In a move that was entirely expected, Iraq's Supreme Court has ruled that the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum scheduled for September 25 cannot take place. The ruling comes as Turkey has begun military exercises along its border with Iraq's Kurdish region in a show of force meant to signal that Ankara will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan either. Turkey fears that its own Kurdish separatists which it has been doing internal battle with for decades will become emboldened by the existence of a Kurdish state.
Talk of the referendum has brought down the wrath of multiple regional governments upon the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil to the point of threats of war. Iraq's Supreme Court issued a statement Monday indicating that it "issued a national order to suspend the referendum procedures scheduled ... until the resolution of the cases regarding the constitutionality of said decision." The independence vote under consideration includes three provinces that make up northern Iraq as well as disputed regions claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad. For years since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Erbil has operated relatively autonomously while enjoying the quiet support of Western governments like the United States and United Kingdom in the oil-rich region. Though many individual politicians in the West have voiced support for Kurdish independence, no government has ever formally endorsed such a controversial move which would radically alter the region at the very moment ISIS is being squeezed in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria.
However, last week Israel added its voice to the Kurdish question.
On Wednesday (Sept. 13), Prime Minister stunned the region when he commented specifically of the referendum, "Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state" (though he's made similar statements starting in 2014). Netanyahu noted further that Israel still considers the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group. This followed more comprehensive statements made by the former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Major General Yair Golan in Washington D.C. in early September, which were seen as generally reflective of the Israeli position. Golan said in a meeting organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that he believes establishing a Greater Kurdistan (a state that will include the Kurdish-populated territories of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey) in the Middle East could be a positive stabilizing force in the region. He also said that he personally does not be believe the PKK to be a terrorist organization.
Israel's public stance has provoked a quiet diplomatic war with Turkey, which Israel accuses of supporting Hamas. Turkey has for years accused Israel of forging a secretive vengeful alliance with the PKK due to Turkey's pro-Palestine statehood position. But Israel has consistently pointed to what it perceives as Turkish hypocrisy in failing to designated Hamas a terror organization.
Israel's surprisingly public statements may come back to harm the Kurdish cause, however. Perceived closeness to Iran's biggest enemy will certainly undermine Kurdish claims to legitimacy at a time when Iran's influence seems at its height in the region. Iran worries Kurdish independence would embolden a Kurdish separatist movement within its own borders.
A senior Kurdish official in the Erbil regional government told an Israeli newspaper on Sunday that, “Particularly from Israel we would have expected quiet diplomatic activity and not a vocal policy that’s liable to undermine the delicate fabric of our relationships with neighboring states.” And added further that, “If Israel really wanted to help, it could promote the issue in the White House and get the administration to declare its support for an independent state.”
Over the weekend and early Monday massive pro-independence rallies were held in Erbil which included the unusual sight of protesters waiving both Kurdish and Israeli flags. And it appears Iraqi officials picked up on the symbolism. On Sunday Vice President Nouri al-Maliki told the AFP, “We will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north of Iraq.”
Maliki further demanded that he Kurdistan regional government must “call off the referendum that is contrary to the constitution and does not serve the general interests of the Iraqi people, not even the particular interests of the Kurds.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned sternly that ideas of secession are “dangerous” while calling it “playing with fire.” The PM threatened that Baghdad “will intervene militarily” as independence means Iraqis are “threatened by the use of force outside the law.” Following the remarks, Washington proposed calling off the referendum in order to enter further negotiations with Baghdad.
Should the vote proceed - and there's currently no signs of Erbil backing down - it doesn't necessarily mean independence would happen. But it would certainly constitute a geopolitical earthquake for the region at a key moment the battle against ISIS is in its final phase in both Iraq and Syria. In Deir Ezzor especially, as the Syrian Army advances through the city, there is a tense and uncertain standoff which could break into open and broader war developing between the Syrian-Russian alliance and the US-Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (made up primarily of Kurds). While at times throughout the war Syria and the Kurdish YPJ have demonstrated mutual understanding against a common enemy (ISIS and the Islamist rebel groups), and in some instances even behind the scenes cooperation, Damascus would no doubt see the establishment of a Kurdish state as a direct and lasting threat to its sovereign territory.
Syria's East would most certainly come further unglued at the very moment ISIS is being rolled back.