SINGAPORE – If Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines.
Disputes over territory, power and resources between and among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds fueled the rise of Islamic State in Iraq. It’s no real surprise that the Kurdish issue is now resurfacing with IS’ presumed demise.
“All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” said former Iraqi Foreign Minister and Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, referring to the group by another of its acronyms.
The initial flash in the pan threatens to be the fact that Iraqi Kurds are certain to vote for independence in a unilateral referendum scheduled for Monday.
If the independence issue did not provide enough explosives in and of itself, the Kurds’ insistence on including in the referendum the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and adjacent areas further fueled the fire.
The referendum and the dispute over Kirkuk reopen the question of what Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are even if the Kurds opt not to act immediately on a vote for independence and to remain part of an Iraqi federation for the time being.
The issue could blow a further hole into Iraq’s already fragile existence as a united nation-state. Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has denounced the referendum.
His efforts to persuade the Iraqi parliament to fire Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim for backing the poll as well as for calls for parliament to withdraw confidence in Iraqi President Fuad Masum and sack ministers and other senior officials of Kurdish descent could push the Kurds over the edge.
In the latest development, Iraq’s top court ordered the suspension of the planned referendum. The Supreme Court early this week called for all preparations for Monday’s vote to be halted.
Iraqi military officials as well as the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are aligned with the military have vowed to prevent the referendum from being held in Kirkuk.
“Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. We would by no means give up on Kirkuk even if this were to cause major bloodshed,” said Ayoub Faleh, aka Abu Azrael, the commander of the Imam Ali Division, an Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia.
A possible fight might not be contained to Kirkuk. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces vie for control of areas from which IS has been driven out that stretch westward along the length of northern Iraq.
Al-Abadi warned that he would intervene militarily if the referendum, which he described as unconstitutional, provoked violence.
Add to that the ganging up on the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and the United States. The U.S. backs the Iraqi government even if it put Kurdistan on course toward independence when it allowed the autonomous enclave to emerge under a protective no-fly zone that kept the forces of Saddam Hussein at bay.
Breaking with the U.S. and its Arab allies, Israel has endorsed Kurdish independence.
Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Iranian Al Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani have warned the Kurds on visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to back away from the referendum. Iran has threatened to close its borders with the region.
Describing the referendum as “a matter of national security,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “no one should have doubt that we will take all the necessary steps in this matter.”
Turkey fears that Kurdish independence would spur secessionist aspirations among its own Kurds, who account for up to 20 percent of its population and that an independent Kurdistan would harbor Turkish Kurdish insurgents already operating from the region.
Al-Abadi alluded to possible Turkish and/or Iranian military intervention to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan by suggesting that the referendum would be: “a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders. … The Turks are very angry about it because they have a large Kurdish population inside Turkey and they feel that their national security is threatened because it is a huge problem for them. And, of course, the Iranians are on the same line.”
The Kurdish quest for some form of self-rule is likely to manifest itself in Syria too. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish militia aligned with Turkish Kurdish militants in its fight against IS. The militia that prides itself on its women fighters is among the forces besieging the IS capital of Raqqa.
The Kurds are hoping that an end to the war in Syria will leave them with an Iraq-style autonomous region on the Turkish border — an aspiration that Turkey, like in Iraq, vehemently opposes.
The target of strikes by the Turkish air force, the Kurds hope to benefit from the force’s shortage of pilots because of mass purges in the wake of last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The air force last month ordered all former fighter pilots flying for Turkish airlines to report for service.
The Kurds may provide the first flash point for another round of volatility and violence, but they are not the only ones. Nor are sectarian and other ethnic divisions that are likely to wrack Iraq and Syria once the current round of fighting subsides.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist.