Analyzing the Kurdish Independence Referendum in Iraq

ANALYSIS BY MARCO VICENZINO

1. What do you think of the timing of the Kurdish referendum for independence in northern Iraq? What are the potential consequences for the region?

From the Kurdish perspective, their time has come. They see independence as historically long overdue and over a century in the making after being deprived of statehood by the victorious powers at the Versailles peace conference of 1918-19 that ended the First World War. After they carved out the Middle East to their benefit, Kurdish aspirations for statehood was split between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Today, parts of the Middle East are still living with the ghosts of Versailles. An argument can be made that many of the borders set by the treaty have already been unraveling, particularly in Iraq and Syria, and the upcoming Kurdish referendum is a logical consequence of this process. The evolution of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and ensuing years, has emboldened ethnic Kurds in Iraq and beyond. However, for others in the region and beyond, the timing of the referendum is not only Inconvenient but disruptive within the context of the broader geopolitical and regional complexities of the Middle Eastern landscape. Many others view the consequences of Kurdish independence as catastrophic politically, economically and in security terms. Others may be willing to do, or at least threaten to do, whatever is necessary to prevent independence from happening, not just in principle but possibly in action. For example, Turkish forces have been massing on its border with Iraq in a show of force. To say a dangerous situation and crisis is brewing is an understatement. Even if a last-minute accommodation were to be reached, it would not be on a comprehensive permanent basis – despite considerable concessions to the KRG. It would only provide temporary relief whereby the KRG went just short of independence until the next crisis flares up.

2. Has enough preparation been made for a Kurdish breakaway? Can an independent Kurdistan survive, economically, politically or in terms of security?

From the KRG perspective, Kurdish independence is a de-facto reality and the referendum simply formalizes a process that will be legally binding and a culmination of years in the making. For them, years of autonomous, self-government starting in the early 1990's, provides the political legitimacy. Its energy reserves ensure its economic survival – despite being geographically landlocked and vulnerable to external influence, particularly from Turkey and its control over pipelines. From a security-military perspective, the Kurdish ability to resist the advances of ISIS effectively from Kirkuk to Kobane from 2014 onwards accelerated the aspirations for independence and giving it the necessary confidence that it can survive as an independent entity and able to resist external security threats.

3. Why does the US oppose the referendum?

US interests coincide with a strong, self-governing, autonomous Kurdish entity but not an independent Kurdish state. The unraveling of borders in the Middle East, already a reality in certain parts, would be too disruptive politically, economically and militarily for the US and others in an already turbulent region. The US has a vested interest in the KRG's continuing status quo. For the US, the Kurds have proven a reliable ally, particularly in the struggle against ISIS. The US can continue treating the KRG as a de facto independent entity to a large extent, but has no vested interest in declaring it officially as an independent state, at least for now. For the time being, volatility prevails in the Middle East, as in much of the broader global geopolitical landscape which also means that national interests are always subject to change according to shifting circumstances regionally and internationally.

*This is the English-language version of an interview that was recently conducted with Marco Vicenzino in a Turkish-language publication.

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