On 26 September a referendum was held by the Kurdish Regional Government. For the first time in their history, this referendum would be a non-binding vote for an ethnic Kurdish state in the north-eastern regions of Iraq. It is being held amidst high tensions in the region, as many fear the result of the vote may bring the region back into chaos, right as the campaign against the Islamic State is reaching its final chapter.
The fears of increasing tension caused the majority of the states in the region and a number around the world to denounce the vote for poor timing and a poor choice altogether. These criticisms came from Turkey, Iran, the U.N. and even the U.S. The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” that the vote went ahead. “We believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Other states such as Iran and Turkey, both of whom have large ethnic Kurdish populations, vehemently opposed the vote, fearing that such nationalist sentiments could spread to their own countries. In addition, Turkey responded to the vote by threatening to shut down their borders to Kurdish oil exports, which accounts for much of the region’s revenue. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the vote as “unacceptable” and said, “We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done,” he was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned on Sunday, before the vote, that the referendum “threatens Iraq, peaceful co-existence among Iraqis, and is a danger to the region,” and vowed to “take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis.” Some in the Iraqi congress wished the prime minister to move further with calls among the members for the use of force to rule in the region. After the vote, the prime minister continued his calls saying, “We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” in a speech broadcast on state TV on Monday night. The two leaders have also called for joint military drills on the Turkish border of the Kurdish regions in response.
The only international actor who backed the Kurdish referendum is Israel.
Despite this threat of tension, the mood in the area was celebratory, many arrived at polls early waving flags and other signs of Kurdish pride. For many, this was a day never thought possible after decades of oppression by the governments in the region. The region is home to over five million people with the capital at Erbil. The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the area and have faced discrimination in many of the nations they inhabit.
The referendum itself was well run and peaceful, giving hopes to many that this is a new beginning for these people. The turnout was quite high at an estimated 72% with nearly 90% of the voters voting in favour of independence. However, it is clear that the powers maintaining the status quo will pay a heavy price to keep the current national borders in check. Hopefully, this war-torn region will not see the rise of a new conflict as soon as another comes to an end.