Opposition to a referendum on Kurdish statehood has united some unlikely allies. UN Secretary General António Guterres and Brett McGurk, the American head of the military coalition fighting ISIS, claim that the contentious poll on 25 September will distract from the battle against the jihadi group. Meanwhile, Iran, Turkey, and the central government in Baghdad have fielded bellicose rhetoric and ominous military exercises, threatening violence if the referendum goes ahead. UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has flown to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to attempt to convince senior leaders to suspend the vote. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the only leader to have publicly backed the Kurds’ right to self-determination.
But why are the great and good of international diplomacy so concerned about the fate of a semi-autonomous patch of northern Iraq, home to 5 million and a temporary refuge for a further 2 million fleeing conflict and jihadi terror? Alongside its critical geopolitical position at the juncture of Arab, Persian, and Turkic spheres of influence, Kurdistan’s outsize role on the world stage is due to a number of intersecting political, religious, and ethnic factors.
The first is Kurdistan’s major role in combatting ISIS in northern Iraq. After the evaporation of Iraqi forces in the area since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a ‘caliphate’ across Iraq and Syria in June 2014, the Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s fighting force, were one of the most effective actors in the battle against ISIS, effectively dispelling the illusion of the group’s invincibility. This leadership role gained worldwide recognition, and Kurdish forces received substantial support from international militaries, including those of the UK, US, and Germany.
Erbil, only 50 miles from Mosul, has been an international hub for the anti-ISIS coalition. For three years, Kurdish troops have sustained a 650-mile front along their region’s borders, which have served as the easternmost frontier of contiguous ISIS expansion. Peshmerga fighters were instrumental in key contests against ISIS, such as the Battle of Sinjar, which freed the besieged Yezidi community, and the recapture of Mosul, in coordination with Iraqi and international forces.
But the region is not resting on its laurels. Kurdistan is attempting to present itself as a model for countering extremism, promoting reconciliation between religious groups, and building resilient communities, to address the systemic issues and grievances that ISIS drew on to bolster its support. As such, the forthcoming referendum will have a major bearing on regional efforts to prevent the emergence of another ISIS as its territory dwindles, learning from previous incarnations and reincarnations of the group in Iraq.
Kurdistan has historically viewed itself as pluralistic and prides itself on cultural co-existence and respect for religious freedom. But the region’s relative multiculturalism also poses difficult questions about intercommunal relations, legislative representation, and complicity in extremist violence. Kurdistan is home to considerable minority populations, including Yezidis, Sabean-Mandeans, Shabaks, and Christians, most of whom are refugee communities on the brink of extinction after a systematic genocidal campaign of ISIS violence. Despite the region’s Sunni-majority demographic, Iraqi Kurds have always contrasted themselves with the sectarianism of some of their Sunni Arab and pro-Iranian Shia neighbours. Kurdish demographics make the region a crucial broker in a fragile regional order, where many local and international actors jostle for soft and hard influence in the vacuum to be left by the imminent military defeat of ISIS in the Levant. Fears over the breakup of Iraq along sectarian lines demonstrate the importance of Kurdistan in this fine balancing act.
However, an important ethnic dimension also underpins the many eyes trained on Kurdistan. The referendum has raised fears of fomenting nationalist sentiment among Kurds in neighbouring countries and of bolstering calls for a ‘greater Kurdistan’ that encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iran, as well as Iraq. Despite being a recurring motif since the division of the Ottoman Middle East after the First World War, this reality is unlikely in the immediate term, given disagreements among Kurdish groups, particularly over tactics and politics. The campaign of domestic terror by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Marxist vision of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria stand in contrast to the social democratic consensus of Iraqi Kurdish politics.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has distanced itself from this eventuality to assuage the concerns of Turkey, a major trading partner for Kurdistan’s burgeoning oil economy and an early backer of Kurdish autonomy from Baghdad. Iran, although wary of potential separatism within its relatively assimilated Kurdish community, is more concerned by the creation of a pro-Western state on its border. Meanwhile, the future of Syria’s Kurdish protostate of Rojava depends entirely on what political settlement, if any, will resolve Syria’s devastating conflict after the ejection of ISIS from its de facto capital, Raqqa.
The implications of Kurdistan’s referendum result, which is expected to be an overwhelming endorsement of independence, will take years to materialise. However, in the wake of the retreat of ISIS, growing Iranian influence, and the gradual return of unprecedented numbers of refugees, the importance of Iraqi Kurdistan as an internationalist and disruptive force in the regional order will only increase. Discussions about Kurdish statehood must be approached not in an adversarial, zero-sum frame but in a manner that builds on a regional success story and helps to build a model for co-existence and prosperity for the Middle East.