numbering around 40 million, Kurds hold the infamous title as the largest ethnic group in the world without a country. Split between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, and with sizable diasporas around the world, one set of Kurds seem to be closer to achieving the long elusive goal of independence.

Since 1991 the Kurds in Iraq have operated under de-facto autonomy. However, Iraqi Kurdistan, revered across the world for its bravery and supposed secularism in an unstable region, is now subject to a never-ending list of problems.

Nevertheless, that has not stopped President Masood Barzani from calling a referendum to secede from Iraq. Whilst, undeniably, this is the moment all Kurds have been dreaming for, such drastic actions could prove disastrous and damage everything the Kurds have laboured for strenuously up till now.

Post 2003, oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan underwent an economic boom, drawing in investors all over the world. With ostentatious buildings under construction, an increasing tourism sector, and the erection of democratic structures, Kurdistan’s future looked bright and prosperous.

However, since the arrival of ISIS, the region has suffered a massive influx of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), complicating things for the small 5 million population of the area. Bearing in mind the rapidly increasing food prices, power cuts and constant demonstrations, there is no denying the cataclysmic disarray across the blemished region.

This dire situation is amplified as economic mismanagement and corruption are treated with impunity. Iraqis considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with Kurdistan arguably sharing a brunt of the blame. Thousands of ghost workers across the region are an example of this corruption.

Moreover, for several months, the government has failed to pay the salaries of workers, including the valiant Peshmerga (the Kurdish army). Not only has this led to mass social unrest, it has also left the people with low morale and apathy. Coupled with the drop in oil-prices, an unwillingness for Baghdad to allocate funds to the region and an outstanding $20 billion debt, Kurdistan is not the bubbling metropolis it was once set out to be.

Considering these inapt circumstances, one must really question how the Kurds intend on funding such a costly project with an already broken economy and minimal funds?

Since 2013, not only has President Barzani unlawfully extended his premiership, but the Kurdish parliament has also been dissolved, making any mandate to push forth a referendum ultimately undemocratic.

To make matters worse, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has been at constant odds with the opposing Change Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The inability for the parties to cooperate functionally in unity poses serious questions for stability in the region in any scenario of independence, with their Peshmerga already infamously divided.

On top of the fact that there are currently a number of disputed areas between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish government making things even more problematic, the only country who has openly showed actual support for Kurdish secession is Israel.

Whilst any ally would be welcomed, in the Middle East, such partnership could be disastrous on how the Kurds are further perceived by their hostile borders.

Seceding from Iraq in any case, would have to be done in an amicable case. But with constant quarrels between the two and Baghdad previously refusing to pay Kurdistan’s constitutional allocated budget, this will be difficult. This does not bode well for the Kurds’ future, if we bear in mind the fierce opposition from numerous other Shia and Sunni groups.

With minimal allies in a country where sectarianism is rife, the likelihood of Kurds splitting in such a delicate time is only more likely to separate the country and bring about more conflict.

The Shia dominated government has constantly been accused of repressing the Sunni minority and now reports of Feyli Kurds in Baghdad being attacked also make this referendum that much more sensitive.

Beyond this, with mixed communities in disputed areas and Hashd Al-Shabi only gaining more fervour and dominance across the country, the likelihood of more conflict once ISIS disappears is only stronger, and likely to encourage other minorities in the area to rebel.

Beyond these barriers stand the border countries of Turkey, Iran and Syria. All countries have a sizable Kurdish population and have a long history of oppressing Kurds. All three are also adamant in Iraq’s borders remaining intact. The reason being that the successful independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will diffuse to other regions, causing revolts and instability.

Added to the fact that the Syrian war has also been favourable for Kurds in Syria, the two major powers of Turkey and Iran both have reasonable fears. President Erdogan stated that the referendum “is a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq and is a wrong step”.

Whilst in the same vein, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has highlighted opposition, arguing that the Kurdish referendum is “opposed to the independence and identity of Iraq”.

With the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) also stepping up attacks on military personnel in Turkey and Iran, any possibility of Kurdish secession is a major danger to them.

Nevertheless, both are Kurdistan’s biggest trade partners, and in the event of an unwanted secession both Turkey and Iran have the option of blockading the region and ending all trade, leaving a premature naive Kurdistan starved and suffocated, with no means to build its utopia.

The Kurdistan region has more problems it can count and independence certainly won’t solve any of those, but rather blow them up. Beyond that, all the border countries are clearly opposed to any referendum and the USA has also shown opposition, highlighting that international support is also limited.

In any case, it appears that the referendum is arguably nothing more than a bargaining chip used by President Barzani against the Iraqi central government, whilst also covering itself as a clever ploy to lull the suffering Kurdish population away from the on-going problems.

Whilst the Kurds have undoubtedly suffered and every nation has the right to self-determination, now is the wrong time for such deluded fantasies. Considered a beacon of light by some in a tarnished region, this could very quickly go sour and mimic the failed South Sudan.

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