Tensions are high as the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq took to the ballot boxes to vote for regional independence on September 25, 2017. The polls had an overwhelming response as over 5 million people, roughly 80% of the registered voters cast their ballots “yes” to independence. This vote may not be more than a mere statement at this point,however, as the results do not guarantee independence. Further, there are questions as to whether or not the timing was appropriate considering Iraq is currently fighting a war. In addition, the vote has caused unrest among the surrounding countries who house Kurdish populations such as Iran, Turkey, and Syria due to their concern for how their own Kurdish citizens will react and their relations with Iraq as they are allies.
To better understand this situation, one must understand what or who the Kurds are. The Kurds are an ethnic group native to the Middle East; their people strewn through a group of countries to include Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. The Kurds are to the Middle East what the Native Americans are to the United States only the Kurds, as a collective, have occupied a vast area of land that is currently cut in pieces by the borders of the aforementioned countries. To add, over the years, the Kurds have been forced to assimilate to their respective country’s culture by using non-Kurdish names, and, though they have their own language, in many places, they are not permitted to speak it. There have been talks between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Government for a long time to no avail. At present, Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region, but is also part of Iraq and the Iraqi government seeks to keep it that way.
Prior to voting, the US and the UN warned it may not be the best idea right now. Iraq is currently engaged in a war with ISIS. Despite their progress, the war is not over and it is believed the Kurds are exploiting this by pushing their political platform when Iraq is in need of cohesion. Thus, the UN claimed the vote may have a “destabilizing effect” on the country. The United States believes the vote to be an unnecessary distraction from the war with ISIS. In fact, Iraqi and US forces just recently got ISIS out of much of Northern Iraq which has taken most of this year between Mosul and Tal Afar, but the fight is far from over and the fighting against ISIS, by the Iraqi government, US and UN, is still taking place in the very region currently seeking independence.
Many people have been opposed to the vote in Iraq Kurdistan, for a variety of reasons, and they are making their frustrations known. As a result of the vote, the Iraqi Prime Minister placed embargos on both international flights and oil exportation from the region. Therefore, Turkish President Erdogan, cut off access to their pipeline which exports Kurdish oil. Further, the Iraqi government has also demanded control over the airports in Iraq Kurdistan and Iran is refusing airspace to the region. Additionally, both Turkey and Iran have are closed their borders to the area and are performing military exercises along those borders.
Why do so many countries have such an issue with the Kurds gaining independence in Kurdistan Iraq? Well, the problem is, if the Kurds obtain their own independent nation and break from Iraq, what will happen amongst the Kurdish populations within their own countries? There is a large population of Kurds in Iran and Turkey. If they want to gain independence and create one big Kurdistan connecting the areas most densely populated by Kurds, the Middle East could be changed completely from borders to big oil. Apart from Iraq’s need for cohesion right now, Iraq and Turkey especially have an interest in the money to be made by Kurdish oil, which they would be letting go of if they permitted complete Kurdish independence.
This situation is a difficult one as it can be difficult to be torn between one’s country and cultural heritage. While everything is still new, it is hoped the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government may be able to bridge relations an maintain open communication in an attempt to come to a fitting compromise or transition from a united Iraq to an independent Kurdistan. Either way, Iraq has seen more than its share of bloodshed and with Turkey and Iran at its side, Kurdistan could suffer serious consequences if compromises are not made soon. Let’s hope for effective communication and solutions over more violence.