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The Kurdish Referendum: Regional and Global Implications

By Sanjal Shastri
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    The referendum conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan sparked of a barrage of responses from actors across the globe. Though this is a non-binding referendum, the global response to it is an indication of its implications for the region and the wider world.

    The Kurdish Referendum: Regional and Global Implications

    The initial concern regionally is for the territorial integrity and stability of the Iraqi state. When the ISIS initially took over Mosul in 2014, analysts were predicting the trifurcation of Iraq. New, more than two years on, the referendum proves that this is not a far-fetched idea. At a time when the Iraqi government is focusing of defeating the ISIS threat, the referendum further weakens the territorial integrity of Iraq. Now the government is facing the possibility of a battle on two fronts. Wresting control of the Kurdish region would involve a confrontation with the Peshmerga. This is something the Abadi government cannot afford at this stage.

    The demand for a Kurdish nation transcends the boundaries of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Along with Iraq, the referendum would have serious implications for Kurdish separatist movements in Syria, Turkey and Iran. The Turkish government is particularly concerned with the recent developments as it is fighting a Kurdish insurgency of its own. The referendum is bound to embolden the Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Therefore, President Erdogan was swift to condemn the referendum and commence military drills at the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

    Similarly, Iran was also swift to condemn the referendum and throw its weight behind the Abadi government. Similar to Turkey, Iran has a sizeable population of Kurds who would be encouraged by the developments. An independent Kurdistan in any form would be the last thing Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria would want. Therefore, the referendum is bound to have significant impact in Iraq's immediate neighbourhood.

    Regionally, the referendum comes at a time when all attention is being focused on the battle against ISIS. Kurdish groups have been important in pushing back ISIS in parts of Norther Iraq and Syria. On one hand the question is how will the referendum impact Kurdish groups fighting the ISIS in Syria? Until now there has been some element of cooperation between the regional and international powers and the Kurdish separatists. With the referendum, Turkey and Iraq are likely to pressurise the US and Russia to reduce cooperation with Kurdish groups in Syria.

    Iraq is at a crucial juncture in its fight against ISIS. With its military resources focused on reclaiming territory, the referendum puts the Iraqi government in a fix. Abadi has already indicated his intention of sending Iraqi troops to Iraqi Kurdistan. On one hand this would mean reducing the number of troops who are currently fighting ISIS. On the other hand, this may involve another military confrontation, as the Peshmerga is in control of territory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

    At the international level, the US, UK and Russia were quick to express their concern with the developments. Internationally one of the concerns is the impact of the referendum is on the war against ISIS. At a time when regional resources should be focused on fighting ISIS, this would be an unwanted complication of the problem. A second concern is over the oil reserves. A large share of Iraqi oil reserves is in the Kurdish region. Political stability of this region is important for the international oil market. The referendum has increased tensions between the Kurdish government and Baghdad, which can have an impact on Iraq's oil exports.

    Finally, the question is what would this referendum mean to similar separatist demands around the world? Catalan independence supporters welcomed the referendum results. A similar referendum is currently being held in the Catalan region. One would also have to watch the reaction of Scottish independence groups. The Brexit vote had reignited the demands for a fresh independence referendum. Would groups in Scotland be encouraged by the developments in Iraq and Spain? This is a story that needs to be followed carefully.

    Despite being a non-binding referendum, it has significant implications for the region and the world.

    The initial responses from the international community highlight the impact it will have on the war against ISIS. One will also need to keep an eye on Kurdish groups in Iran, Turkey and Syria. The vision of the independent Kurdish nation transcends the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Finally, the referendum's impact must be viewed in context of similar demands cross the world.

    (The author is a student of Conflict and Terrorism Studies at the University of Auckland. He can be contacted on sshastri93@gmail.com)

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