Implication of Kurdish Referendum

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Despite several warnings and advices, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held long awaited Independence referendum in the Northern Iraq on 25th September 2017. Though the referendum is non binding, but it can have far reaching political and security implications on the whole region.

Historical context

After the collapse of Ottoman empire during World War I, Colonial power Britain and France divided Middle East region into smaller nation states to cater their own interests. Kurds, fourth largest ethnic group of the region with the population of 40 million people, were not only left without a state but their population was also divided into four different nation states- Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Kurds have been struggling for their own homeland since 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

Current situation

A century old Kurdish wish to have their own homeland moved one step forward with the vote of referendum in Northern Iraq. According to media reports, 5.5 million Kurds of Northern Iraq have overwhelmingly voted for the independence. But Iraqi supreme court declared the referendum vote illegal beforehand. Same time Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior Kurdish official, has emphasised that referendum vote will not lead to independence immediately. Even Masud Barzani, head of the KRG, said “We are not in a hurry to declare independence” and he further assured the world that “We will conduct dialogue with Iraq after the referendum and will give them 1 to 2 years in order to formulate good neighbourly relations”.

Implications

In spite of assurances from KRG leadership, Independence referendum vote has put many countries around the world at unease as it can have wide ranging implications in the region and around the world.

Firstly, it can destabilise the neighbouring countries like Iran and Turkey. Both countries have considerable Kurd population in the adjoining areas.

According to the 2006 census, the four Kurdish-inhabited provinces in Iran, West Azerbaijan , Kermanshah Province , Kurdistan Province , and Ilam Province have a total population of 6,730,000. Kurds account for 15% to 20% of the total population of the Turkey.

There is deep-seeded hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurdish population. Similarly distrust prevails between the Iranian state and Kurdish population. Iranian Kurds went on to celebrate as Kurds in Iraq held their historic referendum on independence.

Thus, Iran and Turkey fear that referendum vote can spread the virus of separatism in their respective Kurdish regions as well.

Secondly, it can further deteriorate the security situation in the Iraq by giving breathing space to dying ISIS as US pointed out in White House statement that “referendum would distract from efforts to defeat ISIS and would be provocative and destabilizing.”

Both Erbil and Baghdad fought side by side against the ISIS, but now both of them are at loggerhead with each other on the issue of referendum vote.

Iraqi Prime Minister not only opposed referendum vote but also demanded Kurdish authorities to “cancel” it. Baghdad has also banned international flights to the Kurdish capital Irbil.

Kirkuk has emerged as major bone of contention. It is a multi ethnic city with Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians. Kirkuk is currently producing 350,000 to 400,000 barrels oil a day. It came under Kurdish control in 2014 after the Iraqi Army fled from Islamic State militants, but Baghdad refuses to recognize Kurdish control of the area. Iraqi Oil Minister Jabbar Al-Luaibi warned on Sept 19 “We have some differences with the minister of natural resources of the KRG over the Kirkuk field,” On Wednesday, the Iraqi parliament asked Prime Minister al-Abadi to use the Iraqi army to take back the oil fields in Kirkuk.

Rising tension among both of them would not only give breathing space to dying ISIS but also would give time to gain strength and put up the fight against the divided house of enemy.