By Assad Bhuglah

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The Kurds constitute the largest ethnic group without a country in the world. Between 25 and 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up a sizable minority in a number of Middle Eastern nations, comprising about 10% of the population in Syria, 18% in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, and nearly 10% in Iran. Though they make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, they have never obtained a permanent nation state.

After World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. The story of an independent Kurdistan has been a hot topic for at least 100 years. It was first touted by the Great Powers during the First World War, through the backroom Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 between Britain and France. Such hopes were dashed three years later, however, when the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. In the infamous Sykes-Picot treaty which re-drew the map of the Middle East, the Kurds were promised certain rights, but denied a unified state. When the French mandate was implemented in 1920, the Kurds were denied even limited autonomy.

For the last century, the Kurds were the unacknowledged, often-persecuted minority in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They were subjected to ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussein and his Baathists in order to Arabise the region. For quite long, the Kurds had little ability to affect the politics of these countries. But that began to change after the first Gulf War, when the Kurds of northern Iraq gained significant autonomy. When Iraq was defeated in the 1991 Gulf War, Massoud Barzani led a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam regime. Its violent suppression prompted the US and its allies to impose a no-fly zone in the north that allowed Kurds to enjoy self-rule. The Kurds co-operated with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and participated in all national governments formed since then. They also governed in coalition in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), created in 2005 to administer the three provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya, and sought to maximise Kurdish autonomy by building a pipeline to Turkey and exporting oil independently.  

The recent Arab uprisings have awakened a Kurdish consciousness throughout the region. There has been a surge of Kurdish nationalist movements across the region. Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as “Peshmerga”, and in northern Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, are some of the most lethal and effective fighting forces on ground against ISIS. The United States and other Western powers have had long-standing security ties with the KRG, acknowledging that its “Peshmerga” units have been vital allies on the ground war against the ISIS.

As chaos became the regular dynamic of the region, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Democratic Party declared: ‘The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.’ Striving for statehood has been an age-old dream of the Kurdish people, but the political context has never been timely, with strong regimes opposing such endeavours. After the liberation of Mosul, Barzani, emboldened by the success of his “Peshmerga” forces against ISIS, announced that the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq would hold an independence referendum on 25th September,2017. He capitalised on the chaos of the moment in his move to break away from the central government.

The Central Government of Iraq is strongly opposed to this independence referendum. While the referendum was largely symbolic, the governments of Turkey, Iran, Syria and the United States, also oppose it, fearing that it will destabilize the region. Israel is the only nation to have openly supported the independence bid. Tel Aviv’s stand is full of paradox, irony and hypocrisy because it has been systemically denying the Palestinians their rights to statehood and self-rule. According to the magazine Israel-Kurd based in Erbil, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Massoud Barzani, the self-appointed President of the future independent Kurdistan, have reached a secret agreement to install 200 000 Israelis of Kurdish origin in Kurdistan.

The UN Security Council, at its recent meeting, warned Massoud Barzani that the vote could hamper the fight against ISIS in Iraq, in which Kurdish forces have played a critical role, and efforts to ensure the return of 3 million displaced Iraqis. The United States and other Western nations backed the UN-supported "alternative" plan for immediate negotiations on future relations with KRG in exchange for dropping the referendum. Despite global opposition, the KRG went ahead with the vote on 25 September.

As Iraqi Kurds were preparing to vote, despite Baghdad’s objections and international calls to postpone the vote, neighbouring countries held massive wargames on territories adjacent to the Kurdish-held areas. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launched military drills, codenamed “Muharram”. The drills took place in the north eastern West Azerbaijan province, bordering Iraqi Kurdistan, and featured armoured units, artillery pieces and aircraft. Ahead of the referendum, Iranian airspace was closed to flights originating and arriving in the Kurdistan region. Turkish tanks conducted exercises on the country’s southern border with Iraq. Ankara has also threatened to block Iraqi Kurdish oil which is exported through Turkey and its southern Ceyhan port, a key economic lifeline for the KRG. Egypt and Lebanon have also cancelled all flights to KRG.

The major apprehension of the US is that the referendum has brought Turkey, Iraq and Iran together and has rendered the autonomous Kurdish government very fragile. The US tried all means to convince Barzani that the status quo was already giving a certain degree of freedom and prosperity to the Iraqi Kurds, with the possibility of exporting their oil and managing their own administration and army and that the referendum could jeopardise all the hard-earned gains over years. With the potential risk of the neighbouring countries ganging up against the Iraqi Kurds and the imminence of punitive actions by the central Iraqi government, the fall of the KRG, a close ally of Washington, will be a major blow to American interests in the Middle East.

Even without the referendum for independence, the KRG was already a federal unit with its own parliament, flag, security force, i.e., the peshmarga, border and customs controls and even money. No other group in Iraq has any of these privileges. The referendum, in which over 90% of the Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favour of a split from Iraq, now runs the risk of jeopardizing these gains. Along with Iraq's central government, Turkey, the US., the EU, Iran, and the U.N. had spoken out against the illegitimate poll. In his latest statement, the Secretary of State Tillerson said that: ‘US does not recognize Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) unilateral independence referendum’. The Iraqi Kurds are now in a real conundrum.