Independence won’t be easy for Kurds

By Zou Zhiqiang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/28 21:33:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Residents of Iraq's Kurdistan region voted decisively in a referendum Monday for independence, triggering an increase of regional tension. 

Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, some 30 million people, but they have no land of their own. Kurds have long sought autonomy and independence. The independence referendum this time has provoked strong objections from Iraq's central government and its neighbors, including Turkey, Iran and Syria, and has not gained support from the international community.

The independence referendum alone does not mean Kurds can realize their goal of building up their own country, or overturn the present order in the Middle East.

However, the referendum will increase instability in the chaotic region, hugely affecting the situation there.

Present-day national boundaries in the Middle East were drawn up in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and set by other post-WWI arrangements. Kurds were separated across borders into Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. After the Second Gulf War, Kurds in northern Iraq gained a high level of autonomy and de facto independence.

Due to the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Syria, especially the development of the Islamic State, Kurds in the two countries have developed fast, offering an opportunity for them to build up their own country.

However, the referendum may trigger a civil war in Iraq and even new regional conflicts.

The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government has long endured a tense relationship with Iraq's central government. The two have confrontations over ownership of land and division of interests, which are related to national unity and territorial integrity as well as control over the rights to oil resources in the country.

Thus Iraq's central government strongly opposed the referendum, and has expressed that it will "take all measures" to safeguard national unity, enhancing the possibility of a civil war. 

In addition, Iraq's neighbors - Turkey, Iran and Syria - considering the large number of Kurds in their countries, have held a tough stance on the referendum. They are afraid the referendum will intensify their countries' separatist movements, harm national security and their territorial integrity. Turkey is most sensitive to the referendum, and has objected to it strongly.

Owing to the complexity of the Kurdish issue, the influence of the referendum will not be limited within Iraq, and neighboring countries' involvement could spill over into new regional confrontations and even wars.

There are many internal obstacles for Iraqi Kurds to realize independence.

The Kurdistan region is landlocked and therefore restricted by its geographical boundaries, and is beset by confrontations along its borders. Without support from surrounding countries, it will be difficult for Kurds to export their oil resources which they rely heavily on, even if they win independence.

Besides, there are a lot of confrontations among different parties within the region, in addition to political non-transparency and corruption, while the economy is fragile and moribund.

It will also be hard for the Iraqi Kurds to free themselves from the influences of the games among major powers and regional countries. It's not just Kurdistan's neighbors, but the international community that does not support independence for the region.

In general, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will face a more dangerous and uncertain future. It would be better for the region to maintain the status quo, get access to more land and resources, and gain understanding and support from neighboring countries and major powers, and then slowly pursue nominal independence.

It is difficult for Kurds to realize their goals of building up their own country, considering the complexities of the Middle East. The independence referendum's influence on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East will be partial and limited.

The author is an associated research fellow at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.

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