Iraqi Kurds holding independence referendum despite fierce opposition
Iraq's Kurdish minority is voting today on whether to declare itself an independent state. Opposing the move is not only the Iraqi government, but Turkey, Iran, and Syria – countries where other Kurdish minorities long for their own homeland.
Experts say the result will almost certainly be a resounding "yes" – but what that will actually mean in reality is still unclear.
For the Kurds, the vote presents an opportunity to finally break away from Iraq.
"We have the right to choose our destiny and fulfill our dream," Dallo Mohammed, a 32-year-old accountant from the town of Khanaqin, told NBC News. "I am a Kurdish citizen, this is how I was born, and this is how I would die."
But opponents of the vote – a list of countries that includes the U.S. – say the ballot could provoke destabilization, ethnic violence, and hamper the fight against ISIS.
The Kurds were one of the few national entities not to receive their own country following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. There are complex reasons for this having to do with where the Kurdish majority areas are located and the fact that the Kurds themselves are divided.
Parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia are populated with Kurds. But while ethnically similar, there are cultural and political differences among the Kurds that make a union problematic.
The Iraqi Kurds have always enjoyed more autonomy than their brothers and sisters in other countries. Now, with Iraq fractured by ISIS and a Shia government in Baghdad that barely holds the country together, Iraqi Kurds have sensed an opening.
Monday's referendum is asking people whether they want to expand this autonomy and become a fully fledged, independent country.
More than 3 million people are expected to participate, according to The Associated Press
"They see this as a once-in-a-century opportunity to begin the process of forming their own state," said Gareth Stansfield, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
The Kurds have threatened to break off from the rest of Iraq for years.
They accuse the central government of violating its constitutional obligations toward them and withholding their share of the federal budget.
"From World War I until now, we are not a part of Iraq," Kurdish President Masoud Barzani told the Guardian on Friday. "It’s a theocratic, sectarian state. We have our geography, land and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates."
Right now may be their best shot at independence thanks to a confluence of events – namely the weakening of political systems surrounding them following two decades of violence and the rise of ISIS in 2014.
But even in the event of a "yes" vote, the government says it won't separate right away. Rather, it sees the vote more as a statement of intent, a springboard from which to launch dialogue with the central Iraqi government.
The vote will cover not only areas in the official, semi-autonomous region but also disputed regions where the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, have pushed into following their largely successful campaign against ISIS.
These peshmerga – whose name means "those who face death" – have been fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the U.S.-led coalition, but it is the Kurds who have proved the far more effective fighting force.
The U.S. administration is conflicted on this issue. The friendly and close relations the U.S. has enjoyed with the Kurds in Iraq makes the U.S. their natural allies. They have done more than any nation-state to help defeat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, which the Kurds naturally feel makes them entitled to U.S. support.
But while the U.S. would probably reluctantly accept a Kurdish state in Iraq, NATO ally Turkey is terrified of such a prospect. Under no circumstances will the Turks allow an independent Kurdish state on their border. The government of President Erdoğan fears that the low-level civil war being fought in Turkey by the Kurdish minority would explode as Turkey's Kurds would seek to break away and join their brethren in Iraq.
Iran and Syria, too, are nervous about an independent Kurdish state for the same reason. Iran's Kurds, like some of Turkey's Kurdish population, have taken to terrorism to advance their cause, while Syria's Kurdish population has been oppressed by President Assad to the point that they were early and strong supporters of the opposition in the civil war.
The U.S. probably wishes there were a way to support the Kurds. They would prove to be an invaluable and reliable ally in a region where such allies are few and far between. Eventually, we may get to the point where we can acknowledge the inevitable and support a Kurdish state.
Perhaps the biggest problem with uniting the Kurds across such a huge area of land is that other minorities have moved in since World War I, and the ethnic makeup of these Kurdish areas are more diverse than before. The U.S. fears that some of these ethnic minorities may not like being governed by an alien culture and would fight. A blow-up across the Middle East like that could spread, igniting other ethnic clashes. Think the Iraq and Syrian civil wars on steroids.
We'll have to see what develops after the referendum, but sometime in the future, an independent Kurdistan is a distinct possibility. Whether it can be achieved peacefully is the question facing the governments in the region.