How the Middle East will respond to the Kurdish vote for independence

How the Middle East will respond to the Kurdish vote for independence

A referendum on the independence of was held in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday. After counting 3.44 million ballots, it turned out that more than 90% voted for independence. Right now Kurdish Autonomous Region has a broad autonomy status within Iraq. Today Iraqi parliament approved prosecution of people responsible for holding Kurdish referendum on independence. Massoud Barzani, head of Iraqi Kurdistan, is among those who is affected by it.

As Forbes writes in an article "How The Middle East Will Respond To The Kurdish Vote For Independence", the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) referendum on Kurdish independence received exceptionally high turnout today. About five million people were expected to head to the polls and vote on whether the ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq should seek independence from Baghdad. Kurds with Iraqi citizenship currently living in the diaspora began voting as early as September 23. Turnout was reported at 78%. All expect the vote count will reveal a decision in favor of independence. The question read, “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?” Because of the diversity of the ethnic Kurds, the referendum was printed in several languages: Kurdish, Turkmen, Arabic and Assyrian.

Historical Context

After World War I, at the San Remo Conference and Cairo Conference, European powers divided much of the Middle East and determined borders. Previously, most of the territory had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which was defeated in World War I and subsequently collapsed. The modern states of Jordan (then called Trans-Jordan), Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were formed with essentially the same borders they have today. These four countries have long seen sectarian, ethnic and national conflicts. Some of the non-state participants in these conflicts have included Maronite Christians, Druze, the PLO, Alawites, ISIS, Baathists, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and, of course, Kurds. Despite these conflicts, the borders of these countries have remained essentially static – until now. 

Market Impacts

The aftermath of the referendum could have major economic, diplomatic and geostrategic implications . Oil markets are nervous about new threats from Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan to cut off the Ceyhan pipeline that handles the majority of Kurdish oil exports. Oil markets appear to be taking Erdogan seriously, as the price of Brent crude rose about 3.8% to hit a two-year highat $59.01 per barrel. The government of Iraq also tried to use the oil market to threaten the Kurdish government. 

On September 24, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked foreign countries to halt direct oil imports from the KRG and to only purchase Iraqi oil from the Iraqi government. Stymieing Kurdish oil could remove approximately 600,000 barrels per day from the market and push oil prices even higher. However, neither Ankara nor Baghdad has made a move to actually restrict Kurdish oil exports by force.

Strategic Implications

There are reports that Iran closed its border with the Kurdish region at the request of Baghdad, although Iran has denied these reports and stated that it only halted all air traffic to KRG-controlled areas in Iraq.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps also stated its intentions to conduct “war games” on Iran’s border with the KRG. Turkey also began similar military exercises on its border with the Kurdish region in Iraq. It has taken additional steps, such as blocking several Kurdish television channels from airing on Turkish television. Erdogan also delivered a thinly veiled threat to invade northern Iraq.

Threatening military action, however, has proven useless against the Kurds , whose forces, the Peshmerga, have defended the Kurdish area from a variety of enemies, including Islamic State, for years. 

Masoud Barzani responded to Iran and Turkey during a rally in Erbil with steadfast determination. “Either we live a life of subordination, or a free life,” he toldsupporters. The Peshmerga, he said, will be ready to “pay whatever cost” and “die with honor,” if that is what is required for Kurdish independence. To Iran and Turkey, Barzani said  “You have punished us for 100 years. Are you not tired yet?”

Barzani has other weapons at his disposal if the Iraqi government in Baghdad takes any economic or military actions again the Kurds. By virtue of its control over the northern part of the Tigris River, the KRG controls the water resources for central and southern Iraq and has, in the past, threatened to cut off this source of water when it felt the Iraqi government had not followed through on promises to the KRG.

Will Turkey, Iran, Iraq and even the United Nations truly have the wherewithal to use the kind of military and economic power that will be necessarily to deny the Kurds their right to national self-determination?

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