09/08/2017, 18.03
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The Kurdistan referendum and the threats to peace in the Middle East

by Luca Galantini

The referendum set for 25 September calls for the region’s independence from Iraq. All major powers as well as Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq oppose it. The dream of a Kurdish nation state emerged at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Now many fear a domino effect across the Middle East.

Milan (AsiaNews) – On 25 September, Kurdistan, Iraq’s Kurdish-majority autonomous region, will hold a referendum on independence from the central government in Baghdad.

Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), wants full political sovereignty and independence for a future Kurdish state. But this goes against the explicit "no" of the major powers and Kurdistan’s neighbouring states.

Despite disagreements and often conflicts over the Middle East’s geopolitical framework or their own character – democratic, theocratic, authoritarian – these countries – the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syria – unusually agree on preventing Barzani’s goal.

Iraqi Kurdistan de facto exercises broad political autonomy from Iraq’s central government. It has its own bureaucratic apparatus and armed forces, the peshmergas. The latter contributed decisively to the defeat of the terrorist so-called Islamic State. Kurdistan has a capital – Erbil – and huge oil wealth that represents 50 per cent of Iraq’s production, including the disputed city of Kirkuk, which wants to be part of Kurdistan.

The referendum on Kurdish independence is likely to become the first major international political crisis in the Middle East after that provoked by the Islamic State.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressly criticised Barzani's decision, expressing hope that Kurdistan will find an arrangement with the federal government under Iraq’s 2005 Constitution.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also said that the referendum over Kurdistan's independence was a mistake. Pragmatically, he noted the security risks to neighbouring states posed by Iraqi Kurdistan secession.

The fact is Kurdistan represents a historic, political, and economic issue that is not easy to solve today.

The legitimate ambition of the Kurdish people to have their own nation state dates back to the end of World War I when the winning powers recognised the Kurdish people in the 1920s Treaty of Sèvres, and their right to their own state in eastern Anatolia out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Until then, the Kurds – who descend from the ancient Medes – had been subjects of Turkey.

Faced with a bellicose nationalist Turkey created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire under the secular and pro-western regime of Kemal Ataturk, western powers signed the Treaty of Lausanne, which divided up Kurdish lands between the new states of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq as well as Iran.

Since then, the region’s 50 million Kurds have been split between these states, as more or less large minorities aspiring to national reunification. This unsolved historical problem is at the roots of the region’s political problems today. Indeed, any declaration of independence by the KRG could undoubtedly trigger a domino effect, stimulating the aspirations for independence of other Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

Unfortunately, the federal or decentralised system envisaged by Iraq’s 2005 Constitution after the fall of the despot Saddam Hussein was not very effective. The idea of ​​dividing the state into three administrative regions along ethnic and religious lines (Kurds, Shias and Sunnis) has reignited local tensions and Iraq’s Federal Government in Baghdad has not shown itself able to counterbalance centrifugal thrusts in these regions.

Iran’s six million Kurds are mostly Sunni. After the establishment of the ayatollahs’ theocratic regime in 1979, they have led an intense political campaign for autonomy. This has triggered harsh repression by the central government in Tehran, with more than 10,000 dead.

Iran’s theocratic regime is very suspicious of Kurdish aspirations for independence. The latter could not only challenge the Islamic Republic’s territorial integrity, but also prove an obstacle to Iran’s policy towards the Mediterranean and Syria via the Hezbollah movement.

By far, the worst nightmare is that of Turkey's autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since most Kurdish-inhabited land is part of Turkey: some 250,000 km with about 15 million inhabitants.

In Turkey, the Kurdistan independence movement constitutes the main political opposition to Ankara's centralist regime. For decades, this has entailed a struggle aimed at the legal recognition of Kurdish identity and language. The various regimes that have ruled in Ankara, including Erdogan's, have been highly nationalistic and authoritarian, and have never shown any openness to dialogue.

Nevertheless, the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people to their historical, ethnic and cultural identity in the form of a nation state runs up against the realpolitik of foreign and international politics in the Middle East region.

The birth of a Kurdish state could be the cause of a new civil war in Iraq, pitting Shias against Sunnis. It could further weaken Syria’s fragile political institutions as a result of territorial losses, and would stir up Kurdish regions in Turkey and Iran.

The rights of the Kurdish people could instead be guaranteed by in an international conference that would ensure the peaceful coexistence of ethnic and religious groups in the same area. Experience teaches that nurturing nationalism in the Middle East contributes only to pouring fuel onto fire.

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