The announcement by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in June that the referendum for Iraqi-Kurdistan independence would take place on September 25, 2017 didn’t garner much international attention. However, for the Kurdish community, both in the region and across the globe, this was incredible. The referendum, which has repeatedly been cancelled due to international pressure and domestic conflict, was finally going to occur. The six-year long Syrian Civil War and the overflow of conflict across its borders have created both tribulation and opportunity for the Kurdish people. Although financially taxing on Iraqi-Kurdistan, the successes of the Peshmerga (the KRG’s regional militia) and their subsequent occupation of previously Iraqi-held territory, have emboldened the Kurds. The referendum was the culmination of centuries of oppression and resistance in the quest for statehood. Despite this, the celebration following the overwhelmingly positive 92% vote in favor didn’t feel like the celebration it should have been.
Hundreds of thousands gathered in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region, waving flags in celebration of this long awaited moment — not to mention the support received from the Kurdish diaspora in cities across the globe. Yet, it comes at a time when Iraqi-Kurdistan is struggling; the cost of housing 1.8 million refugees and increased military costs, coupled with falling oil revenues, have all contributed to an ongoing financial crisis that began in 2015. The average Iraqi-Kurd is struggling.
Now it seems that Iraqi-Kurds will face even more hardships. Turkey and Iran have been particularly hostile towards the vote, believing it may inspire their own Kurdish minorities to seek independence. Tehran has temporarily halted oil product shipments to the KRG and international flights to Erbil have been suspended by Baghdad following the results. Turkey has also threatened to cut off the KRG’s oil exports that travel from the landlocked region to Turkey’s port of Ceyhan. However, as of September 29th, this trade remains unaffected, as doing so would also hurt Turkish coffers. Internally, many see the referendum as a power grab by the long-
term incumbent Massoud Barzani, who had ignored democratic institutions by twice extending his tenure and has repeatedly been accused of corruption and pocketing oil revenues. Many see Barzani as seizing upon the recent nationalist surge emerging from the Kurdish fight against ISIS, and using it to remove attention from the abuses of his government and the KRG’s fumbling economy, and onto the essential Kurdish quest for independence. Today, the Middle East could see the birth of another civil war as the KRG finds itself surrounded by enemies and without allies in their little landlocked nation.
Whatever the outcome of this flashpoint, it is still a momentous result for the Kurdish people, who have come so far in their centuries-long fight for independence. Despite the amazing enthusiasm from the Kurds, it’s difficult to not feel cynical in these times of change. The quotidian death, destruction, and displacement occurring in Syria risks becoming the status quo in the region. The optimism for democracy and self-governance that resulted from the Arab Spring is slowly being crushed beneath the successful autocrats of the Middle East. Even if the Iraqi-
Kurds are successful in their bid for independence, they may not be successful in their bid for a democratic state.