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This Time Is Different: Kurdish Secession Referendum

With the recent news that Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government, will be supporting a referendum on secession, the Kurdish Question may finally have its answer. The call for Kurdish statehood is not new, but takes on an increasingly important role in shaping the future of many current Middle Eastern conflicts. The proposed referendum would be non-binding but provide legitimacy to the growing separatist elements within Iraqi Kurdistan. The results are unlikely to settle anything and only mark the beginning of a new chapter in Kurdish history.

In order to understand the Kurdish past and present one must first understand the plethora of acronyms that will shape the future of the region. Some have gone as far as to compare Kurdish groups to an alphabet soup. We must first begin with the KRG or Kurdish Regional Government. This is the autonomous “state-within-a-state” in northeastern Iraq that is given rights to self-rule within the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. The KRG defends itself with the Peshmerga, translated as “one who confronts death.” The Peshmerga have become a fearsome and well-organized force.

The Iraqi Security Force is actually prohibited by law from entering Kurdish territory. The Peshmerga have been a dependable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, repelling their advance and defending an uneasy front outside of Mosul.

The KRG is currently ruled by the PDK or Kurdish Democratic Party lead by Massoud Barzani. He is the patriarch of the Barzani family which has been fighting the Iraqi government for over 70 years. The second largest party is the PUK or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a member of the Socialist International, headed by Jalal Talabani the former President of Iraq.

There was a military conflict between the PDK and PUK during the late 90’s but that tension has largely subsided in favor of the coalition government for Kurdish interests.

The politics of Kurdish nationalism are infinitely more complex than just the Iraqi actors. Kurdistan (the historical region in which predominantly Kurdish populations live) crosses state borders into Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, Northeastern Iraq, and Northwestern Iran. In Turkey the Kurds are represented in parliament by the Kurd-sympathetic HDP or People’s Democratic Party. There is also a much more militant organization, the PKK or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey, and NATO. The PKK maintains a very active presence in Turkey while also supporting their Syrian Kurd brethren across the border. The armed wing of the PKK is the HPG or People’s Defense Forces. The ruling party of Turkey under Erdogan and PKK have reignited the decades old conflict between the Turkish state and its Kurdish population, ending the uneasy peace process that was being developed in 2015. Turkey has even threatened to cross over the border into Syrian Kurdistan.

The Syrian Kurds found in Northern and Northeastern Syria, with some Turkish Kurd assistance have formed the YPG or People’s Protection Units. These popular mobilization units have carved out a quasi-sovereign territory in Syrian Kurdistan that is now called Rojava. This region is under the control of the PYD or Union Democratic Party and represents a fascinating blend of socialist and Kurdish nationalist elements. Leftists have declared the regional conflict the Rojavan Revolution and have attempted to collectivize production while simultaneously mobilizing an army to fight off ISIL. Rojava currently holds hundreds of thousands of refugees within its territory, fleeing both the Islamic State and the Baathist regime. The regions is frequently compared to Anarchist Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. The YPG even has female fighting units that directly engage in combat with ISIL. These units are known as the YPJ.

Massoud Barzani. (Reuters)
Massoud Barzani. (Reuters)

The Iranian Kurds were previously represented by the KDPI or Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran but Iranian Kurdish Nationalism has been effectively suppressed by the state. Ayatollah Khomeini even declared a Jihad against the Iranian Kurds following the Islamic Revolution. There was also the leftist KZK or Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (Komalah).

Erdogan’s Turkey is incredibly opposed to any Kurdish statehood. Any attempts by Kurdish actors to declare independence, regardless of international borders, would presumably be met with a swift response. The Turkish government has done everything in its power to prevent a transnational Kurdish identity from forming. Turkey has selectively shut down the border to prevent their Kurdish population from joining the YPG or Peshmerga. These actions are only a portion of the resolve that Turkey has to prevent Kurdish statehood and the potential for their Kurdish region to break away.

Turkey is not the only country that opposes the creation of a Kurdish State. Russia, Iraq, US, and Syria all have stated their opposition to any Kurdish state. Russia opposes a separate Kurdish state because it believes that it would fracture Syria. Russia has repeatedly mentioned that they will not allow for the region to be divided along ethnic lines. There are rumors and accusations from Turkey that Russia is actively supporting the YPG in order to subvert Turkish aims in the region. This accusation is only the most recent escalation in the ongoing Turkish-Russian conflict.

Though Russia’s actual policy towards the Kurds is currently unknown, their statements against statehood are likely to be true because of their continued support for Assad’s regime.

The U.S. opposes the division of Iraq and believes that the secession of the KRG would likely lead to the creation of three states. If Kurdistan were to leave, the Shiite and Sunni parts of Iraq would likely split as well. The Shiite south would probably fall into the Iranian sphere of influence. If Iraq were to divide, it would prove that U.S. policy towards the country for the past decade to have been a monumental failure.

It is important to place this referendum within the context of Barzani and the PDK’s political future in the KRG. Poor economic performance has made it difficult for the KRG to fund social programs. Unemployment is high and many people are angry with the government. This has led to the creation of an opposition movement to the PDK-PUK coalition. The poor economic prospects for Kurdistan are primarily due to low oil prices, Turkish blockades of KRG oil exports, and constant warfare. Barzani may be using this referendum to solidify his own hold over the KRG in order to give him leverage.

There is a growing opposition to his leadership that may one day threaten to remove him from power. If he were to successfully hold a referendum on independence it may provide him the support that he needs to curtail this opposition. One should also remember that this is a non-binding referendum, but legal distinctions will do little to stop the effects of such a dramatic statement. The KRG has been the only effective state force on the ground in northern Iraq. The KRG does not only defend their own territory but they effectively occupy all of northern Iraq. They have even taken back territories that were previously majority Kurd but were subject to Arabization during Saddam’s regime. This level of military might will give them an incredible amount of leverage with Baghdad. The Iraqi government lacks the capacity to prevent their secession. If the Kurdish Regional Government split away, there is nothing that Iraq could do to stop them. As previously stated, the largest impediments to statehood are not within Iraq.

The United States would also be powerless to stop Kurdish secession. With limited troops on the ground it is unthinkable that U.S. troops would be deployed to prevent separation. The Peshmerga are the only functioning U.S. backed force in Iraq, American interests are tied to Iraqi Kurds regardless of whether they secede. The U.S. has clearly stated that it will continue to promote its “One Iraq” policy, but it is also clear that it will not risk U.S. troops to enforce it.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this referendum as simply an act of political theater in the current context. Interviews with Peshmerga soldiers prove how dedicated they are to protecting their homeland but also pose an interesting result. When asked who they were fighting for, each Peshmerga soldier responded Kurdistan. Not a single person when asked said that they were fighting for Iraq. Many have actually felt abandoned by the central government and have grown up in an era with very little affinity for a unified Iraq under Baghdad. The Iraqi Kurds have already shown themselves incredibly willing to face incredible burdens in order to push back ISIL. It seems clear that they would sacrifice an equal amount in order to achieve statehood. The Peshmerga’s clear preference for an independent Kurdish state, regardless of whether it extends into Turkey, Syria or Iran, means that Kurdish secession should be taken very seriously.