Middle East is known for its voracity and its proclivity of being the core of conflicts. Much more than that, it is a region wherein there are interwoven security clusters, political and economic fissures and a land which is laden with shifty alliances and patterns of rapprochements as well.
One good example happens to be Iraq—a state which has never ceased to be imperative for the region and even today is one state around which massive chunks of political dynamics revolve around. Being one of them is the issue of the Kurdish referendum within Iraq which has the potential of being a precarious conflict of the future.
The issue of Iraqi Kurds—or the Kurds in general in lieu of other neighboring states is not new. The fall of the Ottoman Empire set the tone for this issue and it grew with time in a very remarkable yet inherent way. The fact was, is and perhaps might continue for a while that after the Treaty of Lausanne—the Kurds, which were spread in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Armenia, were reduced to the status of minority.
But of course the inward struggle by the Kurds particularly the Iraqi Kurds to reclaim their identity and ethnic importance never palled and this became the key to the dimension of this crisis.
The Kurds who are a major ethnic division in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq–began their struggles which were of autonomy. The case for the Iraqi Kurds had been sore; they had been promised autonomy by many leaders but only as leverage that they fight Iraqi wars, as a result of which Kurdish fighters were used in many wars. In 1992 though, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) emerged which became the core representative of the Iraqi Kurds.
In terms of Turkey—the idea was subtly implanted that no separate Kurdish land or autonomy would be given. This idea resonated well with the ‘Unified Turkey’ and the Kurdish question was seen as only a hindrance. Because of this reason the Turkish Kurds were wavering between amalgamation, acclimatization, and rejection by the Turks. As a consequence of which the PKK or the Kurdistan Workers Party emerged and as a repercussion, many clashes have been seen between the Turks and the PKK which even translate in today’s politics.
Similarly, the Iranian-Kurdish conflict and the latter’s race to separatism has been on-going as well. It has inherently resulted in many cold conflicts and the sustenance of Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran. The Iranian-Kurdistan Free Life Party clashed began in 2004 and became a serious security vice for Iran. Furthermore, the Kurdish groups have been involved in an on-again-off-again conflict with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards since 2015.
For Iraqi Kurds, the struggle was somewhat highly politicized even though there have been claims that the KRG and its structure met with internal failure and weakness. But there had been many calls for autonomy previously and in 2014 the idea of a referendum was thrown around. The KRG held that is would be significant, though non-binding and thus on 25th September 2017 the Iraqi Kurds were given a question– Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state? The Answer to which was a predominantly “YES” giving way to more ethnic tension and the idea of the resource being a massive factor in this entire game.
This leads to the intricate Kurdish Puzzle and what lies ahead for not just the Kurds but for the Turks, Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians and how the external powers can and might make this matter much exacerbated than it ought to be so much so that there have been floating ideas of a new ethnic conflict on the horizon.
The aftermath of the overwhelming ‘YES’ was a blatant alarm and a malignant indifference by not just the Iraqi government but the neighboring states which are relevant to the crisis. The very first idea and impact for Turkey and Iran happened to be the fact that as a consequence of this referendum and the boldness of the Iraqi Kurds, there might be a ripple effect which could spread to their own domestic political realms. The fact that the Kurds within Turkey and Iran might also stand up to demand a like referendum or a bid for secession would obviously put their security structure in a torpor and in fact disturb the political balance as well.
For Turkey the referendum meant a double alarm—not only would it give PKK a chance to stir commotion but also hit at its economic core since there are amicable ties between the two entities and the rhetoric of sanctions would not just hurt the Kurds in Iraq but also hit Turkey as well. The oil compensations happen to be of considerable importance in this scenario.
For this reason, the states like Turkey, Iran, and Iraq have joined their forces to deter any coming clash and have come up with some counter moves in order to replant their firmness regarding the antagonism of the referendum. They also put their foot firm towards the Kurds in claims that they will not resign to any secession or autonomy.
Iran blocked its airlines as well sanctioned oil trade to the Kurdish areas as a consequence of the referendum will be chaotic for the region and stood by its long-time ally Iraq in the stance. Iran considers this a threat not just to its own borders—given that there could be uprisings but has greater strategic and political reasons which the Kurds could uproot and disrupt the Golden Belt of its own influence in the region.
Syria came out as a state which has claimed that it would decide the fate of the referendum and whether to support it or not after ISIS is kicked out of its borders. This was a highly politicized deal coming from Syria which is a long-standing Iranian partner. But even then, it is more of a long shot gamble because Kurdish uprising touching Syria will pose a serious threat to the Regime.
This referendum also hit as a negative with the US because the Kurdish forces have been handy for the US in the fight against ISIS and the Syrian Civil War. If there are internal fissures and struggles of a massive level then that could prove to be a peril for the US, particularly in their sustenance against the ISIS. But much more alarming is the fact that if Baghdad gets hemmed in by internal dilemmas and clashes between state and the Kurds—then it could mean a strong gain for ISIS in Iraq. Thus the US was not happy with the idea and now with the result as well as it had tried to delay it—now it has snubbed it completely.
As for the Russians—they are currently tied with the Turks and Iranians and they also saw this referendum as deleterious. The only party to actually welcome this referendum happens to be Israel—which only makes the situation more grave making many analysts wonder if there is to be a new-Palestine like an issue on the verge.
Firstly there is seen a pattern of new alliance structure which was considered unlikely in the past. Turkey now is partners with Iran and Iraq while previously there had been ideological and political antagonism. Although Turkey and Iran were going through a rapprochement as an aftermath of the referendum it has been solidified. Thus this issue seems to have brought unlikely states together and the contours are political and security-related and could possibly have an economic rhetoric.
Secondly, there is now a sudden and certain volatility as well because at any time the regional dynamics could trigger something raw since the entire ring of Iraq and Syria are involved in a war already. Any clash inside Baghdad will pull Turkey and Iran as well as other states in as well. The importance and how Turkey would now perceive Peshmerga have also seemed to have grown.
Iran and Turkey have come forth and held joint military drills and claimed that they will hold down their forts militarily if need be, but they can perhaps not be severely threatening towards the Kurds. This is a point which is both dangerous and might eventually help in retaining any direct clash. This happens to be the Israel factor—because it is the only state on-board with the referendum result and if there is any push in hostilities between Turkey-Iran-Iraq and the Kurds then Israel will support the latter party. This will put the zone in a massive cauldron of intricacies.
Four things need to be considered; the internal dynamics of the Iraqi Kurds and the entire struggle of how they maneuvered the political gains for themselves and how their leaders, especially Barzani weighed in the monopoly. Then the idea that even though the Kurdish movements are spread out—yet there are conflicts between Kurds of Iraq, Iran and Turks and this can manifest in the meta-discourse.
There is also the sudden attitude of empathy by the Arabs towards the Iraqi Kurds after Iraq-Iran-Turkey has aligned with each other. Finally, the strategic importance and leverage of the areas wherein the Kurds are in majority for Iran, Iraq, and Turkey is important for any future policy towards the situation.
All in all, it seems that the prospects of a conflict are real but the prospects of a cold conflict are more real than an actual clash because much is at stake in the process. Furthermore, the idea is that the quest is among core regional states and their interests putting the reasons and realities of Kurds at stake. It is currently an ethnic crisis which could be politicized as well as given the touch of strategic relevance and securitization. Of course, the main focus is going to be not on the Kurds but the responses and how further can a political alliance between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey can sustain. Israel and Syria will actually be key components in the conflict and whether it remains a war of words or something more.
In any case, the political landscape of the region will not cease to be the core of the international politics. There is also the factor that hints at the willingness of the Iraqi Kurds to hold dialogues with the Iraqi Government but the question of oil compensation is one which curbs the entire process. This is what makes the entire situation very interlinked, trifling and complicated making the Kurdish referendum more of a puzzle and a paradox.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.