Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) decided to hold an independence referendum on Sept. 25. Although voters will be asked whether they were in favor of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurds will not attain ‘independence' if the referendum passes. However, the outcome could trigger a series of developments with the potential to alter the regional balance of power.
The KRG leadership's primary goal is to ensure that the referendum passes in order to build on the decision to create a fait accompli. At the same time, Irbil wants to see where regional and global players stand on the issue of Kurdish independence. Provided that general elections will be held six weeks after the referendum, whether the electorate will vote in favor of independence could have major effects on the political landscape of northern Iraq.
In recent weeks, much has been said about the response by Turkey and Iran to Irbil's decision to hold an independence referendum. Needless to say, both Ankara and Tehran stated in no uncertain terms that they are opposed to the creation of an independent state in northern Iraq. Although the obvious way to account for their reaction is to suggest that both countries are concerned about "their own Kurds," it is crucial to look beyond this cliché. Still, many people continue to misunderstand the reasons behind the Turkish and Iranian responses. Let's make one thing clear: neither Turkey nor Iran reacts against Kurdish independence out of domestic fears or strategic foreign policy priorities.
A strong advocate of maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity, Turkey believes that the formal disintegration of its southern neighbor could create a domino effect in the Middle East. If an independent state is formed in northern Iraq, it will signal that the region's map is officially being redrawn – which, the Turks fear, could deepen regional chaos and make the Middle East more vulnerable to outside interferences. To be clear, everybody knows at this point that the U.S. is not the only country capable of intervention. In recent years, Russia emerged as an active player in the region and, based on what we have seen in Syria, Moscow has a better strategy than Washington. Under the circumstances, Kurdish independence could turn the Middle East into a battleground between Russia and the U.S. once again, as clashes between their proxies fuel further instability.
Another reason why Turkey cares about the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq is that Turkish policymakers believe that independent Kurdish entities in the two countries could lead to an unstoppable ethnic conflict between Kurds and Arabs. At this time, most Kurdish players in Iraq and Syria are desperately trying to take advantage of the situation on the ground – by which I mean the fight against Daesh. The anti-Daesh campaign opened new symbolic and real doors for Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. But efforts to use their political capital to create an independent state leaves regional players, especially the Arab community, deeply unsettled. In Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of Arabs believe that the U.S.-backed Kurdish groups have illegally seized their territories and engaged in demographic engineering at their expense. It is useful to remember that it was the same sense of social discontent that Daesh exploited to fuel its rise a few years back.
Meanwhile, at the heart of Iran's objection to Iraq's formal disintegration and the creation of an independent Kurdish state lies Tehran's fear that it will lose its influence over Baghdad – which could undermine the expansionist campaign it led since the U.S. withdrawal. For the Iranians, the situation in Syria looks quite similar. In the wake of the Syrian civil war, Iran became the most influential regional power in the conflict-ridden country. Resorting to hard power in Syria and Iraq, Tehran believes an independent Kurdish state could pose serious challenges to its foreign policy. It is perhaps therefore that the U.S. appears to support Kurdish independence in an attempt to counter-balance the Iranians.
Here's a quick reminder though: just as Washington's flawed Iraq policy gave rise to Iranian expansionism over the past decade, so too could an investment in Kurdish independence for the sake of stopping Iran lead to irreparable damage.