Why Kurdish referendum is unlikely to end Iraqi minorities’ dilemma

Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani (C) with clerics and elders from the cities of the region in Erbil, Iraq, August 9, 2017. (Reuters)

After gaining control of much of Iraq and Syria, ISIS and other extremists committed grave atrocities and international human rights violations against minorities, including perhaps the most extreme of all, the genocide that was perpetrated against Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites.

As ISIS is gradually defeated on the battlefield, another fear looms ahead for these persecuted groups. Despite the overwhelming objection of many international and local parties, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) held a referendum for independence on Monday in the KRI’s official governorates of Erbil, Suleimaniyah, and Dohuk, as well as in the disputed territories of Kirkuk, Nineveh Plain, and Sinjar.

Ethnic and religious minorities inhabit the disputed territories, which are heterogeneous in population and present different concentrations of Iraqi minorities including Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak, and Kakai – minorities that have long suffered threats and persecution. But today, they face another dilemma.

Also read: Turnout high as Iraqi Kurds defy threats to hold independence vote

An Iraqi Kurd flies his powered parachute during the Watercraft festival on August 25, 2017, at lake Darband in Raniya district, 70 km east of Erbil. (AFP)

Two challenges

The minorities face two challenges: the potential for immediate danger ignited by the process of independence itself, and secondly, their rights being jeopardized under future separate states of Kurdistan and Iraq.

In the KRI, religious extremism has expanded significantly in the past 10 years, paralleling the general increase in religiosity. Concerns that religious extremism could increase in the future causes alarm for various ethnic groups. Studies have shown that around 1,000 Kurdish youth joined ISIS, suggesting that Kurdish societies have serious issues with radicalism that must be addressed.

While the KRI is mainly ruled by nationalist parties that are not ideologically invested in faiths, minorities fear that this might not hold in the future and that, as in other Middle Eastern countries, religious attitudes will eventually become dominant.

More importantly, the process of independence itself could be threatening to minorities, especially since the primary areas inhabited by minorities are located almost exclusively on the borders of the KRI.

This means that if Kurdish independence were to be resolved through military means, these areas would be the first to be hit by war. Not only would this delay the return of IDPs to Yazidi areas, but it could even make their return impossible.

A Kurdish man decorates a car with a poster bearing the image of Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani, urging people to vote in the independence referendum, in Erbil, Iraq, September 5, 2017. (Reuters)

Charter of demands

Minorities in Kurdistan often claim that they are being used by the Kurdish political parties for political advantages. The referendum was designed to take place without input from the KRI minorities and their political opinions were not solicited. However, some groups have gone ahead and submitted written recommendations or demands.

Assyrians, Armenians, and Turkmen have submitted a paper with 50 demands to the High Committee of the Referendum. These demands mainly ask that religious and ethnic rights to be preserved in the new state and emphasize that autonomous administration of their areas should be granted.

Yazidis, the largest ethno-religious minority, also participated in the referendum according to the KRG’s plans. Yazidis, like others, are divided on the issue of Kurdistan’s independence; however, most Yazidis probably stayed away from voting.

The Yazidi political elite close to the KDP have been involved in promoting the referendum; however, the general Yazidi public appear to be highly disengaged from the process and to largely reject the referendum on an emotional level.

Also read: Iran says land border with Iraqi Kurdistan remains open

The disconnect between the Yazidis and the KRG, specifically the KDP, is the result of widespread mistrust. Many Yazidis believe that when the KDP security forces withdrew from Sinjar in August 3, 2014, they abandoned their military obligation and civic responsibility to protect the area, thereby making it easy for ISIS to commit genocide against Yazidi civilians.

Yazidi support for Kurdistan independence will not be free; if the Kurdish leadership want Yazidis to be on their side, they must commit to serious steps including bringing those who abandoned Sinjar to justice. They will also have to assure Yazidis of their rights under the constitution, accepting Yazidis as a group with a full set of rights as an ethnicity and a religion, and guaranteeing autonomy for Yazidi areas in Sinjar and Sheikhan.

Religious groups are also concerned about the demographic changes to their homeland. Many areas that were once considered homelands for Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, and Kakai in the Nineveh Plain have been altered over the past 10 years.

Kurds have systematically settled in these areas, pushing out the indigenous people. These changes continue today. For example, the percentage of Yazidis in the total population of the Sheikhan district, north of Mosul, was around 85 percent 30 years ago. Today, the ratio of Yazidis to Muslims has significantly decreased, with the percentage of Yazidis now estimated to be below 30 percent with Kurdish Muslims around 70 percent.

The Yazidi town of Bashiqa is experiencing similar demographic changes and other Yazidi areas have been (and will continue to be) impacted, as well. The Master Plan for the City of Dohuk, designed in 2010 by the Ingenieurbüro Vössing Germany – Erfur Company (intended to be completed by 2032), would turn Yazidi lands in the Shaariya plains south of Dohuk City into a new suburb of Dohuk. Shaariya is one of the last few Yazidi-majority areas inside the KRI.

Iraqi Kurds arrive to cast their votes in the Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station in Erbil, on September 25, 2017. (AFP)

Safe zones

The conversation surrounding Kurdish independence also ignores the demands of religious minorities to establish safe zones for their populations in Sinjar and Nineveh Plain under international protection, with the help of both the United Nations and the European Union.

These demands can also take the form of self-administered local government and security forces to ensure the stability of minority areas without the meddling of external political parties. No matter how these desires are articulated, with the current political fight between the KRG and Iraq, it is unlikely that anyone will pay attention to the plight of minorities.

Also read: Barzani: Referendum first step for Kurds to express their will

Minorities face two options: first, to be part of the State of Iraq, meaning they will have to co-exist and live with others encircling them. With a distant Baghdad, this option remains risky and uncomfortable for all minorities.

The second option is to accept the de facto control of the KRG and become part of a newly formed Kurdish State. With all of the challenges detailed in this article, it is clear that this option is also fraught with risks.

The sad plight of Iraq’s minorities today is that there is no clear path to security and survival. Without the concerted involvement of the international community, we may witness the continued decline of these populations, as they continue to emigrate from the country.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the viewpoint of Al Arabiya English.
Saad Babir has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dohuk and has worked in the past as a journalist and human rights activist, especially concerned with issues facing the Yazidi component of Iraqi society. Saad lost his brother and two cousins in the attacks against the Yazidi people and now works to help survivors of the genocide. He hopes to contribute to efforts to prevent future genocides against minorities.

Last Update: Tuesday, 26 September 2017 KSA 19:08 - GMT 16:08

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