By Emma Dahill
All across the globe there is evidence that nationalist movements are on the rise. The most famous example is, of course, the Brexit vote, but that is far from the only one. In many European countries, including Germany, Italy, France, and others, populist political movements are gaining support. But what happens to nationalist movements that aren’t tied to existing states? That is the question that has brought the Kurdish people to the place they are today. As a group of people, bound by common heritage but divided by geopolitical borders, the issue of Kurdish autonomy has remained unresolved. This matter has resulted in numerous bloody confrontations over the years – and just last month it led to a referendum for independence. The future of the Kurds remains uncertain, in spite of their peaceful vote. Yet one thing remains clear, the Kurds are not willing to remain divided and powerless to dictate what lies ahead.
The history of the Kurdish people has not been one of harmonious existence. For nearly a century, the Kurds have sought to gain autonomy in order to bring an end to the marginalization and persecution that they have faced. In the early twentieth century, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, arbitrary borders were drawn to create the Middle East as it is known today. The nations established by this mandate represented different cultures and ethnicities, but that was not fully considered when these geopolitical divisions were constructed. Thus, the Kurds were dispersed into four separate countries, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Although the Kurdish people remain geographically connected, as well as bound by common culture, they have been forced by larger world powers into an artificial multinational construct. The Kurdish people are instead joined together through shared race, language, and heritage, but separated by the borders of four countries. Despite being the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds have had their autonomy denied – leading to a series of clashes with existing authorities. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein conducted the mass killing of thousands of Kurds. Subsequently, Iraqi Kurds were driven into Turkey to flee brutality and persecution, thus provoking the United States to impose a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq to protect the Kurds. Over the years, various programs have been aimed at displacing the Kurdish people from their homelands and bringing an end to their political influence. However, current instability in the region has provided the Kurds with the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to hold a referendum and move towards eventual autonomy.
There is no question that the state of the Middle East is incredibly turbulent. Unstable governments and violent civil wars have created a power vacuum in which extremist groups have seized power and influence. In light of these circumstances, the rise of Kurdish nationalism is not a surprising result. However, the referendum held on September 25, 2017 in Iraq has pushed this group of people one step closer to autonomy. 93% of the votes were in favor of independent statehood, but the ultimate outcome is yet to be determined. Iraqi leadership has rejected the results on the basis of unconstitutionality, claiming the Kurds held a unilateral vote. The Iraqi government even shut down flights in and out of the Kurdish region in Iraq, effectively punishing them for holding the vote. In the face of the referendum outcome, surrounding nations have threatened the use of force if actions are taken towards unifying the Kurds under a new nation. The prospect of a true Kurdistan threatens the power and influence of Turkey and Iran, thereby throwing them into a state of panic. Both countries have assured retaliation in the event of further action towards independence. Turkish president, Erdogan, promised to intervene militarily and cut off oil flow between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Turkey. Iran, although historically able to preserve better relations with the Iraqi Kurds, have also promised to intervene in light of the possibility of Iranian Kurdish steps towards independence. International reaction has been less than positive as countries around the world fear the potentially destabilizing repercussions this vote could have on the entire region. The Kurdish fighters have been crucial in the fight against ISIL. The United States sees them as a key ally in the fight against terror, yet the current US administration denounced the referendum as a move that will further complicate the region. Further political instability in the Middle East could work to potentially benefit terror groups in the region. Amidst all these reactions, the reality of the results of the referendum remains precarious.
Only time will tell if this referendum will bring about validation for the Kurdish people. The consequences of Kurdish independence and ensuing statehood could destabilize an already tumultuous region of the globe or create a strong nation of people who have struggled to define themselves since World War I. The Kurdish people have a rich history and culture that, up to this point, has been subjugated and oppressed. They have been denied autonomy and recognition, in spite of their contribution to the fight against ISIL. They deserve their own place in history, yet the circumstances of today’s world are such that independence could breed disaster.