Will Iraqi Kurdish Independence Referendum Further Roil the Middle East?

By Ali R. Abootalebi | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President in June 2017 announced September 25 as the day for a referendum on independence from the rest of Iraq. In August, U.S. Central Command Head Gen. Joseph Votel and Defense Secretary James Mattis separately sat down with Kurdish president Masoud Barzani to urge him to postpone the referendum since it may have a negative impact on the operations against the terrorists of the Islamic State. President Barzani, however, reassured the U.S. that Peshmerga forces are part of a coalition to defeat ISIS and referendum issue will not have any negative effects on the ongoing war.

The call for a referendum on independence seemed ever so timely, considering Kurdish Peshmerga forces’ successes on the battleground and the impending liberation of Mosul that was lost to ISIS in 2014. The recapture of Mosul in July and Tal Afar in late August seems to have only emboldened KRG’s push for the referendum. A high popular turnout in favor of the referendum is almost certain, and even Kurds outside Iraq are urged to support the referendum. But, what the KRG can do with the result is entirely a different matter. A popular yes vote for independence will raise the bar on expectations for a better future. This is when the KRG is facing difficulties in the management of Kurdish region’s economy and the overall matters of governance. There is also the matter of a possible military confrontation with not Iraqi military alone but also Turkish and Iranian armed forces. The neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria strongly oppose any push for Kurdish independence in Iraq or Syria, and in their respective countries as well. Political independence may actually hamper KRG autonomous hold over the Iraqi Kurdistan.            

It is not difficult to see the moral and political justification for an independent Kurdish state. Kurdish people with an approximate population of 30-35 million inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East that remain without a state in the world. The hope for political autonomy after the first World War soon died out in the then emerging regional and international politics. The new Turkish Republic was only a shadow of former Ottoman self in geopolitical terms and power proximity and was not interested in sharing its national power. Kurds in Iraq and Iran also found themselves in inferior positions in negotiating for an effective share of the political pie in the age of ‘oil dominated economies’ and the threat of Soviet communism. The emerging British-supported monarchies in Iran and Iraq were to secure Western interest and to thwart the communist threat. The Kurds have since then relied on cooperation from unsympathetic central governments, armed resistance and terrorism, and on external (neighboring states and their patrons) actors for political and military support to gain certain political rights and autonomy and keeping the dream of independence alive.      

Given the divided Kurdish population and leadership across four states and the challenges of nation-state building and surrounded by uncooperative and hostile neighbors, prospects for a thriving, landlocked, independent Kurdish State remains bleak. Kurdish leadership is divided along personal and ideological, territorial, and political lines in Iraq and in the neighboring states. There are disagreements among the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran leadership over the nature of Kurdish-Iraqi government relationship. The neighboring states are also keen to prevent a change in the post-WWI map of the region at the expense of their national territorial integrity. It is, therefore, imperative to prevent the almost inevitable war that will result from the rise of a premature Kurdish state within the Iraqi territory. This will be fought in the name of Iraqi national sovereignty and in the face of neighboring states’ intervention in a wider regional conflict. A U.S.-led, Western intervention in the name of averting Iranian expansionism and/or fight against terrorism and/or ‘humanitarian interventionism may follow next.

Kurdish and national political leaders in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran can allow for alternative national solutions to accommodate Kurdish popular concerns in a broader political dialogue. Sovereignty is not absolute and no nation-state possesses absolute sovereignty, and the degree of sovereignty does not guarantee effective governance to ensure development and human security. The post-independent South Sudan comes to mind. This is particularly the case in the age of mass communication, technological innovation, and globalization of trade and finance. Good governance necessitates political engineering to bridge boundaries along ethnic, sectarian and cultural divides. As such, Turkey and Iran must set the tone for mechanisms necessary to ensure the integration of Kurdish population into their broader national, political, and socioeconomic power structure. This is true for the Iraqi and Syrian states as well.

The competition among cultural groups in each society is not about the superiority or inferiority of certain value system and way of life per se but, how the competition translates into control over local, regional, and national resources while realizing the ambitions and aspirations of all cultural groups. This is especially true, where legal and institutional venues for dispute settlement and conflict resolution and power sharing among competing cultural groups are weak or are seriously lacking. In such cases, it becomes ‘natural’ for a dominant culture try imposing its ethos and belief systems, through cooperation and/or coercion, on minority groups, monopolizing control over socioeconomic resources and political power.

Political democracy is (can be) an instrumental method for the resolution of ‘identity conflicts’ over cultural and nationalistic issues by providing legal, institutional, and nonpartisan, normative values to groups in competition over socioeconomic resources and political power. Democratic governance itself is not about nationalism, culture, or religion per se; it is about the management of political power and the competition over socioeconomic resources within agreed-upon normative principles and values and institutional arrangements, whereby individual citizens–along with civil society, consisting of non-governmental organizations and business and corporate entities– determine their own interests through elections and other forms of political, civil and civic participation.

Multiculturalism in divided Arab states like Iraq or in Turkey and Iran can be a great challenge to governance but the real obstacle is the politicization of cultural differences for political and economic ends. Both Turkey and Iran have taken on the challenge of national power-sharing through some ‘democratic mechanisms’ and yet both have much to travel in gaining the trust of their respective minority cultural groups through decentralization of political power and embracing multicultural pluralism and economic planning at regional and provincial levels. The states in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran must be conscious that political democracy, if engineered in line with the national cultural ethos of all citizens, is a formidable and legitimate mechanism for the promotion of national cohesion while respecting multiculturalism. The end game seems to always include a struggle over socioeconomic resources and political power but seemingly appearing as ethnic, religious, and/or nationalist conflicts.

The KRG in Iraq has thus far performed no better than the government in Baghdad or in the neighboring states. The rate of poverty in Kurdistan since 2014, when Iraqi Kurdistan plunged into a financial crisis because of the drop in oil prices, the war with the Islamic State, an influx of a large number of internally displaced people and colossal mismanagement of the economy, has increased dramatically. Kurdish rentier economy is dependent on oil and cannot survive, outside black marketeering, without cooperation from and trade with the neighboring states. The KRG economy is not doing well, and corruption remains a major issue. Moreover, the Kurdish leadership must remain accountable for its governance and not fall into the trap of ‘exclusive nationalism,’ endangering Iraqi and regional stability. The KRG performance in building bridges with the Arab and Turkmen population in the northern Iraq leaves much room for improvement.  

As in the 20th Century, the Kurdish struggle today also hinges upon regional and global politics. The parameters of the ‘global war on terrorism’ and geopolitics of the region allow for only a thin line separating terrorists from liberators, as the contending views by major players in the Syrian, Libyan, Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian, Yemeni, Somali, and Afghani theatres differ in line with their differing and competing for national (and ethnic) interests. Therefore, the disagreement over the designation of such entities as Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish YPG, Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas, Yemeni’ s Ansar Allah, and the Iranian revolutionary guard, IRGC, as ‘terrorists or liberators and resistance fighters. The possibility of an independent Kurdish State in northern Iraq would be at the expense of stability and territorial disputes and claims in Syria, Turkey, and Iran over such designations and ultimately over the fear of ethnic divide and conflict and political instability.

The United States’ soft position on the issue of the referendum is deliberately, or at best inadvertently, help set the stage for future instability, conflict, and bloodshed in the region. It is crucial for the United States to use its power to help convince KRG to postpone the planned referendum to an uncertain future. This will help the cause of a national dialogue and Arab-Kurdish cooperation in Iraq and could entice future Turkish-Kurdish cooperation.   Otherwise, we could see the ethnic, sectarian, and nationalist divides intensify, making cooperation in the fight against militant Muslim ideology difficult. Instability could then spread to Turkey and Iran, impacting the broader regional geopolitics and economic development. It is no secret that the United States has since 2015 provided more than $1.4 billion in aid for the Kurdish Peshmerga and training more than 22,000 Kurdish fighters, supplying them with weapons, armored vehicles, artillery systems, ammunition, and medical supplies in their fight against ISIS. A team of military officers from the United States, U.K., and Germany is also currently conducting a review of the 200,000-strong Peshmerga at Erbil’s request. U.S. neutrality or support for Iraqi Kurdish independence without recognizing the nature of the Turkish opposition will create a major rift between these two NATO allies and will further push Turkey toward a Russian embrace. Turkey, Russia, and Iran already have a unified vision of what should emerge in the post-ISIS Middle East, and that does not envision the arrival of a future independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, or in the northern Syrian territory.

Neither declared nor practiced sovereignty by anyone state or organized political entity—an ethnic group, local or state government in the federal or confederal state, or other such ‘imagined’ entities—can guarantee peace and human security. Instead, government, political, business and community leaders must facilitate ways to realize and flourish the potentials of human capital in any given community. As such, the realization of ‘individual sovereignty’ through good governance and not the ‘absolute state sovereignty’ per se can prove instrumental in preventing conflict and war and promoting peaceful coexistence among competing ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. Good governance can go far in helping the cause of political democracy and national cohesion. This is invariably truer in the age of technological revolution, mass mobilization and social media.

The vitality of good governance, encapsulated, at a minimum, in democratic pluralism, is contingent upon the distribution of political power and socioeconomic resources within the state and between the state and society, where no one group, including a dominant cultural group, monopolize such resources. That is, the maldistribution of socioeconomic resources and political power results in a non-democratic political system and polarized society where nationalism becomes a pawn in power politics among contending groups jockeying for political power and national resources. Ethnic, sectarian, or nationalist identity is a political force and thus susceptible to political manipulation, particularly in non-democratic political systems. Therefore, what separates national leaders from contending opposition is access to means of power and wealth and often drawn for personal and political goals.

Ali R. Abootalebi is Professor of Middle Eastern and Global Politics in the Department of Political Science, UWEC. He is the author of Islam and democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries, 1980-1994 (Garland, 2000), and, coauthored with Stephen Hill, Introduction to World Politics: Prospects and Challenges for the United States (Kendall Hunt, 2013) and more than fifty articles on Iran, Arab Politics, Civil Society and Democracy and U.S. foreign policy.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Iraqi Kurds ‘prepared to draw own borders’, Barzani warns Baghdad – BBC News

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  1. The reality is that few Kurds outside Iraq are keen to be ruled over by the Barzani clan’s kleptocracy.

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