National Security

Paid in Blood: The Iraqi Kurdistan Referendum

“The prospect of an independent Kurdish state is no small matter and is likely to have large repercussions for the region. Modern Iraq, as created after World War I, will no longer exist.”

On September 25th, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq will hold an independence referendum to determine the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. The decision to hold the referendum came from an agreement between the major Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the two most prominent of which are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Reports are the ballot will be simple. One question on independence and two options: “yes” or “no”. The ballots will be printed in Sorani Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen, and Syriac (spoken almost exclusively by Christians), indicating the vote will not be restricted to just Kurds, but will be open to lawful residents of the KRG regardless of ethnicity. Additionally, the KRG is assuring diaspora Kurds of their right and ability to vote in the referendum.

The current president of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, has said the referendum is binding and “its results must be implemented,” indicating the September 25th vote is more than a mere attempt to leverage the Baghdad government and a true move toward statehood. However, Barzani also stated that while the referendum will be part of a negotiation, it will not mean the KRG will “give up on the wishes of the people.”

Even if Barzani is being a shrewd politician and using the referendum in the near term to gain greater autonomy for the KRG or to keep areas gained in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), namely Kirkuk, the result of the referendum is not inconsequential in the domestic or international realm.

The prospect of an independent Kurdish state is no small matter and is likely to have large repercussions for the region. Modern Iraq, as created after World War I, will no longer exist. The independence of Kurds in Iraq could be the first domino for Kurds in Syria, Iran, and Turkey to seek autonomy or independence for themselves. It could also begin movement of serious self-determination efforts by other minorities in the region and across the globe.

Western support could further separate Turkey from NATO at a time when Turkey is already improving its ties with Russia. Additionally, the Iranian-Russian relationship would be strengthened as Iran stands to lose not just its influence over Iraqi Kurdistan, but also parts of its own territory. On a larger scale, the transition from the KRG to an independent Kurdistan could recreate a situation in the Middle East similar to the Cold War when the US and Western allies supported and supplied Israel and the Soviets supported and supplied Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.

There are some other similarities between what the KRG may become as Kurdistan and Israel. Most notably, the similarities between the KRG and the de facto Zionist government under the British Mandate for Palestine. Prior to Israel’s independence, the Yishuv had built the political and social infrastructure necessary for statehood.

The existence of pre-state governing political and judicial bodies, foreign relations capabilities, defense and police forces, an educational system, banking, and media made the realization of the State of Israel a relatively smooth process. This can be seen in the KRG, which has created much of the same structure in Iraqi Kurdistan. Further, like the Jews in the pre-Israel era, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a national homeland.

However, certain key differences between the condition of pre-independence Israel and Kurdistan exist. Unlike Israel, the Kurds do not have a strong diaspora to draw upon for political, economic, and professional support. Additionally, there is not the religious imperative for the establishment of a Kurdish homeland. Non-Kurds will not view the establishment of Kurdistan as something to be supported based on sacred scripture.

To prepare for the referendum, this particular article is the first installment in a ten-part series that will appear on a weekly basis leading up to September 25th. The next four installments will cover the history of modern Iraqi Kurdistan. They will be examining the following: the late and post Ottoman period through the 1980s; the Iran-Iraq War, the al-Anfal Campaign, and the post-Gulf War No-Fly Zones; the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq through the emergence of the Islamic State; and the KRGs fight against the Islamic State and the expansion of the KRGs borders.

Early on in the history installments it will be important to look at the larger area of Kurdistan, but the focus will be on Iraqi Kurdistan — only venturing into Iran, Syria, and Turkey when it is necessary.

The sixth installment in the series will provide a brief history of the Peshmerga and information on its organization. The seventh installment will review the KRG’s role as a safe-haven for Iraq’s minorities, Yezidi and Christians alike. The eighth installment will look at the KRG’s domestic politics and foreign relations, covering the various political parties, but focusing on the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as well as regional and international relations.

The penultimate installment will examine economics and education, which can be deciding factors in whether the state can sustain itself and its possibility for growth and continued independence. The final installment will examine the implications of the referendum succeeding and cover any new information.

To make the articles accessible, they will be brief and focus on answering major questions, with embedded links and other references included for those who are so inclined to seek further information.

*Author’s post script: For the sake of transparency, I should state I fully support the creation of an independent Kurdish state not just in Iraq, but incorporating the regions within Syria, Iran, and Turkey that comprise Kurds majorities. I will make every effort not to white-wash the history of the Kurds or be overly “Pollyannaish” in my assessments. I should also note that my wife’s family, Iraqi Christians, have found refuge in the KRG after they fled their homes. I have also visited the KRG as a tourist.

Kenneth Depew

Kenneth Depew is retired from the U.S. Army after having served two tours in Baghdad, Iraq as an Infantryman and one tour in Kunar Province as a Human Intelligence Collector. He served on Senator Ted Cruz’s 2012 U.S. Senate election campaign and on Senator Cruz’s senate staff. He is an alumnus of the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he studied political science and philosophy and Tel Aviv University where he earned a master of arts in security and diplomacy studies.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.