The Kurdish Referendum for Independence: To be or not to be

Kurdish people attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq September 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Like the tumultuous Balkans decades ago, the Middle East, especially after 9/11, has become a festering ground for the rise of new demands for nationhood, or even caliphates in this case, based on ethnicities, religions, or cultures. What is common though, then and now, is the process: the chaotic process of creation and destruction that consumed these areas.

While Kurdistan has been in news significantly only in the recent times, the Kurds trace their history from the time of Greeks to the impact of the rise of Islam on their lives and their forced Arabisation, followed by the deceit of West, post the Treaty of Sevres and the failure of Western promises to do right by the Kurds [1].

This is a first of a two part series which takes a look at the background of the Kurds and why the world needs to pay attention to what they call a righteous demand, for people who are suffering, prosecuted and denied their rights over an extensive period. This region has come to the forefront of crossroads across the world due to the scheduled Kurdish Referendum for Independence on 25th September, 2017.

Who are the Kurds?

Inhabiting a mountainous region between the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia, the Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains [2], often citing themselves as having existed from the time of Medes, the ancient Iranian people [3].

Their demand for a homeland for themselves called Kurdistan, initially gained momentum after the collapse of Ottoman Empire post World War I though it did not come to fruition due to the failure of the Western countries to keep their word post Sykes Picot.

The Kurds have thus been a nation for long, with over 30 to 40 million people, many of whom are refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, making them one of the people with highest ethnicities without a state, and their demand to their right to ‘Nation Statehood’ has become active after playing a role in tackling the jihadists over the last few years and the heavy persecution they have faced as a result of this.

Politics of Kurdistan

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party, (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) in Turkey are the two most well-known Kurdish political groups, though many other groups exist. The People’s Protection Units in Syria (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), which fought the ISIS, has also become significant player in recent times. These groups have ushered in the true Kurdish revival, politically, geographically and structurally, uniting the Kurdish aiaspora like never before.

Unlike Kurdish enclaves in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Armenia, the Iraqi Kurdistan is self-ruled. It gained autonomous status in a 1970 agreement with the central government in Baghdad. It defers to the government on most external affairs such as treaties and membership in international organisations, but the KRG has its own parliament, issues its own visas and has its own army, named in Kurdish as the Peshmerga (those who confront death) [5]. Hence, they have been more vocal in their demands for ‘Self Determination’ and ‘Sovereignty’.

Things Fall Apart?

The KRG President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani have been actively demanding a referendum for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, and later a unified Kurdistan, citing their persecution and the price the Kurds have paid in the fight against terrorism. The Kurdish culture, consisting of various groups spread across, has always claimed its preference to religious tolerance, secularism, equal status to women and democratic government. Until now, their demands for independence were being heard to with sympathetic, if not a practical, ear. However, Kurdistan Regional Government’s decision to take referendum has met with criticism from Iran, Turkey and the US and downright hostility from Iraq, which has made the already volatile region instable.

Several countries have shared their worries about the rise of Kurdistan as a separate nation state and whether they can sustain for long, surrounded by antagonistic neighbours, poorly drawn water agreements, lack of infrastructure and systems in this region, an economy based only on energy and existential threat of terrorism. However, this diffidence does not seem to stem from genuine concern, but from the fear that Kurdistan would become a major geopolitical player in oil and energy politics, disturbing the fragile equations existing in this area.

The next article in this series will thus engage in the dynamics of the energy politics in Middle East and how the rise of Kurdish homeland may change this region.




  1. Image of Kurdistan


Refer to the RAND report “Regional Implications of an Independent Kurdistan by Alireza Nader, Larry Hanauer, Brenna Allen, Ali Scotten” for more details on this issue.

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(This is the first article in the two-part series)