Kurdistan: a dangerous and volatile moment

Last week’s referendum is better understood as an expression of instability and change in a Middle East beset with conflicts between regional powers

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq declares itself ready for independence after organising a referendum last week in which 93 per cent voted for separation, with a turnout of 72 per cent. The result pitches Iraq into a constitutional and political conflict with this minority of five million people – some 20 per cent of its population. There is spillover to Turkey's 18 million Kurds, Iran's five million and Syria's two million. These adjacent minorities all resent their betrayal by European powers, which carved up the collapsing Ottoman empire after the first World War. That settlement is now thrown dramatically into question, adding yet more uncertainty to this unstable region.

All the Kurds have suffered discrimination and brutal repression of their various resistances and rebellions by these four states. The Kurdistan Regional Government, led by Masoud Barzani, has effectively ruled northern Iraq since a no-fly zone imposed by Western allies after the first Gulf War in 1990 allowed them escape Saddam Hussein's prolonged efforts to break their will. Their autonomy was confirmed when the 2005 federal constitution gave them extensive powers. Barzani's final term expired in 2015 but his Kurdish forces' prominent role in the battle against Islamic State, also known as Isis, postponed a reckoning.

Many now see the referendum as an audacious bid to bargain deeper Kurdish autonomy within Iraq and extend Barzani's term of office rather than a genuine push for independence. Barzani's true intentions will be severely tested in the responses to his demands. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi has imposed a ban on flights to and from the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, and threatens to take back the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Kurdish control. Turkey threatens to cut off its only oil pipeline. Observers note the large number of spoiled votes and abstentions in the referendum, signalling internal dissent. Nor is there sufficient cohesion or political will across borders to sustain a single state should that possibility arise. Internationally, Kurds are divided ethnically, by religion and language despite other cultural commonalities.

This referendum is better understood as an expression of instability and change in a Middle East beset with conflicts between regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, mobilising tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The region's regimes are also still dealing with the aftermath of popular Arab uprisings and subject to continuing military and diplomatic interventions from outside powers such as the US and Russia.


All of this gives Kurds opportunities to recast their national subaltern status into more favourable bargains, but it also exposes them to hostile coalitions among states that fear potential breakups. It is a volatile and dangerous moment.