foreign policy

The Kurds’ Long Fight for Independence Is Coming to a Head

Iraqi Kurds celebrate while urging people to vote in the independence referendum in Arbil on September 8, 2017. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

The Kurds of northern Iraq are set to vote on Monday in a referendum on independence from Baghdad. The referendum is widely expected to result in a decisive (though by no means unanimous) “yes” — which is why nearly everyone is begging, cajoling, or threatening Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, not to go through with it.

Kurdistan — which in its broadest definition includes parts of eastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran — has been waiting a long time to become a real country. While potential independence for some part of the Kurdish regions was envisioned as the Allied Powers partitioned the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, the final redrawing of the map after the First World War left the Kurds without a state of their own. Kurdish demands for independence or greater autonomy have been a major factor in the complex ethnic politics of the Middle East ever since.

In both Iraq and Syria, Kurdish soldiers and volunteers have done a lot of the heavy lifting in the fight against Islamic State militants, such as the KRG’s Peshmerga forces saving the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from the rapid advance of ISIS in 2014 after the Iraqi army fled. Iraqi Kurdistan has managed to remain relatively safe through the chaos of the past several years and has taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people from war-torn parts of Iraq.

For all that, many Iraqi Kurds believe they have demonstrated an ability to govern themselves better than Baghdad and deserve independence as a result: The outcome of Monday’s referendum will likely reflect that sentiment. The referendum is not a declaration of independence in itself, but it is binding on the regional government, so if it passes, the KRG will launch negotiations with the Iraqi government over its future status and begin campaigning for international recognition as an independent state.

Baghdad is unsurprisingly furious at the Kurds’ plans. The Iraqi supreme court ordered on Monday that the referendum be suspended while it decides whether it is constitutional, while Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also filed a complaint objecting to the referendum being held in Kirkuk, a multiethnic city to which the Kurds have strong historical ties but which is also home to a large Arab population.

The Iraqi government and many Iraqi Arabs see the Peshmerga’s occupation of Kirkuk as rank opportunism on the part of Barzani’s government, and Baghdad does not want to lose control over the central region’s abundant oil reserves. The government also fears that the referendum could further destabilize an already fractured country — not an unreasonable concern.

Iraq’s neighbors are dead set against the referendum. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, has threatened to impose sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan if it goes ahead. Turkish troops are holding exercises near the border with the region, and Iran has threatened to close its own border. The foreign ministers of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey issued a joint statement on Thursday warning that all three countries had agreed to consider “counter-measures” if the referendum proceeds.

The statement expresses concern over the unforeseeable consequences of the plebiscite, specifically the potential for violent conflict — which, again, is a real possibility. Turkey and Iran also fear, however, that a “yes” for independence in Iraqi Kurdistan will stoke separatist sentiment among their own Kurdish populations, especially since the wording of the plebiscite asks whether voters believe their Kurdish compatriots outside the KRG deserve independence as well. Syria’s Kurds, meanwhile, held elections Friday for a new system of local councils that may or may not be a prelude to independence. Needless to say, the Syrian government strongly opposes this.

Other world leaders are also pressuring Barzani to cancel the vote, including Saudi Arabia, the U.K., France, and the U.N. Security Council. The State Department has come out in strong opposition to the referendum, while the White House has condemned it as “provocative and destabilizing” and U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk has called it “a very risky process.” Proponents of the referendum find the opposition from the U.S. both galling and baffling, as the KRG has been among the most consistently pro-American actors in the Middle East.

Indeed, many Americans and Europeans, particularly but by no means exclusively on the right, believe the U.S. should be supporting the Kurds in their effort at independence, whether out of moral principle or in the interest of cultivating a steadfast ally in the region. And in the sort of absurd twist only this administration could provide, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is working with Barzani’s allies to promote and administer the referendum. Manafort, who has worked as a lobbyist for numerous foreign interests, is currently a central figure in the investigation over Russian meddling in last year’s election, leading some supporters of the referendum to worry that his legal entanglements may be hurting their cause.

Speaking of Russia, Moscow has notably refrained from joining the chorus urging the Kurds not to pursue independence, which may have something to do with the $4 billion or so it has invested in Kurdish oil and gas deals. The Russian government has expressed support for both Iraq’s territorial integrity and the Kurds’ “legitimate aspirations,” but has kept its opinion of the referendum to itself.

The only country openly voicing support for Kurdish independence is Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated his approval last week for “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own”— though he did not specifically advocate for this referendum. Some Israeli political and military leaders see an independent Kurdistan as a potential check on the spread of both radical Islam and Iranian influence.

Whether or not Monday’s referendum goes forward, and whatever its immediate consequences are, the U.S. and other global and regional actors should probably come to terms with the fact that Kurdish independence is practically a fait accompli at this point. Iraq’s central government holds almost no sway over its Kurdish areas anymore, as evinced by the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk’s refusal to leave office after being fired by Baghdad last week. If opposition to the referendum is driven by fear that it will lead to civil war, it also merits consideration that civil war may be the only way to keep Kurdistan under Baghdad’s yoke.

It may indeed serve the security interests of the region for Iraq to remain undivided, but talks must proceed from the facts already on the ground. That means recognizing that the least the Iraqi Kurds will accept is substantial autonomy, perhaps in a confederated system, with the right to sell its own oil and conduct most of its own affairs. This is their best chance in a century for statehood or something like it, and after all that time, it is foolish to assume they can be easily dissuaded from taking it.

The Kurds’ Long Fight for Independence Is Coming to a Head