On the eve of Kurdistan’s referendum, the international community is rife with speculation about what the vote will mean for the future of Iraq, the fight against ISIS, regional dynamics with Iran, Turkey, Syria, even Israel - and for relations with and between the U.S. and Russia.
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Monday's vote is expected to pass, and touch off negotiations with, or demands from, the central government in Iraq about future independence. The Iraqi Parliament has rejected the legitimacy of the vote, and its Supreme Court has ordered it suspended on suspicion of violating Iraq’s constitution. The stage is set for a clash that many fear will ignite yet another war in this tormented country.
But the vote raises another significant question: How are new states born?
It is a vexing problem in the post-World War II international scene. Borders are not supposed to be changed by force, yet new states are mostly born in blood.
Lonely exceptions such as the peaceful "Velvet Divorce" of Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the 2006 independence of Montenegro, are far outnumbered by states born of war: the former Soviet Republics such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia and others fought bitter ethno-nationalist conflicts, the six (or seven, counting Kosovo) independent states to emerge from Yugoslavia’s breakup emerged amidst near-genocidal violence, which formed the backdrop to Montenegro’s later secession.
Even the 2011 establishment of South Sudan following a legal referendum, in agreement with the sovereign state of Sudan, has descended into murderous chaos. The presence of oil resources with disputed ownership in both South Sudan and Kurdistan’s Kirkuk region do not augur well for a peaceful process in Iraq.
This very real threat of violence is one factor that has led Western countries to oppose the Kurdish referendum. But their opposition is rife with self-interest. It is unlikely that the U.S. cares deeply about the effects of war on Kurdish and Iraqi people; they do however worry that such a war could dilute the fight against ISIS – fought largely by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Principles such as the right to self-determination – hardly disputable in the case of the Kurds – appear to be missing from Western governments’ approach.
Not even "earned sovereignty", showing that the state-hopeful has functioning, self-governing and even relatively democratic institutions as Iraqi Kurdistan already does – has dented the Western opposition to date.
Perhaps the one "ideology" driving America’s policy is a residual defense of its 2003 Gulf War, after which Iraq looked, and still looks, a lot like a failed state. Yet America wants the post-Saddam country it helped to create to look like a success, and dismemberment doesn’t fit the picture; no matter that "Kurdish blood has not yet dried" from fighting ISIS, as Kurdish telecom engineer Mohammed Yusuf Ameen told me by phone last Friday from Sulaymaniyah.
Russia provides another stark version of international hypocrisy regarding independence movements. Russia has long been the chief obstacle to UN membership for Kosovo, after the latter unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and was recognized by most Western countries. But Russia was only too happy to recognize the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after a short war it waged with Georgia in the summer of 2008 – perhaps as a riposte to the West’s embrace of Kosovo.
On Kurdistan’s referendum, Russia is being coy; a recent major oil deal with Rosneft indicates that financial/resource interests will drive its response.
Similarly, Turkey has no qualms taking part in the four-decade division of Cyprus, and recognizes the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus"; but of course completely rejects Kurdish secessionism from its own territory.
In this stark realist environment, Israel’s response is logical: It has taken the bold position of breaking with Western allies to support Kurdish independence fairly openly.
The self-interest is clear: Israel has a precedent of favoring forces that weaken a 'united' hostile Arab front, such as, back in the 1980s, tacitly nurturing Hamas as a counterweight to the PLO, and fighting two and a half wars in Lebanon. A smaller, weaker Iraq is consistent with this approach.
A Western-friendly Kurdish state that could erode or fragment the Iranian Shia and Arab Sunni power struggle in the Middle East poses an attractive potential ally for Israel – sweetened for public consumption by historic friendliness, illustrated in a recent New York Times article. Given Israel's powerful international allies, its support could actually be meaningful in advancing Kurdish independence.
But the Kurds may also have another, lower profile ally in their struggle: Palestinians.
As Bassem al-Wazir, a Palestinian businessman who lived and worked in Erbil for two years, told me: "I am totally for [Kurdish independence]. If this is their national liberation, let them do it! We as an oppressed people say – good for them, hurray. You can’t keep people in a cage."
Official Palestinian figures are keeping quiet about the referendum, mindful of the tensions regarding Iraqi territorial integrity. But Ghassan Khatib, a professor of political science at Ramallah's Birzeit University and former Palestinian Authority minister, was less circumspect.
He told me Sunday that, despite Iraqi integrity being important, "I think the Kurds have the right to self-determination and they should be allowed this right. Supporting the right of self-determination for the Kurds should encourage people to follow the same principle and support the right of self-determination, independence and statehood for the Palestinian people. Although," he added, "we Palestinians are used to double standards, when it comes to rights by the international community."
Great powers may not blink at their own contradictions, but struggling independence movements often watch one another closely for precedents.
It would be a mistake to write out the influence of ideas and idealism on international affairs entirely. And great powers are influenced by them too: the Kurdish cause has sympathy in the West primarily based on their historic suffering and right to self-determination. Israel itself enjoyed rapid international recognition largely due to a sense of historic justice.
Israel’s support for Kurdish independence is brave, even if self-interested. But quick gains can also boost precedents in favor of national liberation. Even in a cold realist world, an idea whose time has come can be a tough match for policies such as Israel’s military occupation that have lost international legitimacy.
Palestinians may look to the Kurds for inspiration, for example based on the Kurds successful state-building and relatively democratic (if flagging) political system. The rest of the world, too, when noticing Israel’s support for freedom of the long-suffering Kurds, will naturally pose the question: "And why not Palestine?"
Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute, researching comparative conflict dynamics. She is also a public opinion expert and an international political consultant. Twitter: @dahliasc