In September the Kurdish people held a peaceful vote on independence and the result was an overwhelming majority in favour of creating a new nation-state. The final vote was 92.7 in favour of secession and 7.3% opposed. The independence vote was not legally permitted by the Iraqi government but due to the country’s current security situation Baghdad was unable to prevent the vote from taking place. Since this vote an economic blockade has been imposed by Iran and Turkey and flights into Kurdistan have been diverted to other parts of Iraq. Amid these tensions the government in Erbil has said that they are seeking to negotiate with Baghdad about Kurdistan’s future, and they have reiterated this stance in the face of continued pressure.
Forces close to the de facto border between Iraq and Kurdistan have been moved from Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk, to Anbar province. The move by the US-led global coalition is important in reassuring the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) that Baghdad is not seeking to maintain the unity of Iraq by force. On Wednesday the KRG accused the Iraqi government of preparing to attack the region in retaliation for the area’s recent vote in favour of secession. These fears are justified as within days of the Kurdish referendum on independence, Iraqi forces conducted joint military exercises with Turkey and Iran. But constant state of tension points to a larger question: will Iraqi forces attack Kurdistan?
Iraq is going to change. After repeated calls from governments around the world to postpone the vote, Iraqi Kurds conducted a referendum on independence and overwhelmingly backed the creation of a new state. With all precincts reporting, over 92% of residents in Iraqi Kurdistan voted to support the proposition with only 7% of voters backing continuing as part of Iraq. Overall turnout was around 72%. Although this exercise in democracy should be seen as a positive development, the other players in Middle Eastern geopolitics are not respecting the result and are now trying to coerce Kurds into remaining within Iraq.
For a number of months I’ve been covering the ongoing situation in Kurdistan both in terms of the fight against ISIS and in regard to their desire for an independent nation-state. Opponents of the independence referendum on 25th September have sought to conflate these two issues and argue that an independent Kurdistan would only strengthen ISIS’ hand. This is patently false as a strong Kurdish state would challenge Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region therefore undermining some of the ideological foundations of groups like ISIS. Further, if Turkey continued to bomb Kurdish forces and civilians Erbil could turn to international institutions like the UN thus forcing hostile powers to refocus on the fight against ISIS. It appears, however, that the Iraqi government in Baghdad has a different view.
On 25th September the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on whether or not to secede from Iraq and become an independent nation-state. Unsurprisingly this has caused much consternation in both Baghdad and Ankara however analysts are nonetheless expecting a clear majority of Kurds to vote for independence. The problem facing the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been one of legitimacy as the Iraqi government have refused to legally permit a referendum from taking place, and therefore it would be unclear as to how the international community would react. This week the KRG and international Kurdish liberation movement received a boost from the man seeking to become Germany’s next Chancellor.
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.