A man casts his vote during Kurds independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq September 25, 2017, beside a picture of Kurds showing their support for the Kurdish independence referendum..
(photo credit: AHMED JADALLAH / REUTERS)
Conceiving an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq is no easy matter. The obstacles seem insurmountable. But anyone who values democratic values and the right of a people to self-determination and who empathizes with the Kurds’ tragic history cannot help but be moved by Monday’s referendum and hope it will lead one day to international recognition of an independent and viable Kurdish state.
As a religious minority whose political independence is at best grudgingly recognized by the nations of the Middle East, Jews are natural allies of the Kurds. Cooperation – particularly military cooperation – dates back at least to 1966 when Israel, with Iranian help, aided Kurds in a battle against Iraq.
Kurdish society in northern Iraq is remarkably tolerant, though the Kurds’ de facto leader, Masoud Barzani, is no democrat.
Israeli flags could be seen on the streets of Erbil on Monday.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his support for “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve a state of their own.”
Netanyahu happens to be the only head of state who has come out in favor of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
Netanyahu has since honored Kurds’ request to tone down support. Ministers have reportedly been asked not to speak out on the referendum. Kurds are concerned that their many detractors will use Israel’s support for Kurdish independence against them. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s vice president, said on Sunday during a meeting with US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Sliman that his country “will not allow the creation of a second Israel in northern Iraq.”
But Israel’s natural and publicized affinity with the Kurdish cause in north Iraq should be the least of the Kurds’ worries. The Kurds have no international support for the referendum. The US, the UN and the EU have all opposed the timing of the referendum. Their central claim is that it shifts attention away from a unified battle against ISIS and sparks separatism and infighting.
Turkey and Iran, which share borders with northern Iraqi Kurdistan, are openly opposed. A fifth of Turkey’s population is Kurdish; a tenth of Iran’s population is. Neither country is interested in igniting Kurdish aspirations at home.
The Kurdistan Regional Government gained relative independence in 1991, in the wake of the First Gulf War. In 2005 it held a nonbinding referendum in which 98% voted in favor of independence. But the Kurds are hardly united. The more conservative Kurdish Democratic Party, which has relatively good ties with Turkey, is at odds with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The two fought a civil war between 1994 and 1998 and control different parts of northern Iraq. Barzani, who heads the KDP, is not a unifying figure in Kurdistan. And his democratic mandate ran out four years ago. It was grudgingly extended twice but will run out again at the end of the year.
Also, it is not at all clear that northern Iraqi Kurdistan is capable of becoming a viable state. It has no access to the sea and is trapped between Iraq, Turkey and Iran, all of which oppose independence. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted during a speech this week that he was considering cutting the Kurds’ only oil line, which runs through his country, and which supplies Kurds with source revenue.
Also, many Kurds living in Turkey are seeking equality and recognition as an ethnic minority and see the creation of an independent Kurdish state as endangering that quest.
Further complicating matters is the fate of Kirkuk, under Kurdish control, but with a large population of Sunnis and Turkmen and which is not considered a part of the Kurdish autonomous area by the Iraqi government.
A unilateral decision by the Kurds to take control of Kirkuk, home to rich oil reserves, could lead to conflict.
Still, the creation of an independent Kurdish state, ideally through dialogue and cooperation with local and international powers, would right a long-standing wrong. The Kurds, one of the largest stateless peoples in the world, have a shared language, culture and history. They have suffered the duplicities of American foreign policies; the barbarism of Saddam Hussein’s regime; and the atrocities of Turkish persecution. They have fought bravely against ISIS and have maintained a stable and tolerant political entity. We hope that Monday’s referendum will set in motion a process that, eventually, will lead to statehood.