Tension over Kurdistan

The referendum is highly important for both sides, those for and those against.

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Dr. Mordechai Kedar,

Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Eliran Aharon

This past Monday close to 7 million Kurdish citizens of Iraq, cast their votes in a referendum consisting of one question only: Do you support a declaration of independence on the part of the Kurds in Iraq?  The voting was widespread, with 80% of eligible voters going to the polls. It is clear that the question is seen as vital to a large majority of Kurds, leading them to go out to vote.

From a practical point of view, the Kurds have been trying to advance their independence for 25 years, ever since the world forbade Saddam Hussein's air force from flying over their territory. They have developed a legitimate, democratic, organized and fair government over the past two and a half decades, as well as a disciplined top level army that proved its mettle against ISIS in Mosul. They have responsible media which portray both sides of the controversy and in general are a tranquil society with  no internal violence, a  successful economy based on oil and related products.

The referendum is highly important for both sides, those for and those against.  Supporters want to live in a Kurdish national home with all their hearts, like the French, Dutch, Egyptians, Israelis and the rest of the nations of the world do. They intend to create independence de jure from de facto independence, including international recognition. Their main motivation is national pride and pride in their achievements during these last 25 years, but the memory of the wars waged against them by Iraq in the 20th century plays a part. Lurking in the background is the historic hostility between Kurds and Arabs.

Those opposed to a declaration of independence worry mainly about the price Iraqi Kurdistan may be forced to pay for doing so, because its neighbors – Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, Syria to the west and  Iraq to the south – have declared their total opposition to the holding of a referendum, let alone a declaration of independence.  Turkey threatens war and has concentrated forces on its border with Kurdish territory, despite years of economic cooperation with the Kurds. The Kurds export their oil by way of Turkey, paying enormous sums for that service. Declaring war against the Kurds may well end that cooperation, affecting the "wayward" Kurds' economy for the worse.

Another painful price that might have to be paid is an air and sea blockade. Iraqi Kurdistan has no access to the sea, and all its relations with the outside world – people and goods – must take place by way of the air and sea space of Iran, Turkey or Syria. If those countries decide on a blockade and continue to stand by that decision for any length of time, it is hard to see how the Kurds could run a proper national life, certainly not economically.

The reason these countries oppose Kurdish independence is the fact that each one of them, especially Iran, harbors a  Kurdish minority as well as other ethnic groups.  If the Iraqi Kurds succeed in creating a viable state, other minorities will demand independence and the Kurds among them might even try to form a large Kurdish federation or a state that unites with the Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Turks see this demand as a strategic danger to their existence, as there are Kurds in every city in Turkey, living mostly in their own neighborhoods, in addition to the Kurdish region of southwestern Turkey. An internal war between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority has been going on for a century. It is sometimes extremely violent, with terror attacks in urban areas, and sometimes simmers on a low burner.  Erdogan tried to put an end to the warring several years ago, but his efforts only angered the nationalist Turks who endanger his throne, so he went back to limiting himself to negative rhetoric aimed at the Turkish Kurds

Erdogan fears that a declaration of war on his part against the Iraqi Kurds will lead to an outbreak of Turkish terror against his regime, while a non-declaration will lead the Turkish Kurds to demand independence. If he does - or doesn't - give in to their demands they may start a new wave of  terror against the Turkish regime.  Erdogan feels he is trapped and this drives him crazy, so that he keeps coming out with pronouncements, some of them over the top, against the referendum.

The Kurds in Iran demand their country recognize a Kurdish state in Iraq after the referendum. They certainly know that Iran will never do that, because recognizing a Kurdish state will awaken, in addition to the Kurds in Iran, all the other minorities to the possibility. This includes the Balouchi, Azari, Arabs, and many more and might bring the artificial Iranian state to an end becauase only half the people in Iran are Persian. Unsurprisingly, this week Iran declared that its airspace is closed to plans to and from the Kurdish area of Iraq. It may be followed by others. 

Syria, embroiled for a long while in unending struggles and  war to keep its country unified under Assad's illegitimate regime, is also opposed to a Kurdish state, viewing it as a negative move for Syria. Arab Iraq is opposed to independence for the Kurds in the country because most of the rich oil deposits are in that region.

The regional opposition and threats to wage war against Kurdish Iraq have led European nations, the USA and Russia to be concerned that an needless war may break out, while the entire world is trying to put an end to what is left of ISIS's state and everyone wants the benefit of Pesh Merga's military prowess and the experience it gained during the battle  for Mosul.

Israel, in contrast to all the nations in the world, seems to be the only country which supports a Kurdish state in Iraq and on the ruins of Iran. Israel will assuredly not be against adding the Kurds in Syria and  possibly those in Turkey to a new Kurdish state. The establishment of a Kurdish state is an act of historic justice to a  people divided into three by the European powers in order to serve their interests and not for the benefit of the indigenous people in each region where those powers established a state to run the affairs of its citizens

From this forum, I send the Iraqi Kurds my best wishes for success in gaining independence and for the wisdom to handle the relations with their neighbors in a way that benefits everyone. I send the  the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iran the same wishes. And wish everyone a happy new year.

Translation from Hebrew: Rochel Sylvetsky