September 2017 will forever go down in history for the marginalized Kurdish communities, as the month marks the completion of historical movements for Kurdish independence in Iraq and autonomy in Syria. The two groups have constantly battled their states of residence for more Kurdish representations and have now taken it into their own hands to gain control of their people. Although both votes were considered highly controversial by the international community, the Kurds have found their voice and are determined to go forth with gaining autonomy and independence in the Middle East.
Upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the British and French took the opportunity to redesign the broken Middle Eastern state into their own colonial territories. The two European powers created the new states based on territorial gain rather than to accurately reflect the ethnic identity of the indigenous people residing in the area. The Kurds campaigned for the creation of their own nation-state, but due to European colonialization, the Kurdish community was displaced into the states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Today, they are the world’s largest ethnic group without their own country. The Kurdish communities in Syria and Iraq finally decided to gain their own nation-state and held elections to formalize their own independence and autonomy.
The Iraqi Kurdish community has faced tremendous amounts of animosity within Iraq. In 1988, the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, issued chemical attacks against the Kurds, killing 100,000 of Kurdish civilians and rebels during his Anfal (‘the spoils’) campaign. Mass executions were also highly popular against the Kurds and drastically diminished the Kurdish population in Iraq. The attacks occurred as a reaction to Kurdish desire for independence and autonomy in the region. The strong sentiment of alienation was only fortified by Hussein’s brutal attacks. Although the Kurds eventually gained autonomy in 2005, the community still longed for their own state ruled and created by the Kurdish people.
On September 25th, 2017, the Iraqi Kurdish community held a historic election to separate from Iraq in favor of creating their own Kurdish state. Over 92% of the people voted in favor of seceding, which demonstrates the high desire of the Kurds to free themselves from Iraqi control. Although the vote doesn’t guarantee independence from Iraq, the vote will mobilize Kurdish leaders to take the necessary steps to secede from Iraq. Despite the majority voting in favor of separation, the Iraqi government refuses to accept the referendum. The government views the vote as illegal and refuses to recognize the results going forward. As a further response, the government has threatened to send troops and to seize oil fields from the Kurdish region.
Amidst the violence within Syria, the Kurdish community held an election to determine the possibility of a Kurdish autonomous region within Syria. The Kurds used the backdrop of the war against the Islamic State as a means of highlighting the community’s commitment towards gaining autonomy. The elections were held in Northern Syria on the 22nd, the majority voting “yes” towards the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region. The Kurdish community makes up 15% of the Syrian population, yet received very little recognition from the Syrian government. According to Hadiya Yousef, a Syrian-Kurdish politician, “[the election] is a message to the Syrian regime that we as the Syrian people have will and want our will to be represented in the election of our administration to run our regions and societies.” Through her statement, she exhibits the Kurdish desire to gain control of their own community. Unlike the Iraqi Kurdish community, the Syrian Kurd’s goal is to stay apart of Syria but create their own form of government within the Syrian borders. The election will be followed by another vote in November to elect local council position and a final vote in December to form a Kurdish parliament.
The Syrian government has expressed mixed reviews about the Kurdish election. On August 6th, the Syrian Deputy-Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, stated, “Syria will never allow any party of its territory to be separated” and labelled the Kurdish elections as a joke. However, after the election, the Syrian government stated that it will “consider” a Kurdish state after the defeat of the Islamic State. The Kurds hope that Syria will honor its consideration and continue to host the next set of elections in November.
While the Kurds celebrate their movement towards an independent state, the clear majority of the Middle East and Western states adamantly opposes the Kurdish movement. The only clear supporter has been Israel. Iraq and Turkey, both of whom possess large Kurdish populations, fear that the success of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds will encourage Kurds in their states to pursue autonomy from the state or independence. As a result, both states have threatened sanctions and held military exercises to demonstrate their discontent. Similarly, the United States does not support the creation of a Kurdish state fearing that it will only lead to more instability in the Middle East. The U.S. also fears that the Kurdish referendum in Iraq will only weaken the Iraqi-Kurdish-American coalition against the Islamic State. Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s head of foreign relations, stated, “we are disappointed in the international community, all these nations are free and they deny us to be free,” expressing his discontent with the international community’s rejection of a Kurdish state at this time. Despite warnings and dismissal from the international community, the Kurds continue to pursue their goal of independence.
The dream of a united Kurdish state may soon become a reality. After many years of underrepresentation and suffering, the Kurds have once again pursued the creation of their own state. the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish movements occurring at the same time signals a positive step for each group to achieve their goals despite international opposition. No longer will the Kurds be forced to live under the domination of another ethnic group, but will soon reside in their own country of Kurdistan.