The Reality Behind the Kurdish Dream of Independence
In an event marking the great strides towards the long sought Kurdish independence, a referendum for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan was held on September 25, 2017. Preliminary results indicated overwhelming support for Kurdish independence with around 93% cast in favor of the movement. This result is set to trigger the start of negotiations surrounding state building within Iraq, rather than an immediate declaration of independence.
This referendum had been in the making for a while and came amidst great controversy and dispute. An unofficial referendum was initially held in 2005, and resulted in a 98% vote towards independence. However, little action was taken.
An official referendum was then set for 2014 and gained traction following the Northern Iraq Offensive during the Iraqi Civil War, which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targeted Kurdish-majority areas in efforts to expand northern Iraqi territories under their control. With joint Kurdish efforts working with the Iraqi central government towards the liberation of Mosul, the vote was repeatedly announced and delayed, and eventually set to take place in 2017.
The independence referendum was confirmed to be held on 25 September, 2017, after Kurdish President Masoud Barzani met with several ruling parties, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on 7 June, 2017.
The lack of international support presents many challenges pressing against Kurdish independence. The United Nations has eve expressed its criticism in the holding of the referendum itself.
Threats have been made to cut communication between Iraq and the Kurdish region, including severing Internet and phone coverage. In Iraq, tensions have arisen from the results of the referendum leading the Iraqi military to shut down both air-travel and borders linking Iraq to Kurdish-held territories.
The fate of an independent Kurdistan remains to be seen. In a landlocked region with a troubled economy, in need of assistance from neighboring states, and a lack of democratic institutions, prospects for independence were already bleak.
Although the vote has temporarily provided Kurds with emotional hope for independence, the Iraqi refusal to acknowledge the referendum and movement towards isolation of Kurdistan makes it difficult to clear see how national aspirations will unfold, and the extent to which they will fulfill the Kurdish dream.
International opposition, particularly that from Kurdistan’s neighboring countries, provides a great threat to the movement. Iraq, Iran, and Turkey have already made motions to negate the vote, with each standing to lose in the event of an independent Kurdistan. For Iraq, this would mean the loss of a third of its country, particularly in a region rich in oil and natural gas reserves. In Iran and Turkey, Kurdish independence poses a threat to their own Kurdish minorities, who may attempt similar strides towards separation.
Further negating the Kurdish dream is due to the lack of support from major powers like the United States. Without them, Kurdistan can achieve little on its own. Severely lacking in key aspects of a democratic state, the Kurdistan Regional Government can likely only foster an unstable and poor state.
Ultimately, while the referendum marks a historic declaration of Kurdish tenacity towards independence, it is unlikely that the reality will match the dream.