On Tuesday, media reported that Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani announced that a Kurdish "yes vote" had resulted from a recent independence referendum held in Iraq’s northern territories. The referendum was held in defiance of the government in Baghdad, as well as the US, Turkey and other regional players such as Iran. The objection of these countries was not just because of controversy surrounding the issue of Kurdish independence, but because the referendum polled a population in territories under dispute between the Kurdish autonomous government and the powers that be in Baghdad.
While Barzani called on the world to respect the national aspirations of “millions of people,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the referendum “unconstitutional.”
All of this has important implications for many key issues weighing on the Middle East today.
First, a bit of background.
Culturally and historically connected to Persian peoples, the Kurdish people today are deadlocked between the nation states that make up the modern Middle East. The Kurds were overlooked when the new Middle East was carved out by the Allies following the First World War. The region known as “Kurdistan” sits at the triad between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, descending into northwestern Iran.
The issue of the future of the Kurdish people gained a new level of pertinence following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. These were a somewhat independent people living in a defined enemy country, that had traditionally been friendly toward America and the West.
What would become of them?
The Kurds actually benefitted from the new political reality that emerged from the Iraq war, and began to assert independence in an autonomous region in the country’s north. This has been a thorn in the side of many neighboring countries.
Turkey on its end- whose violent struggle with the Kurds continues day to day- does not want anything that will undermine its sovereignty and bolster claims of the Kurdish population in its territory. Iran has a similar story as major Kurdish population centers are located in its north and along the country’s border regions with Iraq.
As far as the US is concerned, while it may have sympathy for the Kurdish cause, Kurdish independence would be throwing a wrench into the very delicate churning of gears that is taking place regarding important issues in the region.
These include the continuity of the Iran nuclear deal, whose future has become a major issue of debate amongst policymakers.
A second issue, and in a way a more complex one to examine, is the need to maintain a working relationship with all relevant players in the fight against extremism in the region. Turkey for instance, despite its flaws, has been an important partner in the fight against radical Islamic groups, especially ISIS. Throwing in support for Kurdish independence risks distancing Turkey and other important allies in this fight.
And interestingly enough, this very point may be where the Kurds actually have some leverage.
The Kurds have been the people bearing the most brunt of the fight against the Islamic State. This makes sense, since they have the most to lose: a tyrannical militant Caliphate being your next door neighbor is not a good prospect for a small unrecognized people lacking a modern army.
From any objective standpoint, the Kurds have performed brilliantly against the jihadists over the past several years, and their victories have only served to strengthen their own national aspirations.
The Kurds may be able to take advantage of the fact that they have become such an asset in this fight to gain some support for the results of their recent referendum. The fact that US military top brass is already talking about how the referendum will affect combat cooperation shows just how much the partnership in the fight against ISIS could be affected.