What the Kurdish referendum means for separatist aspirations across the world

Brig SK Chatterji (retd)
Brig SK Chatterji (retd)Oct 11, 2017 | 18:39

What the Kurdish referendum means for separatist aspirations across the world

The Kurds of Iraq have strengthened their case for a state of their own. An issue that was meant to be addressed at the end of World War I has found a way to attract global attention through a seemingly democratic route of conducting a referendum.

With an overwhelming majority saying "Yes", the Kurdish referendum surely gives some more substance to their ardent goal for a homeland. After World War I, with the Ottomon empire lying battered, hopes of a Kurdish homeland had soared. Former US president Woodrow Wilson favoured a homeland for non-Turkish people of the Ottoman empire. The Treaty of Sevres catered for a truncated Kurdistan, primarily limited to Turkish areas. Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Syria were left out.


However, the treaty was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne. Today, Kurds are spread in the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria along with a few pockets in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan.

Although most Kurds would prefer a Kurdish homeland, differences exist between different Kurdish groups settled in various countries. Kurds constitute roughly, 18 per cent of the Turkish populace, 10 per cent of Iranians, 23 per cent in Iraq. In terms of religious following, 75 per cent of Kurds are Sunni, the balance being mostly Shia.

The quest for a homeland has a few historical milestones beyond the soaring hopes witnessed at the end of World War I. During World War II, British Forces occupied most of Iran, with erstwhile Soviet Union managing a foothold to the north. In Iraq, the Kurdish leaders set up an autonomous Kurdish region in 1943. However, their army, the Peshmerga (those who walk in front of death) was overwhelmed.

Image: Reuters photo

The leadership fled to Mahabad, Iran and declared the first ever Kurdish state. Mullah Mustafa Barzani was the defence minister and the general commanding the Kurdish forces. In May 1946, Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Iran. All assistance to the Kurds, stopped. The Iranians closed-in to finally hang Qazi Muhammad, the Kurdish president. Barzani escaped. The Kurdish state had gone up in smoke.


The Iraqis offered autonomy to Kurds in 1970 after the first Iraqi-Kurdish war. Barzani insisted on retaining his Peshmerga and the Kirkuk area, rich in oil and a bone of contention till date. The negotiations remained inconclusive for four years, when the Iraqis launched a lakh strong force resulting in another trail of Kurdish migrants plodding beyond the range of the blazing Iraqi guns.

Barzani’s woes allowed the space for Jalal Talabani to don the mantle of Iraqi- Kurd leadership. The Kurdish aspirations surged again as Iran and Iraq locked themselves in battle in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Masoud Barzani had taken over his father Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s demise in 1979. He joined hands with Talabani and supported the Iranians. But, as Iraq and Iran reached an understanding, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein turned his forces around to once again force a migration of Kurds to Iran and Turkey. Kurds experienced the worst atrocities when Saddam Hussein decided to use gas to overwhelm the Peshmerga.

Meanwhile, Turkish Kurds had been under severe assimilationist pressure in Turkey. Their language, music and culture were a taboo. However, the Turkish desire of being admitted in the European Union was perhaps the driving force when in the early 1990s the buzzword became liberalisation and bans were eased.


The next opportunity for a Kurdish homeland came when the America-led multinational forces launched their operations against Saddam Hussein in January, 1991, post his annexation of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein’s forces were defeated. The Shias in Iraq took advantage, revolting in the aftermath of the multi-national force’s manoeuvres.

The duo of Barzani and Talabani also identified it as an opportunity for the Kurds. The illusion didn’t last too long. Saddam Hussein quelled the Shia uprising and then wheeled his forces to actuate another mass migration driving a million Kurds to Iran and another 50,000 to the Turkish border. Turkey closed its borders aggravating a human catastrophe.

The Americans had stopped the battle far too short even as they were advancing rapidly. The US commander has been on record having recommended to George HW Bush that allied forces destroy Iraq’s military instead of stopping the war after a clear victory.

Bush under severe pressure finally ordered Saddam Hussein to stop all operations in the Kurdish region. Operation Provide Comfort was launched through a partnership between US, UK and Turkey. Soon a safe haven was created for the Kurds by the UNO with Spanish, British and French troops, initially.

In May, 1992 a (Iraqi) Kurdistan National Assembly was formed by a democratic election process. The National Assembly was transformed into the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament after passing of the Election Law in March 2009.

In 1994-95 major problems arose in the enclave. With Tukish Kurds using the enclave as a base for launching attacks into Turkey, the Turks attacked the enclave repeatedly. Within the enclave, Talabani’s PUK and Barzani’s men fought, the former with the support of the Iranians. The elected Kurdish Parliament became non-functional. Saddam Hussein moved his army in support of Barzani, shattering any hope that Iran had of extending its influence.

An informal Iraqi Kurdish referendum was held on January 30, 2005. The referendum was held alongside the elections to the Iraqi Parliament and Iraqi Kurdish Parliament. The response was 98.98 per cent favouring independence.

The call for the current referendum was possibly initiated for multiple reasons. Iraqi Kurds have done well in the war against the ISIS. When the Iraqi army deserted Kirkuk, the most strategically important area with most of Iraq’s oil assets, it was the Peshmerga which moved in and has held the town all through.

There are also domestic drivers for the Kurds to opt for a referendum now. The current Kurdish president is aware that the American support that Kurds enjoy today is likely to dilute once the ISIS has been eliminated largely.

Now is the time for him to bring to fore a popular issue that will also help him garner a larger popular support for the Kurdish elections due on November 1.

The Kurds are also aware that it’s not only easier to hold the referendum now when the Americans are around in strength, but also strengthens their bargaining position with Baghdad after the new Kurdish Parliament is elected later. The Americans, so far, have not supported the referendum, but voiced in favour of legitimate aspirations of the Kurds.

The referendum is also a signal about how serious the Iraqi Kurds are about their independence. Their claims on disputed territory to include the all important Kirkuk region, is also strengthened. That the Kurds managed to deny Kirkuk to the ISIS is a fact that will be appreciated more today, before its relevance fades with time.

There is no story in West Asia that is not written in the backdrop of oil geo-politics and Kirkuk is no different. Kirkuk has been supplying between 50,000 to 1,000,000 million barrels per day to the oil market. It’s not the kind of volumes that cannot be replaced in a global market facing a glut. However, it is majorly important for the economy of war-torn states such as Iraq.

At the other end, top US oil companies already have agreements with the Iraqi Kurds and obtain Kirkuk oil through the regime at the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Obviously, a revenue-sharing formula, as is in force now between the Iraqis and the Kurds, is the way out.

However, Turkish politicians also claim Kirkuk as their own (historically). Kirkuk oil passes through Turkey on its way out. A prosperous Iraqi Kurdish state will also fan the desire for sovereignty among Turkish Kurds, further. Erdogan has threatened sanctions and warned the Kurds they will pay the price for having carried out a referendum.

Iran has been equally vocal in condemning Barzani. Like Turkey, they have a sizeable Kurdish populations that desire a Kurdish homeland. A similar situation is obtainable in Syria with its large Kurdish population and their very substantial role in pushing the ISIS back.

While most of the world kept quiet about the referendum, especially since the referendum is non-binding, and hence wouldn’t trigger an immediate problem, it does encourage separatist groups in other parts of the world.

However, so far, it’s also an example of how to place regional aspirations in front of a global audience without resorting to violence. While the Spanish government may be worried, Catalans, themselves having poster a referendum that Madrid definitely does not approve of, are surely all praise for the Iraqi Kurds. Meanwhile, the Scots who are contemplating a referendum post-Brexit, will find it encouraging.

With regional, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious commonalities becoming more and more the rallying points, the call for sub-division of current nation states is likely to go up. These are also issues that are loaded with the potential of violent eruptions. Under such circumstances, opting for a referendum rather than a violent struggle has some merit.

In the Kurdish case, with Iranians and Turks also anticipating problems and Iraq having already displayed its displeasure with all flights to the Kurdish areas being cancelled, Barzani can barely be expected to achieve more than strengthening his domestic constituency.

However, another fact that has relevance is to what extent are identities relevant for defining statehood. If it’s religion as the basis, states so formed will immediately have various sects and sub-sects of the same religion waving different flags. It’s the same case if it’s language, with differing local dialects providing the fodder.

A non-discriminatory, inclusive society with equal opportunities, combined with good governance by a leadership elected through a democratic political system should be able to meet aspirations of citizens to a substantial degree.

Last updated: October 11, 2017 | 18:42
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