Kurdistan Votes ‘Yes’ to Independence

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A Peshmerga soldier votes in the Kurdistan referendum. (Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A Peshmerga soldier votes in the Kurdistan referendum. (Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)


The Kurds have voted “yes” to independence in a referendum held on September 25, announced Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. The referendum was held in the autonomous region of Kurdistan in defiance of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the United States who claim that the vote would be a destabilizing influence in the region.

Barzani called on the Iraqi government to stop threatening his Kurdish Regional Government with sanctions and instead engage in “serious dialogue.”

The referendum was opposed by all countries in the region with the exception of Israel.


Who Are the Kurds?

  • Kurds are the largest stateless nation in the world. There are between 25 to 35 million ethnic Kurds living in a contiguous territory in the area of the Zagros mountains, according to the BBC. However that territory is split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
  • Kurds have lived in the territory for thousands of years and are considered indigenous.
  • Kurds in Iraq have ruled over an autonomous region in the country since the 2003 invasion by the U.S. and coalition partners that brought down Iraq’s brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein.


Why Do the Kurds Want Independence?

  • The Kurds have long been persecuted by the central governments of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Kurds have previously fought armed uprisings against the Turkish and Iraqi governments in attempts to achieve independence.
  • Following brutal civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Kurdish forces repelled ISIS fighters without assistance from the central government. In 2014 the Iraqi army abandoned northern Iraq. This left the Kurds as the only viable fighting force against the Islamic State.
  • In Syria, the Kurds successfully held off ISIS, especially at Kobane, on the border with Turkey, despite heavy losses and the refusal by Turkey to allow their Kurdish fighters to cross the border and help their brethren. 
  • After aiding Islamic State terrorists at the beginning of the conflict, Turkey ostensibly joined forces against the terror group in 20. However, they used the fight as an opportunity to bomb Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq. Turkey feels threatened by the Kurds, fearing Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria will aid those within Turkey.
  • Kurds who support independence see it as a chance for freedom, self-determination and security that they have been striving towards for decades.


Why Does America Object?

  • Trump’s administration currently views the establishment of an independent Kurdistan as something that would destabilize the region even further than it has been already. Turkey and Iran may use military force against any attempt to gain independence. Those countries both fear Kurdish independence movements within their borders gaining momentum should a Kurdish state be declared. They also seek to control the region for power and influence. Iran seeks to control Shiite-majority Iraq, which in turn desires the oil-rich areas inside Iraqi Kurdistan. 
  • “The United States does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government‘s intention to hold a referendum later this month,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.”
  • However, most of the fight against ISIS has already been won, and much of by the Kurds.
  • Despite the fact that the Kurds represent the most viable force holding back Iranian hegemony in the region, the U.S. most likely views support of its allies in Iraq and Turkey as more important than angering them over the Kurds.


What Will the Referendum Do?

  • The referendum was an advisory one open to residents of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government held the referendum in order to gain democratic legitimacy for any future declaration of independence.


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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