Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the north-east of the country and has a somewhat fractured relationship with the government in Baghdad. Relations between the two authorities is much better than under Saddam Hussein, although this is a very low bar, but there remains a perception in Erbil that the Iraqi central government is both corrupt and incompetent. It is this perception that last week resulted in leading politicians announcing that the region would hold a referendum on independence from Iraq. This development is something that I have long argued for and could be a game-changer for the Middle East.
The proposed vote is scheduled to take place on the 25th September and everyone who votes in the three administrative areas that comprise the autonomous region as well as “areas outside of the region’s administration”. This is important given the geopolitical dynamics of the region as this vague wording would appear to allow Kurdish people around the world to vote in the referendum. But more importantly, it would further politicise Kurdish people living in neighbouring countries and may well fuel secessionist movements in Syria, Turkey and Iran.
The Iraqi government didn’t initially respond to the announcement however politicians in Baghdad have previously said that they oppose the idea of a referendum. This is hardly surprising as no state supports the idea of some of its territory breaking away and, given the history of the Iraqi authorities treating the Kurdish people as second class citizens, a referendum would likely bring about a vote in favour of secession, but more on this later.
The response of other regional powers was similarly opposed. Last week Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said “the principal and clear position of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to support Iraq’s territorial integrity and solidarity…the Kurdistan region is part of the Republic of Iraq”. Qassami’s other comments also indicate that Iran’s public opposition to such a vote would be based on the legality of the move rather than any other emotive idea of sovereignty or national self-determination. The Syrian government’s response has also been negative with Said Azzouz, an adviser to the Council of Ministers, stating that the Assad government opposes the move and believes that such a vote would require changes to the Iraqi constitution.The Turkish government were also not best pleased with the referendum’s announcement. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim labelled the referendum as “a grave mistake”.
Other players in the Middle East have also commented on the decision to hold the vote. Earlier this month Heather Nauert of the US State Department reiterated the United States’ support for a “united, stable and federal Iraq“, thus indicated the country’s opposition to the referendum. The UK have echoed these comments and Frank Baker, the British Ambassador to Iraq, said that “its not the right time for [a referendum]”. Russia’s position is somewhat unclear. Maria Zhakarova of the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the Russian government supports a united Iraq but this came after President Vladimir Putin appeared to deflect from the issue by claiming that Russia’s position would be “within international law”. Other states like Belgium and Germany have opted to remain neutral on the issue.
The international reaction is important to consider because it reveals what the geopolitical consequences of an affirmative vote would mean for the Middle East. Iran, Syria and Turkey all oppose the referendum because they are aware that, even though the proposed vote would be non-binding, it would send a powerful message to ethnic Kurds in their respective countries. The calls for similar plebiscites would gather pace and it would risk disrupting the balance of power in the region. This is particularly the case in Turkey because most of the territory of a proposed Kurdish state is currently within Turkey’s borders.
The other important thing to consider is that it is likely that an independent Kurdish state would be democratic, as it would be difficult to justify a dictatorship on the back of a referendum. By creating the newly independent state as a democracy, it would pose a direct threat to the autocratic governments of other non-democracies in the region. Furthermore the Kurdish people, despite being primarily Sunni, are a very religiously diverse group and the people of the Rojava region of northern Syria, which is populated by Kurd, support secularism. The result of this would likely be a government independent of religious interference and this challenges the increasingly Islamist government of Turkey and the regional theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Kurds have long hoped to have their own nation-sate and it appears that dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government has reached a point where Iraqi Kurdistan have had enough. The implications of a ‘Yes’ vote would be dramatic as the democratic decision of the Kurdish people would throw down the gauntlet to other Middle Eastern states to begin embracing democratic reforms and secular government. The West should work with the United Nations to ensure that the Kurdish people are not denied their right to self-determination.
The UK and the US’ opposition to a referendum is for narrow national self-interested reasons and does not care for the plight of the Kurdish people. In a show of internationalism the people of Western states need to speak up in defence of their right to a democratic vote even though their governments have chosen not to. Opponents have tried to argue that such a move would hamper efforts to fight ISIS, but I believe this to be fundamentally flawed argument and I have argued quite the opposite in the past. Everybody who passionately believes in democracy should back the Kurds’ struggle and they need people around the world to speak up on their behalf.