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The geopolitics of Kurdish independence

One week since the Kurdish independence vote, regional stakeholders need a more innovative policy toward the question of Kurdish independence in Iraq to prevent this powder keg from exploding

One week after Iraqi Kurds held their independence referendum, the geopolitical blowback has been swift and near unanimous. The United States has called the referendum illegitimate. Iran, Turkey,and Syria have also rejected the move, each taking action to push back against what they consider an unacceptable precedent. The outlier backing an independent Kurdistan? Israel.

The largest cumulative recipient of American foreign assistance since World War II is actively working against Washington’s interests that converge with Tehran, Ankara and Damascus. This begs the question: What is driving the geopolitical responses to Kurdish independence? Three points highlight the stakes.

The domino effect

First, and perhaps self-explanatory, is that an independent Kurdistan on their respective borders threatens to destabilise Kurdish populations in Iran, Turkey, and Syria.

Some Iranian Kurds reportedly celebrated the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Turkish and Syrian government struggles with their own Kurdish communities have been well documented. All three fear the domino effect that independence for Iraqi Kurds could trigger. 

Iran and Turkey have also learned the hard way that fragmentation begets instability leaking across borders. Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees have fled to Iran, and Afghan refugees in Iran number in the millions. Unofficial estimates put the number in both countries much higher.

If the Kurdish push for independence in Iraq succeeds, Israel gets another friend in a region where it does not have many

For its part, Turkey’s porous border policy during much of the war in Syria has contributed to a massive influx of refugees, as well as blowback. The political, economic and security effects of such instability further complicate the fragile domestic politics that presidents Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are dealing with.

Second, Washington sees these aforementioned trends as a convergence of interests with Tehran, Ankara and Damascus. The United States does not want or need another fight on its hands in the Middle East as it haphazardly tries to confront Iran, de-escalate tensions in the Saudi-Emirati siege on Qatar, and fight Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

A unified Iraq maximises the ability of all parties to project their respective power. Breaking Iraq into two states – or three, if Iraqi Sunnis follow suit – will require America, Iran, Turkey and Syria to at least double their resource expenditure and heighten their already volatile threat perceptions.

Photo: Kurds celebrate to show their support for the upcoming independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq, on 22 September 2017 (Reuters)

Moreover, America has also invested record amounts of blood and treasure in Iraq (as well as its broader “war on terror”), with little to show for its efforts.

Iraq will likely remain a political, economic, and security mess for a generation; over 90 percent of young Iraqis view America as their enemy and some Iraqis think life was better under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Fragmenting the Iraqi state would only further highlight the obvious: America’s 2003 invasion was the strategic mistake of a generation with a seemingly never-ending tail of consequence.

Double standards

Finally, Washington, Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus oppose redrawing the map of the Middle East – in Iraqi Kurdistan or elsewhere – because they are not seeking more territory.

Redrawing borders according to the myriad longstanding grievances of minority communities opens a Pandora’s box that threatens the stability of all stakeholders – except, apparently, one. It is not a coincidence that Israel is pushing for Kurdish independence in Iraq, regardless of the double standard that it exposes regarding Tel Aviv’s distaste for Palestinian self-determination.

Kurdish grievances are understandable, but the referendum exacerbates rather than remedies the crisis of political, economic and social coexistence in Iraq. 

Such a pursuit is a low-cost gambit for Israel: supporting the referendum entails zero cost because Washington is either unwilling or unable to hold Tel Aviv accountable for its intransigence.

If the Kurdish push for independence in Iraq succeeds, Israel gets another friend in a region where it does not have many. It also divides a once powerful foe in Iraq – a country that is in part controlled by the Netanyahu government’s number one obsession: Iran. Weakening Baghdad and Tehran in one fell swoop has been a part of Tel Aviv’s zero-sum regional goals for over two decades.  

Looking ahead, all parties involved will need a more innovative policy toward the question of Kurdish independence in Iraq to prevent this powder keg from exploding.

With America, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria – as well as the UN Security Council – opposing the referendum, the question is not whether they will press the Kurds, but rather the degree of vigour and coordination they choose to apply while doing so. The more united they are, the less impact Israel’s go-it-alone approach will have.

Unilateral steps

Iran, Iraq and Syria know first-hand the impact of collective punishment that sanctions produce. This alone should push them to work with America and Turkey to adopt a collaborative, calibrated approach that sends a clear message to Iraqi Kurds and their leadership: taking unilateral steps to divide Iraq and create facts on the ground could undo their advances over the past 25 years.

However, they should also simultaneously communicate an off-ramp for the Kurds to utilise for de-escalation: following the Iraqi constitution and referring to the Supreme Court when it has disputes with the federal government.

Often times, geopolitics comes down to leverage. As they push for independence, Iraqi Kurds and their supporters in Tel Aviv have little when compared to their counterparts in Baghdad, Washington, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus. Kurdish grievances are understandable, but the referendum exacerbates rather than remedies the crisis of political, economic and social coexistence in Iraq.

The fight against IS produced a greater degree of unity amongst Shia, Sunni and Kurd. Leveraging that shared threat perception into a mutually agreed upon social contract based on security is the only foundation that can provide durable peace to the Kurds, their Shia and Sunni brethren, and the international community.

Reza Marashi joined the National Iranian American Council in 2010 as the organisation’s first research director. He came to NIAC after serving in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the US Department of State. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets. Follow Reza on Twitter: @rezamarashi

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A photo taken on April 06, 2015 shows Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (R) being welcomed by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq (AFP)

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