Analysis

Kurdish Vote Raises Question: Who Can Deny a People's Hope for Independence?

Moral issue likely to be sidestepped as Arabs, U.S. and political crisis among Iraqi Kurds conspire to prevent autumn referendum on creating state in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurds celebrate the Noruz spring festival.
AFP

What will the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan be asked in the referendum slated for September 25? The question has still not been formulated, but one can assume that the wording will be something like this: “Are you in favor of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Kurdistan?”

Although this is a declarative referendum only, with no practical political implications, it has already ratcheted up international and Arab pressure on Kurdistan’s leaders, especially its president, Masoud Barzani. Last week, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit sent Barzani a long letter in which he made no effort to hide what he sees as the serious repercussions the vote could have on the future of the Middle East.

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Gheit warned that “taking steps without national unity and without coordination and consent of the government in Iraq will worsen the situation, and will force all sides to take measures that will not be worthwhile to the Iraqis, including to the Kurds.”

The letter did not detail the steps Gheit is considering, but the Kurdish leader seemed to be unimpressed by the threat. In his response, Barzani reminded the League official that 182,000 Kurds died as a result of “genocide” perpetrated by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, including 5,000 murdered in a chemical attack by Saddam’s forces on the city of Halabja in 1988.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take their position during a battle with Islamic State militants at Topzawa village near Bashiqa, Iraq, October 24, 2016.

In all of those instances, the Arab countries, much like the Western ones, abandoned the Kurds to their fate, wrote Barzani. After the war and establishment of the new Iraq, the central government in Baghdad refused to implement the clauses of the constitution regarding Kurdistan, the result being that “all that we’ve gotten from it has been suffering and oppression,” the president added.

Resolution of the issue of protecting and defending Kurdistan, where “no American soldier has been killed,” as Masrour Barzani, chancellor of Kurdistan’s National Security Council (and not coincidentally the president’s son) puts it, will only occur after an independent state arises. This is because, as opposed to non-state entities, sovereign countries enjoy the protection of international law, the younger Barzani has pointed out.

At a conference in Washington, D.C. in July, at which he delivered an impassioned speech, security council chief Barzani also related to U.S. support for a delay in the referendum until general elections are scheduled to be held, in 2018.

“When is the right time?” Barzani asked at the symposium, adding: “There is never the right time unless we make it right.”

Indeed, Washington – which is not enthusiastic about the idea of a referendum and the possible establishment of an independent Kurdistan – has no good explanation for supporting the postponement of the vote. In general, it has also has not articulated a clear policy with regard to the Kurds, just as it has not presented such policies for the other conflicts in the region.

The Kurdish leadership knows that the establishment of a sustainable independent Kurdish state depends first of all on the consent of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, more than on that of the United States. Any of those countries could easily close its border to the incipient Kurdish state, block its airspace and thus strangle it economically.

'We deserve it'

At the moment the Kurds don’t have a satisfactory explanation for what they seek except to say “We deserve it” – due to their participation in the war against the Islamic State and the suffering their people have endured throughout history.

Based on those kinds of claims, however, it has never been worthwhile to grant any people a state. The Kurds will have to persuade the countries in the region and the West that an independent Kurdistan will serve their strategic and economic interests as well. For example, the Kurdish leaders could say that establishment of a state will end the struggles their forces are waging in Syria and Turkey because their main demand, for independence, will have been met.

Leaders of a Kurdish state could propose creation of a "security belt" from the south to Turkey. And since the current crisis between the Kurds and Iraq is harmful to that country, an independent Kurdistan could facilitate within its territory commercial transactions involving Iraqi oil.

But even if there are people in Turkey and Iraq who are persuaded by these claims, anxiety over a domino effect is keeping leaders awake at night. The Kurds will also have to assure the West, and the United States in particular, that their future state would not become an ally of Iran, with which others in the region already maintain close ties.

But all these strategic considerations will have to wait in the meantime, because there are still bitter internal struggles in Kurdistan between supporters and opponents of President Barzani. If these do not dissipate, it is unlikely that the referendum will even be held. Such a vote can only happen with the approval of the Kurdish parliament, which has been inactive now for two years. To resuscitate it, Barzani will have to reconcile with the leadership of the Gorran (Change) movement, whose representatives he ousted from parliament. Gorran recently lost its charismatic leader, Nawshiran Mustafa, and there is no one at the moment who can take his place.

But even a reconciliation between Barzani and Gorran will not smooth things over because the president's term officially ended two years ago. At present not only Gorran, but its rivals – supporters of Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who suffered a stroke five years ago – are also insisting on presidential elections.

Despite all these obstacles, the idea of the referendum has taken on a life of its own. Moreover, it has presented to the international community an important question in principle, regarding not just the Kurds: When does a people deserve independence, and does anyone else have the moral right to deny this aspiration?