From all corners, from friends and foes, the warnings are “don’t do it!” But the Kurds of northern Iraq are determined to move forward with plans to hold a referendum on independence on September 25, and popular excitement is growing even as an international chorus cautioning against conducting the vote sounds increasingly ominous.
The Kurds, an ethnic group distinct from the Arabs, have endured a history of discrimination in countries where they have always lived as a minority. At times, the oppression has turned into unspeakable brutality. That is particularly true in Iraq, where the Kurds have been biding their time to declare independence. But the perfect moment never seems to come. They are rightly tired of waiting. In fact, despite the warnings, it’s hard to imagine a better moment than this to start renegotiating their relationship with Baghdad.
Northern Iraq, governed by the Kurdish Regional Government, has become the most democratic, moderate, stable and US-friendly part of the country, despite deep internal divisions. In the years after 1991, when they gained US protection from the government of Saddam Hussein, who had earlier launched a genocidal campaign of extermination that left as many as 100,000 Kurds dead; and after 2005, when they obtained official autonomous status inside Iraq under a new constitution, the Kurds of Iraq have proven their viability as a country. They have also demonstrated time and again their mettle and loyalty as invaluably effective allies of the United States.
Most Kurds are now scattered between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. It is the Kurds of Iraq who have come closest to reaching their goal. They tried to hold an independence referendum in 2014, but as ISIS started capturing large swaths of Iraq, they shifted gears to fighting the terrorist group. And now, after helping Iraq and the US turn the tide against ISIS, they believe the time has come to push for the independence that has so long been denied them.
To be clear, the referendum is not a declaration of independence. The ballot, available in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Syriac, will simply ask: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state.” The result will undoubtedly be a resounding “Yes.”
That “Yes” will be only an aspirational statement, not a break with Baghdad. Kurdish leaders say they want the referendum to strengthen their hand in talks with Iraq.
Still, they are finding little official support for their plans. Fearing more instability in the region, the United Nations, the US and the UK oppose the referendum. So far, the only country openly backing the plan is Israel, which seems some parallels with its own history.
The White House issued a statement last Friday saying the referendum would be “distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS,” and would be “provocative and destabilizing.” Along with other Western countries, the US fears another conflict in a region already aflame.
The governments of neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria all oppose the referendum because they fear it will inspire Kurdish minorities in their countries to move in the same direction. (The Kurds of Syria, who have also fought valiantly against ISIS, have established their own proto-state within Syria’s borders.)
Turkey, which has fought for decades with its own autonomy-minded Kurds, issued darker warnings. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared that Turkey “would not refrain from taking the necessary measures,” in response to changes at Turkey’s southern border. To sharpen the message, Turkey launched unannounced military exercises near the border gate separating Turkey from Iraq’s Kurdish region, with scores of tanks rolling into the area. Ankara said the drills would continue until September 26, the day after the referendum.
On Monday, Iraq’s Supreme Court ordered a suspension of the referendum, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded the plan stop until the constitutional questions raised by the court are resolved.
It’s impossible to predict if Iraq’s Kurds will blink at the last moment, or if a meaningful compromise formula will emerge in time. But as the clock ticks down in the final hours until the scheduled vote, that seems increasingly improbable.
Despite the warnings, the Kurds are right to press their case, and they deserve support. With just days left until the referendum, the US should leverage the Kurdish plans to secure a deal for negotiations with Baghdad.
Only with a firm agreement to launch formal talks should the Kurds agree to suspend the vote.
Interestingly, some have suggested that the Kurds could settle for something less than full independence, instead entering into a confederation with Iraq; becoming two separate states, united.
The Kurds have endured Iraq’s chaotic history long enough. They are ready to negotiate a formula that helps move forward with a new measure of independence. Waiting much longer could push the dream far out of reach. With Tehran’s growing dominance of Iraq, there is increasing pressure to push for independence before conditions become less likely to favor an agreement with Iraq. There is no reason to believe conditions will become more conducive to an agreement. Iran will not look favorably on Kurdish independence.
When Kurdish-Iraqi negotiations do occur, the most intense dispute will center on who will have sovereignty of the city of Kirkuk, which has cultural and historical significance to Kurds, but also a significant Arab population, as well as rich resources that Iraq does not want to give up. Kurds say the city is “our Jerusalem.” But the city is home to many Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, in addition to Kurds, and sits atop one of the world’s largest oil deposits.
As a friend of the Kurds, the US is advising them to wait for a more propitious moment and accept an alternative plan of negotiating with Baghdad. The plan details are not available, and it is not clear that Baghdad has accepted it either.
But if that is not possible, the US should support the aspirations and security of the Kurds, America’s deserving friends. After all, the UN Charter guarantees the right of self-determination, and it was America, at the time of its founding, that noted how sometimes “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”