On Monday, Sept. 25, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan voted in a referendum on whether or not to pursue independence from Iraq, and by all indications the result will be a resounding “yes.”
However, all of Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors are deeply hostile towards the prospect of an independent Kurdish state on their borders. If Iraqi Kurdistan decides to pursue independence, it could face a debilitating economic embargo and perhaps even a military invasion. Although the American government has also publicly stated its opposition to the referendum, it must recognize that the Iraqi Kurdish drive for independence will continue with or without its support. The United States must act as a mediator between the interested parties to ensure that the Iraqi Kurds transition to independence—or at the very minimum to greater autonomy— without the Middle East plunging into yet another catastrophic regional war.
“The U.S. government is denying Iraqi Kurdistan such a chance by opposing its independence referendum…”
The Kurds are the largest stateless group in the world, with a population of 30 to 45 million spread out over a contiguous area spanning through Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Kurds have suffered greatly in every country they occupy. For example, the Kurdish language was banned in Turkey for decades, and recently the country’s major Pro-Kurdish party has seen many of its leaders jailed. However, the Iraqi Kurds, concentrated largley in the north of the country, have endured particularly horrendous repression. Saddam Hussein’s regime killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds and employed
devastating chemical weapons against their villages—a war crime committed more recently by Bashar al-Assad in chemical weapon attacks against Syrian civilians.
After the otherwise disastrous American invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government, the Kurds enthusiastically supported the formation of a new constitution that granted them greater autonomy within a united Iraq. This was to be a model federal solution for the problem of ethnic tensions in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the promises made to the Kurds in the constitutional process were violated by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his successor Haider al-Abadi, as they fostered a Shi’ite Arab majoritarianism that excluded Kurds and Sunni Arabs from the political process. The Iraqi Kurds would have been happy to remain a part of Iraq, but their hand has been forced by a federal government unwilling to follow the word of its own constitution.
There is sound reason to think that Iraqi Kurdistan could be a viable state. The Iraqi Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, have distinguished themselves in the war against ISIS, and Iraqi Kurdistan has served as a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yezidis fleeing mass persecution and genocide. Although its economy and democratic structures suffer from a dangerous oligarchic streak, and it has sought to keep certain strategic non-Kurdish areas for itself, Iraqi Kurdistan has a far more open society and cleaner record than its immediate neighbors do. Iraqi Kurdistan will be, if given the chance, a welcome addition to the community of nations.
The U.S. government is denying Iraqi Kurdistan such a chance by opposing its independence referendum out of concerns that it will destabilize the region and will consume resources that must be directed to fighting ISIS. Furthermore, Syria, Turkey and Iran all oppose Iraqi Kurdish independence out of fear that their respective Kurdish regions will be galvanized to break off and join the new Kurdish state. To this point, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made explicitly clear his willingness to intervene militarily in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Iranian military staged extensive drills along its border with Iraqi Kurdistan in an eerie show of force.
“A refusal to support the Kurds would be another act of hypocrisy on the part of a power that styles itself as the global guardian of democracy…”
The surest way to prevent the Iraqi Kurdish bid for independence from devolving into a collective assault on Iraqi Kurdistan through economic and military means is for the U.S. government to firmly support Kurdish independence and act as a mediator between the relevant regional powers. Crucially, the United States should guarantee that Iraqi Kurdistan will not seek to claim Kurdish areas outside its borders. If the United States does not undertake this diplomatic role, the ensuing conflict will perpetuate the very instability that the U.S. is currently trying to avoid by not supporting the referendum. Now is the ideal time for Iraqi Kurdistan to pursue independence, precisely because Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran currently have so many resources devoted to fighting ISIS. There is a brief window of geopolitical time that must be exploited before Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors can bring their full might to bear against them.
A refusal to support the Kurds would come as yet another act of hypocrisy on the part of a superpower that styles itself as the global defender of democracy yet props up scores of corrupt dictatorships all the same. Supporting the independence of a democratic, religiously pluralist Iraqi Kurdistan is a chance for the U.S. to finally stand up for the values it claims to champion.
The Kurdish people have resolutely stood by the U.S. military in its ongoing battle against ISIS, and it is high time that the United States stands by them.