The geographic, cultural, religious, and linguistic heterogeneity in the Ottoman Empire territories triggered the emergence of nationalist movements in the Levant and their attempts for creation of independent nation states.
The Kurdish nationalism emerged in conjunction with the wave of nationalist movements throughout the Middle East in the late 19th century, and like all other ethnic groups within Ottoman Empire, Kurdish nationalist movements emerged to gain the right of self-determination to create an independent Kurdish nation state. The 1916 Sykes–Picot agreement between Britain and France, which split the Levant region into two spheres of influence and control, did not taken into account the Kurds ambition for independent nation state. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 recognized the right of Kurds in Kurdish part of current Turkey, but the Turkish nationalists strongly opposed this recognition, as a result, the Kurds attempts for creation of independent nation state did not succeed. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 ended all hopes and dreams for independent Kurdish state by finalizing the borders of Turkey with Syria and Iraq.
The Kurds in northern Iraq have a long history of confrontation and armed struggle against the Iraqi central governments for gaining their ethnic rights. The 1970`s peace agreement between the Iraqi Baathist regime and the Kurdish leaders promised ethnic recognition and self-autonomy for the Kurdish people within four years. Although the self-autonomy was not fully accomplished, but it achieved recognition of the rights of the Kurdish people as the second largest ethnic group in Iraq. The self-autonomy was the first and the greatest achievement for the Kurds which enabled them to create their own governing bodies and rule themselves without direct intervention from the central government in Baghdad. The self-autonomy also legitimized the role of Peshmerga (Kurdish military forces) in protecting and maintaining security in Kurdistan.
The 1970’s Kurdish peace agreement with the Iraqi government remained fragile and the confrontation between the Iraqi forces and Peshmerga continued in the 1970s and 1980s until the 1990`s Gulf War and the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi forces which led to an international coalition of 32 countries to liberate Kuwait. The defeat of the Iraqi forces in Kuwait encouraged the Kurds to exploit the weakness of the Iraqi government and expel the Iraqi army from Kurdistan, but the Iraqi Republican Guard crushed the Kurdish uprising in 1991. As a result and in order to neutralize the Iraqi air forces, the United State established a no-fly zone in northern and southern Iraq. Between 1991 and 2003 the two main Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK finally enabled to rule Kurdistan independently and managed to improve economy, enhance national sentiment and Kurdish identity, and established civil societies in Kurdistan.
By the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds have had a local stable economy, a trained army, democratic civil societies, and mature political parties, therefore, they have played a significant role in post-Saddam Hussein’s political process and gained important political and economic advantages in new Iraq. After the fall Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds participated effectively in preparing and writing the new constitution for Iraq based on federalism, political pluralism, and democratic political system. The Kurds have granted 17 percent of Iraq’s annual budget and secured crucial political roles in the Iraqi government. They have also established their own parliament and local government and the Peshmerga became the only military forces in charge of the security in Kurdistan.
After nearly 14 years of political alliances with the Shia-led government in Baghdad, and as a result of the political, economic, and security failure of the central government, the Kurds found themselves in a unique opportunity for independence, they have enough reasons for conducting referendum for independence and their right for the self-determination. They mainly blame the Shia-led government for their failure in establishing federal government that secure the Kurds rights. The mistrust between the Kurds and Iraqi government enhanced after the invasion of Mosul and large part of western Iraq by the terrorist group of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2013 and the emergence of The People’s Mobilisation Forces (PMF) by Iran’s Quds Army. Emergence of PMF in Iraq as an ideological armed forces loyal to Iran undermine the Kurds political partnership with the Iraqi central government. Most of the PMF leaders strongly believe in the political and spiritual leadership of Iran`s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and are obedient to his orders and they only implement the Iranian interest in Iraq and that is in contrast with the Kurds interests. The PMF is a copy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah in Lebanon which is trying to seize power in Iraq by force in favour of Iran.
The Iranian regime and from the very beginning strongly opposed the referendum in Kurdistan and will do anything to stop the Kurds independence from Iraq. The Iranian believe that an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq poses a fundamental threat for the Iranian national security and in the middle and long term will have impact on the non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran. The Iranian believe that the success of independence in Kurdistan will inspire and encourage the Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Azari, Turkaman, and the Baluch in Iran to adopt the Kurdish model for independence. As a result, Iran will use all diplomatic, economic and military means to stop the independence of Kurdistan. In this regard, the People’s Mobilisation Forces (PMF) can play the main role in conducting the Iranian strategy against the independence of Kurdistan, in the last seven years Iran established dozens of non-Iranian militias in Syria for fighting against the Syrian armed opposition groups, these proxy militias in Syria and Iraq trained, armed, and financed by Iran and implementing the Iranian strategy. Therefore, Iran is likely to use Shiite militias and the PMF against the independence of Kurdistan rather than taking direct military action. In the recent visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran, the two countries agreed to stop the independence of Kurdistan by all means and Turkey is very likely to endorse military action by PMF to stop the independence of Kurdistan.
Iran is seeking to form a regional coalition to deal with the independence of Kurdistan. Iran hopes that through the alliance with Turkey and Iraq they can impose comprehensive economic sanctions against Kurdistan in order to force Masoud Barzani the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, to cancel the outcome of the referendum and accept the conditions of Baghdad for dialogue. But, the role of the PMF and other Shia militias loyal to Iran on the ground is vital for the Iranian policies in Iraq especially in the dispute regions such as the oil rich city of Kirkuk where the tension between the PMF and Peshmerga increased rapidly after the referendum. The recent joint military exercises between the Iranian and the Iraqi forces in the Kurdistan borders means that the military option is one of the solutions for dealing with the Kurdistan independence. On 13th October 2017, General Qassem Soleimani the commander of Quds Force, visited Baghdad and handed a letter from the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-ebadi, in which he offers full and open Iranian support in coordination with the Turkish government against what he described as “Irbil’s stubbornness”.
By: K. Zergani, a freelance journalist and human rights activist