In a referendum held in 2017, 92% of Kurdish people in the autonomous region in Iraq voted in favour of independence. It was bluntly rejected by the Iraqi federal government, who imposed drastic sanctions as a result. Three years later, the question remains: is independence still on the table?
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are roughly 40 million people living in a geographical region spanning eastern Turkey, northeast Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. However, only Iraq and Iran grant political recognition to their Kurdish minorities leading to the establishment of the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region in 1974 while, in Iran, the province of Korderstān, also spelled Kurdistan, dates back to the 11th century. In Syria and Turkey, Kurds are being persecuted in response to their struggle for political recognition. This has led to widespread violence, especially in Turkey, in a violent conflict that has been ongoing since 1978.
The Significance of Independence
The Kurdish people were left out during the carving of borders in the Middle East by European powers after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. These powers, under the auspice of the League of Nations, sought to preserve and extend their geopolitical benefits at the expense of local populations through the mandate system, which was initially presented as a way of supposedly helping nations on the brink of independence to achieve statehood.
Throughout the Middle East, borders were drawn based on foreign interests rather than out of genuine concern regarding independence. The current borders of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are direct products of that scheme. The result was the subjugation and economic exploitation of various ethnic groups, including the Kurdish people, into political systems that were not their choice. Therefore, the 2017 referendum was an attempt to address the wrongs done almost a century ago and to allow the organic process of nation-state building to occur freely and without interference.
The 2017 Sweeping Referendum
The 2017 referendum led by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was a non-binding vote, meaning that a positive result would prompt the beginning of negotiations for independence with the federal government of Iraq rather than an outright declaration of independence. The KRG knew that the referendum would lack legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and therefore the outcome of the referendum would have no bearing in the recognition of Kurdistan as a nation-state instead of an autonomous region of Iraq. Furthermore, due to the pre-existing tense relations with Baghdad, the KRG favoured negotiations over a declaration of independence as a way to manage the risk of escalation.
Where Do Things Stand in 2020?
In the aftermath of the rejection, the question of independence was, oddly, abandoned. Many factors might explain why. Firstly, the lack of international support was more problematic than expected as it meant that Baghdad was not pressured to request international mediations. Instead, they were able to act on their terms. Secondly, concerns surrounding oil were brought to the forefront. The KRG had been seeking to maintain its economic independence and control over oil, as oil was its main bargaining chip in the negotiations with Baghdad. Furthermore, the Kurdish political elite was divided on the question of whether they must preserve their oil independence at all costs, or make a compromise to gain statehood. Thirdly, internal disputes, corruption, nepotism, and the lack of accountability prevented any coherent organization in the political or economic life of the country. All of these issues combined to put the question of independence in the backseat.
Baghdad’s Response to the Referendum
As a response to the pro-independence outcome of the vote, Baghdad took back all the territorial gains made in 2014 by the Kurdish government during the war with ISIS. This territory contained half of the autonomous government’s oil production facilities and reserves and, moreover, reduced by half its export capacity. In other words, Baghdad sought to annihilate the autonomous government’s milking cow. Furthermore, Iraq isolated the autonomous region from the rest of the world by imposing embargoes and international flight bans from the Kurdish regional airport.
All is Not Bleak
There is still some hope of independence for the Kurdish people, as Iraqi-Kurdish relations have improved since May 2019 following the election of Nechirvan Barzani as the head of the KRG. Barzani, with the help of his ally the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shifted the dynamics of the relationship with Iraq by stressing the economic relationship between Ankara and Baghdad. The arrival of Turkey as a Kurdish ally has acted as a system of checks and balances with Baghdad in their relationship with the Kurdish people.
Moreover, a drastic increase in foreign direct investment in the autonomous region in areas such as tourism, defense, housing, and oil may foster economic independence that can reintroduce the question of statehood. In 2018, foreign investment in tourism, defense, housing, and oil grew from $712M to $3.6B. However, foreign investments are often volatile and may be based on the political climate, corruption, and partisanship on both sides, the donors and the autonomous region. Among the biggest investors, the United Arab Emirates invested $3.1 billion, Turkey invested $1.2 billion, and Lebanon followed closely with $1 billion. Western contributions were marginally less: the United States invested $116 million, followed by New Zealand with $98 million. Egypt, Germany, Iran, Sweden, and the United Kingdom were among the other investors.