The Escalation of Sectarian Strife

By Arslan Ali

Masoud Barzani sat anxiously awaiting the results. As the leader of the Kurdish people in Iraq, he knew that he was risking everything for this historic vote. But as votes started pouring in on September 25th, Barzani’s anxiety quickly turned to pride; his goal of establishing an independent Kurdish nation was turning from an illusory dream to a reality. The Kurds in Iraq finally decided to declare their support for their own national identity, breaking years of traditional oppression.

What seems like a major victory for the Kurds, however, only marks the beginning of a strenuous path to independence that has already been met with major opposition. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his opposition to Kurdish independence, stating that Barzani and the Kurdish regional government ought to reconsider any additional action towards establishing independence, or else they “will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.” As threatening as these remarks are, they are nothing compared to the action that the Iraqi central government has taken. The Iraqi military stormed into the disputed city of Kirkuk and began a hostile offensive strike to retake the area, accelerating instability and triggering multiple retaliatory protests from Kurdish citizens. The Kurds, after decades of oppression, believe that they should be granted their own borders and own national identity. This belief has been firmly denied for years as nations like Iraq, Turkey, and Iran believe that it endangers their respective quests for regional hegemony.

At a time of such volatility, many look to the United States to intervene and broker a peaceful transition as the Kurds attempt to form their own borders. America made its opposition to the referendum clear from the beginning. This, however, raised the risk of destabilizing the relationship between the two parties. The Kurds were instrumental in fighting ISIS forces when the Iraqi army collapsed in 2014, but the Iraqi government has also been a key ally in the fight against terrorism in the region. Further arming the Kurds also raised tensions between the US and Turkey, which, coupled with growing autocracy in the developing nation, has severely impeded a variety of peacekeeping operations and joint-military cooperation. America’s web of alliances in the Middle East, while typically beneficial, has now placed the US in a highly strained situation. Decisive action is needed to maintain peace and avoid any more armed confrontations. Unfortunately, the current administration has chosen not to take sides in the matter, and it is unclear how the United States will be involved in negotiating a peace deal, especially if it wants to continue its pursuit of counter-terror operations.

Clearly, the Middle East is rife with sectarian conflicts, and the Kurdish referendum only increases the likelihood of violent encounters between the Iraqi army and the citizens that it has marginalized for years. Without a legitimate effort to reconcile the differences between the Kurds, the Turks, and the Iraqi government, tensions will likely continue to rise, and thousands of lives will be put at risk in yet another bloodthirsty rivalry.