On Wednesday, September 27, 2017, jubilant Kurds gathered in public squares in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, to celebrate the preliminary results of the referendum on Kurdish independence.
Ninety-three percent of the people voted “yes” for Kurdistan. For the Kurds, it was a historic moment.
For others, it was the first stage of a new regional destabilization.
The Iraqi central government in Baghdad, furious, called the referendum an assault on Iraqi’s territorial integrity. In Turkey it was received with military maneuvers. Iran deployed its air defense apparatus and immediately imposed an air blockade on Kurdistan’s major cities, Erbil and Sulaymaniya. Overseas, the United States warned that the referendum will jeopardize its campaign against Islamic State IS and pave the way for further regional turmoil.
It puzzled many that the Kurds chose to vote for independence, since they currently enjoy more stability than at any other time in modern history.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed significant autonomy from the central government in Baghdad since the US invasion in 2003.
The Peshmerga forces, a prominent Kurdish armed group, played a pivotal role in defeating Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, and received substantial financial, logistic and military support both from the US and Russia.
Kurds in Turkey exercise their democratic rights to a never before seen extent in Turkish modern history, and Kurds in Iran intermingle perfectly well with Iranians, and recently broadened their cooperation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration.
But the Kurds refused to be pawns this time. They wanted a greater say in the region. They wanted to achieve what they considered an overdue Kurdish state that will stand side by side with Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not a semi-autonomous region that lives at the mercy of the Turkmen, Persians and Arabs.
In light of these developments, there are three possible options for Iraq, Iran and Turkey to deal with an independent Kurdistan. The first would be a coordinated effort by Iran, Turkey and Iraq to overthrow the KRG, which is led by Masoud Barzani. This potential coalition could be justified on the grounds that Barzani failed to invite international observers to monitor the election, voters have been intimidated, and a significant number of them cast their ballot under duress.
The second strategy would be to impose an indefinite blockade on Kurdistan’s air and land frontiers and incite internal revolt to overthrow or weaken Barzani. This strategy could compel him to rescind the outcome of the referendum and come to the negotiating table.
The third option is to live with the reality of a de facto independent Kurdistan, and cooperate and coordinate with it on a limited basis.
Whatever the case, suppression of an independent Kurdistan will turn the region upside down before Kurdistan bows to the authority of its neighbors.
A FEW hours after polling stations called for the last ballot, Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara fired their first (figurative) warning shots at Erbil. The Iraqi military carried out a joint military exercise with Turkey on the Iraqi-Turkish border. Iran deployed some of its most sophisticated air defense missiles on the Kurdistan- Iran border, and the Iraqi government issued commands to Kurdistan to surrender its borders and two major airports in Sulaymaniya and Erbil to the Iraqi authority.
Barzani responded with a statement describing the referendum as nonbinding, neither calling for a demarcation of borders nor advocating an immediate secession of Kurdistan from Iraq. Barzani threw the ball into his opponents’ court, saying that the Kurds have made their voice heard, and chose independence, and that it is up to Iraq, Iran and Turkey whether they will respond to the outcome of the referendum responsibly and peacefully or escalate tension.
In other words, if Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran decide to nullify the aspiration of four million Kurds and confront Kurdistan militarily, the outcome will be catastrophic. Another outbreak of civil war in an already ailing region would bring regional countries to their knees. The effects of such conflict wouldn’t just revive a moribund ISIS in Iraq, but would also create other insurgents who would carry out sporadic tactical attacks on Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The US could kiss goodbye to its campaign against ISIS, and Europe would get ready for another influx of refugees. But it would be unwise to take that path if Turkey wants a break from refugees pouring into its border, Iran would like to avoid gifting a bargaining chip to the Saudis and Israelis, and the Iraqi government wants to maintain its hard-earned stability.
Secondly, Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara could enforce a land and air blockade on the Kurdistan region. But such a move wouldn’t only lead to a mass starvation and constitute a grave abuse of human rights, it would also lead to mass migration and displacement of thousands of people, which would prolong the recovery of a war-torn region. It would create a fertile environment for ISIS and other terrorist groups to recruit disenfranchised youth and push them toward extremism.
For Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara to pursue such a strategy would make them look like hypocrites, since they all denounced and opposed the blockade on Qatar by its neighbors Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They slammed such a blockade as antithetical to the norms of human rights.
They would also face challenges justifying such a strategy as a means to counter potential national security threats and would be less likely to convince the international community, especially the EU, to get on board.
Not only would such a strategy damage the credibility of Iran and Turkey, it would also weaken their position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, which they have always accused of violating universal human rights laws. Even if such a strategy halts the formation of an independent Kurdistan, it would have little to no effect on the principle of Kurdish statehood, that is deeply embedded into the minds and hearts of Kurds.
The third possibility would be to live with a de facto independent Kurdistan, with limited commercial and security cooperation, and with no official recognition by its neighbors. While regional experts envisage that such a strategy will present a spillover of Iraqi Kurdistan effect to Turkey, and Iran, and thus would encourage internal revolt by the sizable Kurdish population in such countries, I posit that isn’t likely.
What made it difficult for Turkey and Iran to eradicate Kurdish guerrilla fighters for over half a century is that guerrillas are not conventional forces. Mutineers such as the Peshmerga, Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Peoples’ Protection Units (PYG) and other Kurdish groups spread across the region. Instead of coordinating military actions, sharing intelligence and conducting high-level joint operations against the guerrillas, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran spent decades fighting them individually. Kurdish guerrilla fighters exploited that environment and survived.
But an independent Kurdistan would be an indispensable partner in the fight against Kurdish insurgents.
Kurdish guerrilla groups have always told their recruits that the Arabs, Turkmen and Persians refuse them the right to statehood. Once a Kurdish state is established, the insurgents would lose that recruitment tool.
It makes little sense for newborn Kurdistan to gamble on its century-awaited independence and take part in any activity that would destabilize its neighbors.
If given the opportunity, the Kurds will hold tight to their independence by guarding against anything that will endanger its durability, even if that means fighting their own fellow Kurdish guerrillas.
They will remember how much time it took them to achieve independence.
If Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad refuse to recognize Kurdistan, and refrain from coercing it militarily, then Kurdistan would be just fine as long as the friendship of its only regional endorser, Israel, is cemented and guaranteed.
The author is an academic based in Colorado. He is the former CEO of the American Institute in Djibouti, East Africa. His research and studies focus on the Middle East and East Africa.