Barzani ignored these blandishments and gleefully announced on Sept. 27 that with a 72-percent turnout, 92 percent of voters opted for freedom. Al-Abadi has affirmed the primacy of Iraqi unity, while Turkey and Iran are conducting military maneuvers at the borders. Only Israel has supported Kurdish aspirations for independence.
The Kurds total about 30 million in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and are perhaps the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own. There is also evidence of sustained neglect of their political, economic and cultural interests in all the states where they live as minorities.
The 1991 Gulf War led to the setting up of the KRG in northern Iraq. With its capital in Irbil, it enjoys a high degree of autonomy, with its own assembly, government and army, even as Kurds hold senior positions in the federal government.
The dominant view about Barzani’s motive behind the referendum is that with the Iraqi government and army distracted by the war on Daesh, he is using the vote to bolster his sagging popularity, grab as much disputed territory as possible and reassert his authoritarian rule in the region. The disputed areas are Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin, which have mixed ethnic populations but which the KRG claims as part of its domain.
The most coveted jewel for the Kurdish crown is Kirkuk, which has 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves and the country’s richest agricultural land, both of which would be crucial for a free Kurdistan. The city, now under Kurdish control, has a mixed Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish population and rising ethnic tensions.
The KRG’s claims over the disputed areas will almost certainly be questioned. There are already reports that the Iran-influenced Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) are speeding up mop-up operations against Daesh and moving to challenge Kurdish control over Kirkuk, setting the stage for a bloody confrontation.
Given the opposition from the central government and neighbors, the outlook for an independent Kurdistan is grim. KRG territories are landlocked, with the area getting 92 percent of its needs from its neighbors. Its main source of income is from oil exports of about 650,000 barrels per day, but its sole pipeline passes through Turkey, which is also the major buyer of its oil.
The KRG is dependent on contributions from the federal budget, which generously provides it with 17 percent of the central revenues. Amid hostility with Baghdad and its neighbors, the KRG will hardly seem an attractive destination for international aid and investment, and could even face an economic blockade via closure of its pipeline, airports and borders.
There is every likelihood that Kurdish dreams of freedom could soon turn into a nightmare of competition and conflict, and that the referendum will form one more chapter in their history of rising hope and rapid betrayal.
Both Iran and Turkey, with large restive Kurdish populations of their own, can now be expected to cooperate to neutralize the urge for freedom emerging from Irbil.
Another emerging area of contention will be Syria, where the US-sponsored, mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are poised to set up their homeland Rojava along the Turkish border. Ankara has made known its opposition to this development: Its troops have already entered Syria to divide Rojava, setting up the possibility of a military confrontation with the SDF.
The role of the US and Israel in this imbroglio is uncertain. While the US has made strong statements against the referendum, some commentators believe that Barzani could not have persisted with it without tacit US support.
A writer for Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper has described the US as the “true ruler” in the KRG, and highlights its interest in maintaining a “permanent and guaranteed military presence inside Kurdistan,” which would give it an attractive base to watch and manipulate events in Iran.
The Kurds seem to believe that US and Israeli backing will help realize their aspirations for statehood in Iraq and Syria. But determined opposition from Iran and Turkey will reveal the true extent and effectiveness of this support. There is every likelihood that Kurdish dreams of freedom could soon turn into a nightmare of competition and conflict, and that the referendum will form one more chapter in their history of rising hope and rapid betrayal.
• Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.