Iraqi Kurds will vote today on a referendum that would determine the future of Iraq, and possibly pave the way for an independent Kurdistan. Despite opposition from both the Iraqi government and neighboring countries, the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq expects 3 million voters today. President Masoud Barzani believed that while the vote would be peaceful, the way towards independence would be “risky.”
A Long Awaited Dream
In the 16th century, the semi-independent and independent Kurdish emirates were split, after several wars, between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Most Kurdish regions remained under Ottoman rule until after World War I, where the Allies split Kurdistan between multiple nations. After the Treaty of Lausanne, the Kurds found themselves without a land to call their own and under Turkish, Iranian, British, or French rule (Iraq and Syrian being, at the time, British and French mandates respectively).
After attempts at the 1945 San Francisco Peace Conference failed, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Iraqi government first agreed to an autonomous Kurdish region with Iraq (although given Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurdish people, the gesture was never taken too seriously). The Iraqi government reaffirmed Iraqi Kurdistan as an autonomous region in 2005.
Turkey has long opposed a free and independent Kurdistan. Kurdish rebellions have been fought against Ottoman, and subsequently Turkish, control since the 1920s. Turkey, in exchange, failed to accept the mere existence of Kurds in their country, calling them “mountain Turks” until the early 1990s. Their language was officially prohibited, and the Turkish government banned the mere mention of their national identity. Kurd was no longer an acceptable word. Political parties representing Kurdish interests were banned during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has fought a long and bloody insurgency against the Turkish government. Liberty Nation has frequently reported on how this conflict has influenced foreign affairs. Turkey fears that any independence movement within Iraq, or the creation of a Kurdish state, would extend to within its borders and either embolden Kurdish separatists or lead to the destabilization of the country.
Syria also opposes the referendum. As Kurdish forces, mostly fighting under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) captured vast territory during the Syrian Civil War and the fight against the Islamic State, the Assad government feared something similar would happen in their country. The Rojava Revolution, a social revolution and military conflict in Syria which resulted in the de facto autonomous region of Rojava, proved that very point (to a degree).
The Iraqi government has also been hostile to the idea of the referendum vote. Citing the vote as unconstitutional, Iraq argues that an independence movement would further destabilize an already fractured nation. The United State, quixotically, agrees.
The United States’ Policy Dance
The United States has long utilized the Kurdish people as a military ally during the War on Terror. In both Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has supported Kurdish fighters with arms, equipment, and training. That support, however, has brought unique difficulties on the diplomatic front. Turkey is one of the United States’ main allies in the region, and their distaste for all things Kurd brings with it a certain tension to any situation in which all three parties are involved. While the United States currently recommends against the referendum, citing the potential to destabilize the region, it continues to arm and support Kurdish fighters.
Will the United States continue being a friend to the Kurds except where it counts, or will President Trump support a free and independent Kurdistan? How will this affect our relations with Turkey? Tell us what you think in the comments!