On September 25, 2017, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will vote overwhelmingly in favor of establishing an independent nation-state. All ethnic groups, from Erbil to Zakho -- and in other disputed areas claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), such as Kirkuk, Sinjar and Makmoor -- are eligible to take part in the referendum.
Although the result of the plebiscite will not be binding, it is likely to enhance existing secessionist sentiment among the populace and increase pressure on KRG officials.
The Kurds' dream of a separate state is more than a century old. Yet geography and the imperialist designs of outside forces have conspired to render that goal a nightmare. Predictably, the most vehement opposition to the establishment of an independent state for the Kurds comes from the major powers with large Kurdish minorities -- including Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Apparently fearing that a Kurdish state would heighten irredentist sentiment among the Kurdish minorities within their territories to merge with a "Greater Kurdistan," the governments of these countries view any form of Kurdish independence as a national-security threat. It is thus quite possible that one or more of the KRG's neighbors will move militarily to prevent a Kurdish secession from Iraq.
The regional regime that is in the best position to threaten the drive for a Kurdish Free State is that of Iran. It already employs small pro-Iranian militias -- the Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization -- on KRG territory, operating under the rubric of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Should Iran decide to take military action to prevent a Kurdish secession from Iraq, it will likely deploy the PMF to do so.
However, while the political and military asymmetry between Iraq's Kurdish region and outside regional powers have seemed fixed, the historical inequality no longer exists. Currently, in fact, no state in the region easily could crush a determined effort by the Kurds to sever the artificial ties that have bound them, disadvantageously, to the Arab people of Mesopotamia.
This is chiefly due to the Peshmerga ("those who defy death"), Kurdish fighters who have become combat-hardened warriors; so much so that, with NATO air support in August 2014, they fought the Islamic State fighters to a standstill outside the gates of their regional capital, Erbil. In the event of a confrontation against the Peshmerga, even the pro-Iran PMF militias would pay a heavy price.
Greater Zab River near Erbil Iraqi Kurdistan. (Image source: jamesdale10/Wikimedia Commons)
Most of Iran's Kurds live in the western part of the Islamic Republic, in Kordestan, West Azerbaijan and the Kermanshah provinces. Although regionally concentrated, they are not in a position to secede from Iran, due mainly to the efforts of Tehran's intelligence services to suppress Kurdish irredentism by eviscerating rebel organizations. That could change, however, if Iraq's Kurds are successful in seceding from the central government in Baghdad. For one thing, it might buoy Iran-based Kurdish groups -- such as the Komela (Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Kordestan), the Kurd Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Free Life Party of Kordestan (PJAK) -- and spur them to rise up against the regime in Tehran.
The country that has the most to lose in the event of an independent Kurdistan is Turkey, due to its huge population of ethnic Kurds, some of whom support the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has battled Turkey's military for decades.
Although Turkey is also the greatest obstacle to Kurdish independence, Turkish troops have become entangled in the Syrian civil war. They have also not recuperated from the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the summer of 2016, an act that resulted, among other things, in a massive purge within the Turkish military.
To allay Istanbul's apprehensions that an independent Kurdish state on its borders might energize Turkey's Kurds to seek autonomy, KRG political leaders are likely to forswear any assistance to the PKK, at least publicly. Kurdish spokesmen will probably also point out that Turks could benefit from a stable Kurdistan's pledge to keep the oil flowing to Turkey from Kurdish fields around Kirkuk.
Syria also has a Kurdish minority, making up about 10% of the general population, most of whom reside in the north and northeast -- where they have established the Democratic Administration of Rojava. Due to the raging civil war, Damascus currently cannot spare the troops and resources it would take to suppress this Kurdish enclave. Nor does the Assad regime have the current capability to dismantle the Kurdish military opposition in Syria, particularly the effective Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). In additions, tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds -- along with Syria-based Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians – have banded together to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been fighting ISIS, particularly in Raqaa.
Even if the Assad regime survives the bloody war, now in its sixth year, it will be too weak initially to suppress secession from its own Kurds.
Furthermore, the Syria that eventually emerges is likely to be a good deal smaller than its current size, which would force it to rely its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies to conquer Rojava. Such a scenario would be thick with dangers, including a possible American military response.
Ironically and thankfully, this combination of recently-acquired combat experience on the part of the Kurds -- plus widespread unrest in the region, still reeling from the "Arab Spring," and the loss of Syrian and Iraqi sovereignty over swaths of their territories -- improves the chance of a peaceful secession of Kurdistan from Iraq.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he was a Military Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.