Politics, World, Analysis

OPINION - What does KRG referendum mean for Arabs, Turks, and Middle East?

It is very difficult to justify KRG’s secession primarily on the basis of ethnic or religious persecution, because KRG has a high level of autonomy, and the ethnic and religious rights of the Kurds are safeguarded within the KRG

OPINION - What does KRG referendum mean for Arabs, Turks, and Middle East?


The significance of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral decision to hold a referendum for secession from Iraq cannot be overstated. Both the arguments in favor of and against the Kurdish Regional Government’s referendum have been based on some incomplete and misleading statements and wrong assumptions, which I will critically review and attempt to correct in this brief commentary. I hope that a more accurate picture of what is happening and its historical significance will emerge in the course of such a correction.

Referendum fractured not just Kurdish-Shiite but also Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance

First of all, in his first address to the public through the official Kurdish news channel Rudaw in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government, declared that [1], “you were the ones who announced that the Kurdish-Shiite alliance is over; there is no purpose of continuing an unsuccessful experience.” However, Barzani’s statement is incomplete in the sense that perhaps the greater significance of the KRG’s referendum for secession is not the end of the Kurdish-Shiite alliance, but the end of the Kurdish-Sunni Arab coexistence going back more than a thousand years. The significance of this development cannot be overstated, as Arabs and Kurds have been living together and deeply influenced each other since their conversion to Islam thirteen hundred years ago (many Kurds even claim and take pride in being the second major ethnic group to convert to Islam, after Arabs). Arab-Kurdish split has been underway in Syria for many years now, where the Kurdish socialist PYD, supported by the United States military, has taken over many Arab towns such as Tel Abyad, and driven out (or “ethnically cleansed”, to use a terrible euphemism) a significant portion of the Arab population of northeastern Syria.

If the decision for KRG’s secession from Arab-majority Iraq was primarily motivated by sectarian discrimination (pro-Shiite, anti-Sunni) practiced by the Baghdad government, not just Sunni Kurds but also Sunni Arabs and other non-Shiites could have joined in founding a rival “free Iraq”, “northern Iraq” or some other rival state where Sunnis would not be discriminated. Such a state would not only include Erbil, the capital of KRG, but also Mosul, the largest Sunni Arab city that remains in Iraq. However, this is not what happened. As it happened, the KRG went for a referendum calling for a unilateral secession from the rest of Iraq, seemingly based on KRG’s ethnic difference alone, hence abandoning Sunni Arabs and other minorities to confront the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad. The immediate repercussion of this decision for all the other “Sunnis” in Iraq will be disastrous: Together with the Kurds, all Sunnis made up approximately 40-45% of Iraq’s population, but once Kurds secede from Iraq, the remaining Sunnis will be an even smaller minority in an overwhelmingly Shiite state, which will make them even more vulnerable to persecution than they already are.

Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria: Stateless group divided by four state-like entities

There are multiple ways in which the KRG’s secessionist initiative further weakened Sunni Arabs and other discriminated against minorities vis-à-vis the Baghdad government, making them even more vulnerable than ever before. Even though the Turkish media mainly focused on the plight of the Turkmen, the biggest losers of KRG’s referendum may have been Sunni Arabs. In fact, for the first time in many decades, there is not a single state, de facto or de jure, that Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria can identify as their own state. Sunni Arabs are excluded from political power not only in Baghdad and Damascus, which are more sectarian than before in part due to the ongoing wars, but Sunni Arabs are also excluded from political power in Erbil and Qamisli (Kamışlı), the political capitals of the Kurdish nationalist and Kurdish socialist state-like entities (devlet benzeri yapılar) that are taking shape in northern Iraq and northern Syria, respectively. This is in great part the result of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria since 2003 and 2011, respectively, which marginalized Sunni Arabs in both countries. In other words, Sunni Arabs became “the largest stateless ethno-religious group” in what used to be Iraq and Syria. Numbering tens of millions of people, they are “governed” mostly through brute military force alone. They are living in what resembles “four zones of occupation” by the Assad regime, Baghdad government, KRG’s peshmerga, and the PYD militia. The Kurdish socialist PYD in particular is supported by the strange alliance of Western volunteers including anarchists [2], Marxists [3], and the United States airforce. The latter deserves special emphasis in this alliance, since recently the U.S. airforce has been killing [4] more civilians than the Assad regime [5].

KRG’s decision to secede from Iraq on an ethnic basis, thus abandoning Sunni Arabs to the mercy of the Baghdad government, completes their exclusion and militarized oppression. Moreover, other minority groups such as Turkmens, which include both Shiites and Sunnis, and Assyrian Christians, are also being disenfranchised as a result of the bifurcation of political power between Shiite elites in Baghdad and Damascus on the one hand, and various stripes of Kurdish elites in Erbil and Qamisli on the other.

Would KRG’s secession trigger secessionism in Turkey, Iran, Syria, or the Balkans?

Another major theme in the debates over KRG’s referendum to secede from Iraq has been the speculation that KRG’s secession would trigger Kurdish secessionism in Turkey. This claim is incomplete and thus misleading in that KRG’s secession could indeed contribute to a secessionist wave worldwide, including both near and faraway lands such as Syria, Iran, Catalonia, Scotland, and Quebec. However, such secessionism would not necessarily affect Turkey the most, as some seem to assume. There are several very relevant counter-examples against this claim. There have been significant number of Turkish Arabs (probably more than a million) living alongside the Syrian border since the founding of the Republic of Turkey, and yet the independence of the Syrian Arab Republic did not lead to any significant Arab secessionism in Turkey. There are a significant number of ethnic Georgians among Turkish citizens, and they might make up majorities in some districts in Turkey’s northeastern border with Georgia, and yet the independence of Georgia in 1992 did not lead to Georgian secessionism in Turkey.

The same is true for the failure of “Turkish secessionism” in the Balkans. Even though the majority of the population in the Kırcaali (Kardzhali) region of southeastern Bulgaria near the Turkish border are Turkish speaking Muslims, there has not been any Turkish secessionism in Bulgaria. Similarly, although the majority of the population in the Gümülcine (Komotini) province of Greece near the Turkish border are Turkish speaking Muslims, there has not been any Turkish secessionism in Greece, or a demand to reunite with Turkey through a referendum since such a referendum was one of the explicit goals of Turkey’s national pact (Misak-ı Milli).

A similar dynamic can be observed in the relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran since 1992, which is even more surprising in many respects. Azerbaijanis, who speak a Turkic language that is very distinct and unrelated to Persian, make up approximately one-fourth of the population of Iran, with their capital city being Tabriz. Yet the independence of the oil-rich former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan immediately bordering Iran’s Azerbaijan province, did not lead to the secession of southern Azerbaijan from Iran. Examples can be multiplied ad infinitum. The bottom line is that the independence of a coethnic state, even if speaking the same language, would not and did not lead necessarily to secessionism in neighboring countries in the Middle East and the Balkans. This has a simple reason: Human beings have multiple identities including ethnic, religious, sexual, ideological, partisan, and territorial, and there is no inherent reason why they would choose their ethnic identity above all the other identities they have.

If people can express their ethnic identity relatively freely in the public sphere, and receive state support for education and broadcasting in their native language for example, there might not be much of a justification for secession. Turkey’s historic reforms allowing for publicly funded Kurdish language broadcasting and education between 2004 and 2013 helped to curb secessionism by expanding support for ethnic and linguistic expression of minorities. For the same reasons, KRG’s secession is much more likely to trigger Kurdish secessionism in Iran, where Kurds are persecuted both as an ethnic and a religious (Sunni) minority, and where there is very little if any democratic mechanism for Kurds to express their grievances and interests vis-à-vis the Tehran government. It is also likely to trigger secessionism in the territories controlled by the Kurdish socialist PYD in northeastern Syria with direct U.S. support. For the same reason, it is very difficult to justify KRG’s secession primarily on the basis of ethnic or religious persecution, because KRG has a high level of autonomy, and the ethnic and religious rights of the Kurds are safeguarded within the KRG.

KRG’s secession is historic landmark in Arab-Kurdish split in Middle East

There are many other dimensions of the KRG’s referendum, which could not be discussed within the constraints of this short commentary. The most overlooked dimension of the referendum is its significance for Arab-Kurdish relations. It is misleading to characterize what has been happening as the end of a Kurdish-Shiite alliance, as Barzani (and those who follow his interpretation) depict. What has happened, and continues to happen, in both Syria and Iraq is the partitioning of these countries between Shiite-dominated central governments (Damascus and Baghdad) on the one hand, and various stripes (nationalist and socialist) of Kurdish-dominated secessionist regimes (Erbil and Qamisli). In this respect, KRG’s secession is a historic landmark in the Arab-Kurdish split in the Middle East.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency. 

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