Iraq’s Kurds enjoy greater autonomy than their brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Middle East. But a drive for full independence has caused alarm across the region, writes Emile Hokayem.

Kurdish flag

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security

Today’s independence referendum in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is one more blow to the crumbling Middle East order. The post-ISIS Levant is already a theatre for low-intensity rivalries, ready to explode into fully fledged conflicts.

Iraq’s Kurds, in common with their counterparts in Syria, Turkey and Iran, have long been denied political and cultural rights and harshly repressed by central governments. But since 1991 they have benefitted from greater levels of autonomy, unlike Kurds elsewhere. They gained still more freedom after the 2003 US invasion of the country, which led to the creation of a federal state. Since then they have established a relatively safe and prosperous territory, drawing in Arabs, Yazidis and other migrants fleeing the chaos and violence that engulfed the rest of Iraq.

Under the surface, however, deep divisions among Kurds remain. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) faces political dysfunction, as well as allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Large clans dominate its politics. But the defence of statehood may well bring all Kurdish forces together. Enthusiasm for independence has been building in recent weeks, despite and perhaps because of regional and Western attempts to convince Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, to cancel or at least postpone the vote. Many Kurds feel let down by Iraq and the Middle Eastern state system, and the fight against ISIS has given them a new sense of purpose. For many, now is the right time to press for independence.

Isolation leaves Kurdistan vulnerable

The referendum is not legally binding – opening space for some courageous and much-needed diplomacy – but is still likely to alter the dynamics of the region. The KRI has few allies and many enemies. Iran, Turkey, the Iraqi central government, Iraqi Shia militias and the Syrian regime all view an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as unacceptable. The KRI is comparatively weak and vulnerable against such an array of enemies. The oil it exports goes through Turkey. Its airspace can be shut down easily. Its economy can be choked off. A blockade wouldn’t be perfect, but would inflict enough damage.

Fresh from victories against ISIS, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has condemned Barzani and the referendum in a show of authority. His words also serve to fend off accusations of weakness by his Shia rivals, who are keen to prevent Kurdish secession and to keep the oil-rich region of Kirkuk in Arab hands.

Regional states will be keen to pressure the KRI, so that they can in turn avoid similar developments on their own territory. In Syria, Turkey and the Assad regime share the goal of containing and weakening the PYD, a Kurdish militia that serves as the backbone of the US campaign against ISIS but is an affiliate of the PKK, which fights an insurgency in Turkey. Iran is worried about its own territorial integrity and that a Kurdish state in Iraq, and possibly later in Syria, will serve as a beachhead for a Western presence. Ironically and perhaps counter-productively, Israel has been the only state to publicly support the Kurdish bid.

There is significant Western sympathy for the Kurds, born from guilt, awe at their perseverance and comparative progressiveness, and gratitude for their pivotal role in the battle against ISIS. But this warmth will likely be insufficient to thwart regional attempts to punish Kurdish aspirations. If relations with Turkey and other neighbours sour, blockades are a likely consequence – with more painful measures, including military action, waiting in reserve.

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