It’s a big year for self-determination, with referenda already scheduled in Scotland and Catalonia, not to mention the more dubious votes already held in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Now it looks as if the Kurds may be coming to the party, with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, telling the region’s parliament to make preparations for a referendum on independence.
Earlier in the week, Barzani outlined his view to the BBC:
Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence. From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.
Most of the recent coverage of Iraq has focused on the Sunni/Shi’ite divide, with the Sunni fundamentalist ISIS now controlling large swathes of northern Iraq in addition to territory in Syria. But from the Kurdish point of view, this represents a weakening of the already loose ties that bind their territory to Baghdad.
Iraq’s Kurds staged a long and bloody conflict for self-government against the regime of Saddam Hussein, eventually establishing de facto independence in 1991 after the United States and other powers imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam in 2003 led to official recognition of Kurdish autonomy, and although Kurds participated in the central government as well – Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, became president – the desire for an independent state never went away.
As I and many others have said, there is no logical reason why Kurdistan should not be a country of its own. The Kurds are nationally self-conscious, ethnically and linguistically distinct from their neighbors and occupying a reasonably well-defined region. There are something like 30 million of them, spread across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. If they were in Europe, no-one would dispute their claim to independence: they would rank in size somewhere between Romania and Poland.
But boundaries in the Middle East are a product of outside interference, not ethno-geographical logic. The western powers failed to honor their promises to the Kurds after the First World War, and they were left to fend for themselves against persecution that often verged on genocidal. In Turkey, home to the largest Kurdish population, the government for decades denied their existence, referring to them as “Eastern Turks”.
The fact that four different countries have substantial Kurdish minorities has generally worked against Kurdish self-determination. Each has an interest in helping its neighbors keep their Kurds quiet, for fear that any unrest might spread. But when tensions are high, as they are now, a contrary effect can appear: Iran, for example, aided Iraq’s Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war, and it’s thought that Turkey might now tolerate the presence of a Kurdish buffer state to insulate it from the chaos in Syria and Iraq.
The core autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has a population of maybe around six million, but there is also a substantial ethnically mixed area – including the city of Kirkuk, the sixth-largest city in Iraq – that has been disputed between the Kurds and the central government. Last month when ISIS began its major offensive by driving government forces out of Mosul, the Kurds grasped the opportunity to take Kirkuk and surrounding territory.
Like the seizure of Kirkuk, talk of an independence referendum may be designed as a bargaining chip to be used to secure a better position for the Kurds in Iraq’s future, including the makeup of a new Iraqi government – something that remains in limbo following last April’s election. But if there’s going to be a serious push for independence, this would seem to be an opportune time.
Whatever one’s view about the proper disposition of Iraq, there’s no doubt that Kurdistan has been the most stable and successful part of it for the last 20 years. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall cautions that independence poses many difficulties, as “other newly independent states such as Kosovo and South Sudan have found to their cost”. But he could equally have mentioned Slovakia or Montenegro or any number of other success stories. It’s hard to think of an exercise of self-determination that has subsequently been seen as a mistake.
I prefer the bolder view advanced on Tuesday by American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg:
The Kurdish state that will ultimately emerge from the wreckage of Iraq will not encompass the whole of Kurdistan, which includes parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran. But the Kurds, who have been playing a very long game, understand that an independent Kurdistan in part of their ancient homeland — the part now within the borders of Iraq — will satisfy many of their needs as a nation, and serve as a center of Kurdish culture and politics. It could also prove to the three states that control the rest of Kurdistan that the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will not undermine their own strength and independence.