On September 25, 2017, citizens of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq, headed to the polls, voting overwhelmingly in favor of forming an independent Kurdish state. The referendum faced severe criticism both within Iraq and around the world, with many nations, including the United States, declaring it illegitimate and unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the situation continues to escalate, with Iraqi authorities halting flights to Kurdish airports and amassing troops at vital border crossings.
The Kurds, the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, live across Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, and have sought an independent state since their territory was fractured at the end of World War I. Their relationships with their home nations have been precarious and even violent at times, as the Kurds have often been persecuted and denied political rights. Many Kurds have created legitimate political parties to promote Kurdish freedom, but some groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, have resorted to guerilla warfare and terrorism, escalating conflicts with local governments. This lack of political unity has at times led to internal conflicts, and is often cited as one of the primary reasons that the Kurds have thus far failed to form an independent state. Nonetheless, the Kurds have gained a significant degree of autonomy, namely official recognition for the Kurdish Regional Government’s authority in three Iraqi provinces, as described in Iraq’s 2005 constitution. Since then, the Kurdish military forces, called peshmerga, have played a large role in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Because of their efforts against IS, the Kurds have had increased international attention and have received training, arming, and air support from the U.S. and other Western powers.
On the heels of this international recognition, Kurdish leaders decided to hold a non-binding referendum on Kurdish independence. Despite its lack of legal ramifications, the referendum plays several roles in advancing Kurdish interests. Firstly, it is a way for the Kurds to legitimize their control over several neighboring regions in Iraq, which they gained in the conflict with IS. These territories include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which has long been a source of territorial disputes between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments. Kirkuk’s inclusion in the pro-independence vote signals continuing Kurdish control of the area, and the Kurds no doubt want to solidify their influence over this economic asset, as either a bargaining chip or a source of wealth in the future. Secondly, the referendum grants the Kurdish government significant political bargaining power, as its strong pro-independence results give the Kurds leverage when discussing their future in a post-IS Iraq. Whether they decide to seek independence or not, the threat of succession may grant them more favorable agreements from the Iraqi government. The Kurds want to take advantage of their current position of relative power, both military and political, within Iraq. Finally, the referendum was a way to judge how regional and international powers would react to an actual independence movement. It measured both internal and external support for an autonomous state, which will likely guide the Kurdish leadership’s next steps.
Unfortunately for the Kurds, many nations, both in the Middle East and worldwide, condemned the referendum. The Iraqi government declared it illegal and illegitimate before suspending civilian flights to Kurdish airports and threatening to send troops to seize Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields. It also began a series of military exercises on the Kurdish border, alongside Turkey and Iran, both of which also strongly opposed the referendum. The Turkish and Iranian governments, likely fearing that their own Kurdish populations will follow suit and also demand independence, have attacked the referendum for threatening Iraq’s territorial integrity, and have joined Iraq’s retaliatory efforts. The United States and other Western nations have also declared the referendum “one-sided” and “illegitimate,” and they have expressed concerns that independence efforts would destabilize Iraq at a crucial moment during the fight against IS. In the face of such little international support, it is unlikely that the referendum will lead to the formation of an independent Kurdish state, at least as long as IS remains a substantial threat. Many Western nations no doubt want to see an independent Kurdish state in the future, as they have often allied militarily with the Kurds and support their moderate religious views and relatively progressive society. However, actually achieving statehood remains a challenge, and the Kurds will face bitter opposition from regional powers should they formally begin seeking independence.