Opinion

The Birth Pains of a New Kurdish State Start Today

Kurds suffered their worst catastrophes in a 'united' Iraq. Today, they're voting and celebrating - but casting a wary eye at Baghdad's threatening language, and whether Iraq will escalate to outright conflict

Iraqi Kurdish women and children sit in front of a Kurdish flag at a stadium in Arbil which is being used as a polling station for the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017. 
Iraqi Kurds voted in an independence referendum, defying warnings from Baghdad and their neighbours in a historic step towards a national dream. / AFP PHOTO / AHMED DEEB
Iraqi Kurdish women and children sit in front of a Kurdish flag at a stadium in Arbil which is being used as a polling station for the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017. Iraqi Kur AHMED DEEB/AFP

The Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRG) headed by President Masud Barzani was determined to hold the referendum for Kurdish independence on 25th September 2017 - and all the attempts by Baghdad and other parties to stop it have failed dismally.

Not even waiting for the referendum to take place, the Kurdish people started celebrating a week ahead of the historic day in joyous festivals all over Iraqi Kurdistan.

>> Explained: Who are the Kurds and why are they seeking independence? >> Follow live updates from the referendum

Concurrently, friends and foes alike drew doomsday scenarios for the day after, suggesting that the region would be plunged into bloody wars ending up in catastrophic results for Kurdistan and the entire Middle East. Such scenarios were reinforced by the campaign of pressure and threats that Iran, Turkey and Iraq initiated immediately after the Kurdish decision was made public.

At this vantage point it appears that beyond threats, Turkey and Iran are unlikely to start war against the KRG. But the main question mark is what will be the reaction of the main loser, Iraq.  

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While Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi threatened the use of force, it is quite unlikely that the Iraqi army will open an all-out war against the KRG in the aftermath of the referendum.

An Iraqi Kurd checks for his name on the voting lists posted outside a polling station in Arbil on the eve on the Kurdish independence referendum. September 24, 2017
SAFIN HAMED/AFP

The Iraqi army is still licking its wounds from the war against ISIS, which is not yet over. Opening a new front against the Kurds will not only further weaken the army and halt the existing crucial cooperation between it and the Peshmerga, but will also trigger the revival of Sunni extremist forces under different names.

Baghdad's domestic considerations may play contradictory roles.

On the one hand, Abadi would like to present an image of a victorious and peaceful Iraq under his premiership, ahead of the upcoming Iraqi elections in April next year. On the other hand, he doesn't want to go down in history as having endorsed the split of Iraq; hence his threats of using force against the KRG, threats that might yet remain in the realm of rhetoric. However, it is quite possible that domestic considerations and Iranian instigations might push the al-hashd al-sha`bi militias to initiate battles in the disputed territories, especially in the Kirkuk region.     

Those who stick to the elusive ideal of a stable unified Iraq must be reminded that the Kurdish region suffered the worst catastrophes while it was "united" with Iraq.

Indeed, the last hundred years witnessed unrelenting wars between the Kurds and the central government, because the Kurdish and Arab national movements could not coexist.

Iraqi Kurds wait to vote in the Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station in Kirkuk on September 25, 2017
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP

As for the specter of civil war, since 2003 it has indeed been raging in Iraq, but between Sunnis and Shi`is, not between Arabs and Kurds.

Nor is the concept that a Kurdish state will destabilize the Middle East more convincing since the Middle East is already plagued with upheavals, not because of the Kurds, but because of the regimes that wrought havoc on their societies.

Similarly, the fear that a Kurdish state in Iraq will fuel Kurdish rebellions in other countries with Kurdish minorities is misplaced, since those Kurds are already in a state of rebellion independently of the Kurdish entity in Iraq.

The birth pangs of Kurdistan might be complicated and difficult, replete with crises and even war. But in the longer run, a Kurdish state is likely to be prosperous and a source of stability for the Middle East, having proved its tolerance, moderation, pro-Western inclinations and prowess over the last twenty years.

President Barzani has risen to the stature of a national leader who has the vision and commitment for Kurdish independence. In his own words: "I have two options now: my people’s quest or other country’s satisfaction. I choose my people's quest, even if it costs my life." He emphasized that since Baghdad would never accept the independence referendum, neither now nor in the future, "We will not accept being part of Iraq, neither now, nor in the future."

The die is cast.  

Prof. Ofra Bengio is a lecturer at the Shalem College and head of the Kurdish studies program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University