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Kurdistan Rising

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What Next for Kurdistan?

October 1st 2017

Kurdistan Map

Calling a referendum on Kurdish independence in Iraq was the easy part. The difficulty after the vote on September 25th concerns the route ahead. The vote took place in the three provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan, and in the contiguous Iraqi regions that Kurdish forces took from Islamic State (IS). It was a resounding success for the pro-independence movement, with the electoral commission claiming that 93% of the 3.3m votes cast were in favour.

But though billed as a step towards statehood, the result is non-binding. Iraqi leaders, who had previously agreed to negotiations on the status of the territory, now reject them on the grounds that the referendum was unilateral, unconstitutional and divisive. On September 29th the Iraqi government stopped international flights from using the airport in Erbil. Iraq’s neighbours are also vowing to torpedo any Kurdish attempt to go it alone. Iran has stopped flights to the region and Turkey has closed one of its crossings to the landlocked territory, which relies heavily on imports.

Western countries, fearing that the broader alliance against IS could unravel, have said they will not rush to the Kurds’ defence. As they aspire to statehood, could the Iraqi Kurds—as Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister in Baghdad, has threatened to ensure—now lose everything?

Spanning four countries and numbering 30m, Kurds have sought their own state for almost 140 years. In 1880 Sheikh Ubaydullah al-Nahri, a religious and tribal chief, led a group of tribes called the Kurdish League in a revolt on the borderlands between the Ottoman and Persian empires. In 1925, aggrieved by a carve-up of the Ottoman empire that gave the Kurds nothing, another leader, Sheikh Said, led a Kurdish rebellion against the nascent Turkish republic. In 1946 Mustafa Barzani helped declare an independent Kurdish republic in Mahabad, in north-west Iran. Thereafter he and his son, Masoud Barzani (pictured), the current president of the Kurdish enclave in Iraq, sparred repeatedly with Saddam Hussein for more powers. But their fledgling state always collapsed, thanks to military offensives led by Arabs, Turks or Persians, and the withholding of recognition by global powers.

As IS’s self-styled caliphate crumbles, the question of what comes after it hangs over the Middle East. Mr Barzani has acted to prevent a return to the status quo ante, in which there was no Kurdish state. But his push for independence seems motivated as much by his own needs as by his people’s. Iraqi Kurdistan has scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections for November, and Mr Barzani fears for his political future. He has already served the maximum number of terms. His officials say that given the referendum’s messy aftermath the ballot could now be postponed. (The result of the vote does not necessarily mean that independence will soon be declared; it may just strengthen Mr Barzani’s bargaining position.) It has already provided a useful distraction from the region’s internal woes. Kurds enjoy more autonomy in Iraq than anywhere else in the region, but the local economy is a shambles. Despite Mr Barzani’s appropriation of Kirkuk and its oil wealth, government employees receive about half the pay of those in the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan’s farming industry has been hit by the conscription of peasants into the security forces. Millions of Iraqi Sunni Arabs who had found a haven in Kurdistan during the war on IS are now heading home. And it may get much worse. Turkey could turn off Kurdistan’s only pipeline, preventing the territory from exporting oil, and order the 1,300 Turkish companies working in the enclave to leave. Expats fear being trapped inside Kurdistan if Iraq closes its airspace.

If Kurdistan pursues unilateral independence, it risks becoming a short-lived, one-party state, not a new democracy at peace. Turkey and Iran have threatened to react forcibly to any move, lest the fragmentation of their own multi-ethnic states follow Iraq’s. Fearing the collapse of another regional bulwark against Iran, Israel and some of the Gulf’s emirates might offer the Kurds military support. As skirmishes intensify, the Americans too might intervene, to prop up a strategic enclave they have protected since 1991 and reassure Kurds fighting IS in Syria. Urged on by Iran, Iraq and its various state-financed Shia militias could take the other side. Fighting for re-election in April, Mr Abadi might try to rebut accusations that he toppled IS only to cede land to a Kurdish state—by launching a battle for Kirkuk’s oil fields. Just when the region had hoped to calm its sectarian differences, its ethnic fault lines are likely to reopen. In their broad alignment against IS, the Americans and Iranians, as well as their local allies, the Kurds and Iraq’s Arabs, all have been engaged on the same side. That could now change.

Update (September 29th): This article was updated to reflect the decision made by the Iraqi government to stop foreign flights from using the airport in Erbil.


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