One month after Kurdistan’s historic referendum to secede from Iraq, the outlines of a looming regional conflict seem to have materialised more clearly. This past September, Iraq and the world witnessed the result of the referendum in which the proto-state overwhelmingly and unsuprisingly voted for full independent statehood. This seceding is the result of a century-old dream born out of constant Western interventionism and decolonisation in the region. Furthermore, the referendum takes place after decades of Kurdish separatist aspirations in Iraq.
The rise and fall of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has effectively given a new dynamic and fresh boost to the Kurdish nationalist movement. The battle against ISIS has resulted in a reintroduced a sense of ethnic unity in the region. Before the terrorist group began seizing control of territory in Iraq, ethnic disparity in the region was more pronounced. However, the battle against the ISIS has led to a population movement along the lines of ethnicity in Iraq, resulting in an more evident separation between Kurds and Arabs. Kurdish forces have also played an important role in the fight to protect their people and territory, and have consequently strengthened nationalist consciousness. However, they have also contributed to tensions with Baghdad by fuelling the independence movement.
The Kurds have gained territory during the fight with ISIS, and have extended the official present-day Kurdistan region to historically Kurdish towns and territories. Furthermore, they have also extended their territory to areas with strong strategic stakes, such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. This extension of territory, and redefined and strengthened borders, has further fuelled Kurdish independence and has led to renewed tensions with the Iraqi government.
Baghdad is the first to reject the total secession and independence of a Kurdish state. This is largely attributed to the fact that the Iraqi economy is deeply dependent on the region. In 2013, before the conflict with ISIS, the region of Kurdistan accounted for 32.5% of Iraqi’s economy. Being an oil-rich region, it is clear that Kurdistan is an integral part to economic prosperity and stability in Iraq. Thus, the complete secession of Kurdistan will significantly weaken the nation’s economy, and consequently deeply affect the lives of the Iraqi population. Furthermore, Kurdistan’s secession will significantly affect the credibility and the power of the Iraqi state and its central government. A weakened state would also make it more vulnerable to internal and external threats from terrorists organisation like ISIS, who take advantage of governance weaknesses in countries.
However, this virulent opposition to Kurdish secession is not restricted to Iraqi borders. The Kurds are also facing regional and global hostility. Iraq’s close neighbours, including Syria, Iran and Turkey, also have considerable Kurdish minority populations. The fear in these countries that separatist influence from Kurdistan might spread to disrupt their own governments urges them to condemn a full independent statehood of Iraqi Kurdistan. The international community follows the same logic and fears for regional instability from an independent Kurdish state.
To prevent Kurdish independence, the objectors rely on a strategy of asphyxiation. Baghdad has imposed a flight ban over the Kurdistan region. Turkey further threatens to “close the valves” on oil exports from the region, which would suffocate its economy. Kurdistan, as a result of its independence aspirations, runs the risk of being isolated by regional neighbours and the international community, as well as economically and politically weakened.
A violent armed conflict is also possibly impending. Last week, Baghdad has shown its readiness to resort to armed intervention. Iraqi federal forces intervened in Kirkuk to repel Kurdish forces. After an 11 hours negotiation, the Kurds withdrew from the city.
Overall, Kurdistan is too weak to face the various obstacles and challenges that come along with independence. Attempting to take advantage of the fragile state of Iraq’s central government is a quite controversial strategy on the part of the Kurdish separatists. It will have significant implications on civilians of both the Kurdish region and Iraq. The independence of Kurdistan today could likely result in two fragile and unstable states. An Iraqi Kurdistan state will not solve the internal divisions and political instability already affecting the region. On the contrary, the century-old dream of Kurdish indpendence is more likely to prove an immense governance challenge for the Kurdish population when facing the complex realities of this political action.
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