The Kurdish Referendum Could Spark Another Middle East War
The big question is: What happens next?
Despite widespread opposition, Iraqi Kurds held an independence referendum on September 25th. Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the United States, the UN — basically everyone besides the Kurds — asked them not to do it. But they think they’ve waited more than long enough.
As expected, turnout was high (72.61%) and almost everyone voted “yes” (92.73%). The referendum will change the Middle East and, depending on what the Kurds do next, could spark regional war.
How aggressively will they seek to turn the results into reality? Will the Kurdish Regional Government declare independence? Request negotiated separation from Iraq? Treat the referendum as nothing more than a public expression of their long-held aspirations?
Will Kurds in Turkey or Iran see the referendum in Iraq as motivation, and rebel? If Turkey attacks, will the United States — which has protected Iraqi Kurdistan for 26 years, but is allied with Turkey through NATO — get in the way? If Iran attacks, will Iran hawks in the U.S. use it as an excuse to launch military operations against Iran? Will the vote splinter the Iraqi-Kurdish-American anti-ISIS coalition?
The independence referendum forces all these questions. And no one knows the answer.
Who Are the Kurds?
The Western narrative about the Middle East focuses on the main religious division: Sunni vs. Shia. But there are important ethnic and tribal divisions as well.
Kurdish is an ethnicity, like Arab or Persian. They have a distinct language, culture, and history, and most practice Sunni Islam. The description of Iraq as divided between the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds is accurate, but somewhat misleading. While those are the three largest groups, there’s ethnic and religious overlap: Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, Sunni Kurd.
There are about 35 million Kurds, primarily spread across four countries — Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria — making them arguably the world’s largest nation without a state. The Kurds have actively sought their own country since the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, fighting rebellions against the British occupying authorities and local governments.
Iraqi Kurds first gained partial autonomy in 1970 in an armistice agreement with the Iraqi government. That established Erbil as the regional capital, with a legislative assembly (appointed by Baghdad), and allowed Kurdish language in schools.
The Kurds’ military relationship with the United States began shortly thereafter. In 1973, the CIA, Israeli Mossad, and U.S.-allied Shah of Iran began supporting Kurdish insurgents — who believed Iraq wasn’t living up to the autonomy agreement — against Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath Party. This was six years before Saddam Hussein formally took power. The rebellion failed and Baghdad reestablished control, repressing the Kurdish population.
Perhaps you’ve heard about Saddam gassing his own people. The big incident happened in the Kurdish city of Halabja, in 1988. Iraqi government forces launched mustard gas and other chemical weapons, killing as many as 5,000 and injuring 10,000 more.
To put that in perspective, when the United States launched missiles into Syria earlier this year, it was in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed 87.
What is the United States’ Strategy in Syria?
It’s not clear what the recent missile strikes will accomplish
Iraqi Kurdistan — the region in northeast Iraq marked by a red line in the map above — gained de facto autonomy thanks to the Gulf War, which ended with Iraq’s defeat in February 1991. The United States, along with the U.K. and France, declared a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, designed to protect Iraqi Kurds who rose up against Saddam during the conflict. Kurdish and Iraqi forces continued fighting until October, when Iraq withdrew. In 1992, the Kurds established an elected Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with power divided between two main parties.
In 2003, the Kurds gained greater autonomy after the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam, and Iraqi Kurdistan officially became semi-autonomous under the 2005 Constitution of Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is oil-rich, but landlocked. Baghdad is supposed to spend 17% of the national budget in Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Regional Government is supposed to share its oil revenue with Iraq. But both sides accuse the other of cheating, and multiple attempts to reach a revenue sharing agreement fell apart. Unable to reach a lasting arrangement with Baghdad to export via the Gulf, the Kurds began trucking and then piping oil through Turkey to a port on the Mediterranean, starting in 2012.
Though they still desired independence, Iraqi Kurds were relatively happy with the post-Saddam situation. They didn’t have their own country, but they had their own elected parliament and president, their own military — a force of about 200,000 called the Peshmerga — and mostly controlled their own economy.
While other parts of Iraq faced insurgent violence, the Kurdish region remained stable. The economy grew by over 10% per year from 2005–2012, except for a brief dip in 2009 due to the global financial crisis. Things were good — and the Kurds, wary of upsetting the status quo, put their independence dreams on hold.
That all changed with ISIS.
In June 2014, ISIS swept across northern Iraq, taking control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and declaring an Islamic State. The Iraqi army folded, fleeing as the jihadists advanced. In Mosul, ISIS captured billions of dollars worth of currency from banks, along with American-provided equipment the Iraqi military left behind.
Building on this success, the Islamic State pushed further into Iraq, threatening Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The Peshmerga, unlike the Iraqi army, tried to stand its ground, but ISIS pushed them back. Though more numerous than ISIS, the Peshmerga hadn’t seen heavy combat in over two decades. Its equipment and technique lagged behind the jihadists’. For a moment, it looked like both the KRG and Iraqi central government might fall.
But Iran and its proxy Hezbollah intervened on behalf of the Iraqi government, engaging ISIS fighters and organizing Shia militias around the capital. And a month later, the United States began bombing ISIS targets and coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground. Together, they halted the Islamic State’s advance.
In three years fighting ISIS, the Kurds have made considerable progress, reversing the Islamic State’s gains and capturing additional territory.
As of September 2017, Kurdish forces control Iraqi Kurdistan, along with additional parts of northern Iraq. Their current territory meets up with an area of northern Syria controlled by Syrian Kurds — who are also supported by the United States — creating a long, thin strip along the Turkish border (the light purple at the top of the map below).
Importantly, the Iraqi city of Kirkuk is now firmly inside Kurdish-controlled territory. Historically multi-ethnic, Kirkuk has a large Kurdish population and Kurdish families dominated local politics in the 18th and 19th centuries. But Iraq never allowed it to become part of Iraqi Kurdistan during the periods of autonomy, including post-Saddam, because it has a lot of oil.
Since the discovery of oil in the 1920s, successive Iraqi governments worked to ensure Arab control of Kirkuk, forcing Kurds, Assyrians and other minorities out, and moving Iraqi Arabs in. After the failed autonomy arrangement of the early 1970s, Baghdad redrew the boundaries of the city to give it an Arab majority. From 1991 until his fall in 2003, Saddam Hussein engaged in a process of “Arabization,” removing up to 500,000 non-Arabs from Kirkuk and surrounding areas.
But ISIS took Kirkuk from the Iraqi government, then the Kurds took it from ISIS, and now they included the city in their independence referendum. Baghdad, already angry that the Kurds want to split off from Iraq, is incensed.
The Iraqi central government announced in advance they won’t recognize the results of the referendum or hold talks with the KRG about independence. Baghdad demanded the Kurdish region hand over control of its two international airports by the end of week, threatening to shut down flights.
Iraqi politicians are calling on the Prime Minister to forcibly retake Kirkuk, and Iraq held joint military exercises with Turkey along their shared border.
Turkey, which began military exercises near Iraqi Kurdistan a week before the referendum, is the most adamantly opposed to an independent Kurdish state. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population — about 11.5 million, compared to 6 million in Iraq — and has fought a Kurdish insurgency of varying intensity for decades. Kurdish separatists conducted numerous terrorist attacks in Turkey, and the U.S. State Department lists the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK, now known as the KGK) as a foreign terrorist organization.
Preventing more Kurdish rebellions in southeast Turkey is one of the country’s top priorities — so much so that it shaped Turkey’s strategy in the Syrian civil war.
Originally, Turkey was among the nations calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish military supported Syrian Turkmen rebel groups, and joined the anti-ISIS coalition.
But as it became clear the international campaign against ISIS was benefiting the Kurds, Turkey backed off, arguing that Assad had to be part of the solution. Kurdish groups — including the HDP, the main Kurdish political party in Turkey — accused Turkey of allowing ISIS fighters to cross Turkish territory in late 2014 and early 2015 to join the battle for the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane.
In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, pushing military forces into northern Syria, northeast of the embattled city of Aleppo. They had two goals: taking the territory from ISIS and preventing the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from gaining control.
The SDF is backed by the United States, and has proven to be the most successful local anti-ISIS force in Syria. But the largest component of the SDF is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has some ties to the PKK, the terrorist group that has launched attacks in Turkey.
Euphrates Shield created tensions between Turkey and the United States. The U.S. wanted the SDF to lead the assault on Raqqa, ISIS’ Syrian capital, but Turkey feared an extended Kurdish-controlled zone along its border.
Turkey’s operation was a success. Turkish forces (the green arrows) split the Kurdish controlled territory (yellow), and Syrian government forces (the red arrows) kept the Kurds from linking up further south. Tensions between Turkey and the U.S. eased when the Kurds withdrew to east of the Euphrates (the river on the right) in March 2017.
Turkey is furious with the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum, because the Turkish government fears it will motivate the PKK or other Kurdish rebel groups in Turkey to increase violence, and possibly lead Kurdish politicians in Turkey to push for an independence referendum of their own. Or some Kurdish towns on the Turkey side of the border with Iraq could simply declare independence, seeking to join the newly independent Kurdish state.
Besides the clearly threatening military exercises, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has threatened to close Turkish pipelines to Kurdistan’s oil. With Iraq hostile as well, that would leave the Kurds no way to export their oil — about 650,000 barrels per day, 550,000 of which goes through Turkey — cutting off their main economic lifeline.
Iran has also conducted military exercises, sending an unsubtly threatening message. There are 6–7 million Kurds in Iran, many of whom live near Iraq. While Iran hasn’t faced Kurdish insurgency on the level of Turkey, it fears an independent Kurdistan could expand into Iranian territory at the behest of Iranian Kurds.
Syria, home to about 2 million Kurds, opposes the referendum, because the Kurdish-controlled area in its northeast could declare independence as well. But with six years of civil war (and counting), the Syrian government is too busy with other problems to pose a credible threat to Iraqi Kurds.
The United States, which has worked with the Kurds for decades, opposes the independence referendum on the grounds that it’s a threat to regional stability. Turkey is a NATO ally, and the United States has a vested interest in the success of the Iraqi government.
The referendum could fracture the anti-ISIS coalition. The Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga are the United States’ main military partners against ISIS in Iraq, while the Kurdish-dominated SDF is America’s main partner on the ground in Syria. Turkey has also acted against ISIS in Syria. And Iran — while a U.S. adversary in many areas — has played a significant role fighting the Islamic State in both countries.
From America’s perspective, the status quo — a semi-autonomous Kurdistan under the auspices of Iraq — was working.
And the United Nations Security Council released a unanimous statement expressing “concern over the potentially destabilizing impact of the Kurdistan regional government’s plans to unilaterally hold a referendum.”
The Kurds held it anyway.
What Happens Now?
The votes are in, and independence won in a landslide. The question is what the Kurds do next.
Kurdish leaders have indicated they do not plan to declare independence, but will use the referendum as a prompt to begin secession negotiations with Baghdad. Iraq rejects that idea.
Iraq and Turkey’s actions indicate both want to see the Kurds humiliated. From their perspective, Iraqi Kurdistan overstepped, and needs to be put back in its place. The Kurdish Regional Government could satisfy them by repudiating the referendum and relinquishing some of its autonomy, such as handing over its airports to Iraq. If not, Turkey or Iraq could attack, or try to cripple Kurdistan economically.
Iraq wouldn’t shoot down civilian aircraft, but Iran, Turkey, and Iraq could close their airspace, leaving commercial airlines without a path to the Kurdish airports. No private carrier would risk flying in defiance of surrounding governments. Iran already halted flights to Kurdistan, and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines announced it will honor Baghdad’s instructions.
If the Kurds do not give in, losing international air travel would hurt their economy — tourism is one of Kurdistan’s largest non-oil industries — and a Turkish oil embargo could devastate it. But if they fold so soon after stoking hopes of independence, the Kurdish leaders would lose domestic credibility.
Or the Kurds could go the other way, declare independence, and deal with whatever happens. In 1948, Israel declared independence, fully aware of surrounding states’ antagonism. Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq all attacked, and while Jordan gained some territory, Israel was able to survive the Arab assault and establish an independent state.
But Kurdistan’s odds would be even longer.
The least threatening force is Iraq. The Iraqi Security Forces are still recovering from ISIS’ 2014 assault, as well as a long and bloody battle to retake Mosul, and are still fighting to expel ISIS from their country. The Peshmerga is also weary from fighting ISIS, but would have home field advantage, and greater motivation. If Iraq attacked, the Kurds could probably hold them off. However, much as Israel couldn’t stop Jordan from occupying the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Kurdistan would have trouble preventing Iraq from retaking the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk.
Turkey is much stronger, and could quickly overrun an independent Kurdistan. The one thing that could stop them is the United States.
The “Forever War” Keeps Going
Evaluating the Trump administration’s plan for Afghanistan
The U.S. has supported the Kurds for decades, providing weapons, training, and air support. Iraqi Kurdistan is also the closest thing to an organic democracy in the region. Minorities make up about 25% of the population, and enjoy a better experience than ethnic and religious minorities in surrounding countries. Abandoning the Kurds would send a message to other groups that have fought with the United States (such as in Afghanistan), and to democracy movements (such as in Iran), that America will forsake them in their time of need.
The United States therefore has a moral and strategic interest in helping the Kurds succeed. However, it also has an interest in maintaining positive relationships with Iraq and Turkey.
An American commitment to protect Iraqi Kurdistan could deter a Turkish attack if sufficiently credible. But it would break NATO. An alliance built around “an attack on one is an attack on all” could not move forward in its current form with two members facing off.
The United States might be able to defend the Kurds without having to attack Turkish or Iraqi forces. For example, the U.S. could declare a no-fly zone. That’s risky, because it would require grounding any Turkish or Iraqi aircraft that enter Kurdish airspace. But those countries have a lot to lose by fighting the United States, and could be convinced not to test it.
Alternatively, the U.S. could put troops in Kurdistan as peacekeepers. Their role would not be to fight Turkey or Iraq, but to get in the way, such that Turkey or Iraq could not fight the Kurds without potentially killing Americans.
But Turkey knows this. So if they choose to use force, they’ll probably invade quickly, establishing new facts on the ground before the United States can intervene.
Most likely, America will try diplomacy to keep Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds from fighting each other. But if Erdogan believes Iraqi Kurdistan’s actions will spur insurgency inside Turkey, he might order an attack, no matter what America says. And if that happens, the United States might let it go.
The Iranian military is also stronger than the Peshmerga, and could probably defeat the Kurds if it wanted to. However, the United States is more likely to intervene on behalf of Kurdistan against Iran. And it’s possible Iran hawks in the United States could see Iranian action — or even threats — as an opportunity to strike targets in Iran.
You’re Missing Something Important About Trump’s UN Speech
The perspective of an anti-globalist conspiracy theorist
There’s a decent chance none of the regional powers will attack unless the Kurds declare independence. And the Kurds, fearing attack and uncertain if the United States would come to their aid, will hold off on doing so. But, even if Turkey and Iran don’t attack Iraqi Kurdistan, they will probably execute some repressive measures against Kurds in their own countries, aiming to avoid sympathetic uprisings.
We could be witnessing the birth of a mutli-ethnic, multi-confessional, Middle Eastern democracy, or the spark that ignites a larger Middle Eastern war.
Those outcomes, and everything in between, are all possible. Watch closely.