Kurdistan Referendum Fallout

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The secession referendum recently held by the Iraqi Kurdistan region is still sending shockwaves throughout the region while Israel's endorsement is raising suspicions about a possible Israeli scenario.

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Narration: Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region has antagonized Baghdad and governments in all neighboring countries. Kurdistan’s recent secession referendum has proved to be a serious bone of contention and a blow to regional stability. It has raised regional tensions and triggered punitive measures against the northern Iraqi region. By sticking to its separation plans, the Kurdish leadership is souring ties with many long-standing regional friends like Iran, Turkey and Syria. It’s also jeopardizing its important economic interests that deeply involve the neighboring states. But Kurdistan’s separation drive is receiving strong support from Israel. And that has worsened the opposition to the establishment of any future Kurdish state since Israel is a sworn enemy of many regional governments. Some suspect Israel is hatching a new plot to find a base in the region from where it can pressure its enemies. The dispute is threatening to once again plunge Iraq into chaos while the fight against the Daesh terrorist group is reaching its final phase.

The Kurdistan region held the referendum on September 25th. Polling stations were set up not only in Kurdistan’s three governorates. But also in disputed areas that remain under the control of Kurdish forces including the oil rich province of Kirkuk. The vote went ahead despite global opposition and repeated warnings. The Kurdish leadership insists that the non-binding vote will pave the way for negotiations with Baghdad on secession. But the central Iraqi government and the international community totally reject that notion and view the vote as null and void. That’s because the referendum had no legal basis. The Iraqi Constitution recognizes the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region as a federal part of Iraq that’s administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government. But the constitution lacks any mechanism for secession. Kurdish politicians and experts were themselves deeply involved in drafting of the 2005 constitution and agreed to its terms, but are now showing total disregard for the letter of law. The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Heidar al Abadi argues that any move by the northern region to separate from the rest of the country is a blow to Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Baghdad insists that any decision about the fate of the northern region must come from the Iraqi parliament. Iraq’s Supreme Court has also backed Baghdad’s stance that the vote was illegal. Law experts believe the central Iraqi government cannot recognize the result of the vote or act upon it because it had no legal basis.

Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish minority complains of decades of oppression. Kurds suffered a brutal crackdown under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who launched chemical attacks on them and buried them in mass graves. The Kurds say the only way to gain full rights and proper security is to establish an independent state of their own. But Baghdad insists separation will not protect Kurdish interests and a united strong Iraq is the only way to ensure equality for all citizens. The central Iraqi government also believes that the semi-autonomous status of the Kurdistan region that’s been recognized by the constitution has given the Kurdish leadership proper control over the Kurds’ fate. Some observers believe domestic problems in the Kurdistan region are partly to blame for the defiant push for secession. Many say president of the Kurdistan region Massoud Barzani held the controversial vote because he wants to divert attention from problems at home. Barzani remains in office four years after his term expired and the regional government is struggling to make ends meet.

Iraq’s Kurdistan is a landlocked region which has had long-standing economic, military and political ties with neighboring states like Syria, Iran and Turkey. Kurdistan’s trade and financial relations with neighboring countries are keys to its economy.

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Narration: For instance, Kurdistan’s major oil export pipeline runs through Turkey. The Iraqi region has long enjoyed close cooperation with regional nations in various fields. One of those fields is security. Back in 2014, when the Daesh terrorist group was expanding its control and rapidly advancing toward Erbil, Iranian military advisors and weapons were sent to save the Kurdish region. And all that has been going on with the consent of the central Iraqi government. But the recent vote has seriously undermined such neighborly relations. Iran and Turkey have closed their borders and airspace with the northern Iraqi region. They have also warned of more punitive measures if the Kurdish leadership fails to abandon its race to secession. Ankara and Tehran say they are worried about the territorial integrity of their neighbor and don’t want a large part of it break away. They argue that the dangerous separatist movement in the world’s most volatile region will further complicate things and destabilize the Middle East.

SOUNDBITE [English] David Yaghoubian, History Professor, California State University:

“Well the establishment of an independent Kurdish Republic would inherently benefit one ethnic group. An technocracy would be a government that is only functional for one ethnic, linguistic or religious group and this in the Middle East would be a recipe for further conflict and destabilization. The establishment of an independent Kurdish republic in the north would inherently threaten the integrity of Iraqi national cohesion. And therefore this is why I believe Vice president Maliki is referring to. If we consider the demographics of a city like Kirkuk, it is under fifty percent Kurdish but it is also just under thirty percent Arab and has a twenty percent Turkmen minority as well as a small Syrian Christian minority. So what would happen in the case of the establishment of an independence in a city such as Kirkuk?”

Narration: Observers have also warned about the potential impact of the divisive separation plan on the security situation across Iraq where a fierce fight against Daesh is still ongoing. Furthermore, regional countries worry that the secessionist movement near their borders may give rise to similar sentiments among their own ethnic groups and undermine their national unity.

In defiance of the international community, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for the secession referendum in Kurdistan. He said Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister: "Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own"

Tel Aviv’s support has exposed the depth of ties between the Israeli regime and the Kurdish leadership.

SOUNDBITE [English] David Yaghoubian, History Professor, California State University:

“One of the main reasons that the United States and Israel and other western allies have focused on the Kurdish people has been because they have had a partner in the region to not only subvert Iraq and also subvert Iran in the region but also throughout Azerbaijan against the Russians as well.”

Narration: The discreet ties between the two sides date back to the 1960s. Bilateral cooperation between the two is expanding rapidly. Israel’s lucrative oil trade with the Kurdistan region is no secret anymore. Israel’s endorsement of the controversial vote has raised concerns about Tel Aviv’s ulterior motives.

SOUNDBITE [English] Scot Rickard, Former American Intelligence Linguist: “This is actually an ongoing process, it will unfortunately blossom or continue to grow at a massive rate given the fact that if the Kurdish regional government is given some sort of sovereignty I believe that the United States and unfortunately Israel would become very close partners and the actual scenario will explode into more turbulence and violence and unfortunately the Kurdish people will suffer.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Scot Rickard, Former American Intelligence Linguist: “Iran and Turkey have described the referendum as an Israeli scenario to divide regional nations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes Israeli spy agency Mossad has a hand in the secessionist movement. Some Iraqi officials even warn that if the northern region becomes independent, it would be a state based on an ethnic base and similar to apartheid Israel. The Israeli factor has worsened fears about Kurdish secession plans to an unprecedented level.”


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