On September 14 more than 20,000 Kurds gathered at a stadium in Zakho, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, to support a referendum on independence. Photos showed a sea of Kurdish flags – the red, white and green with a yellow sun in the center.
It is one of numerous rallies in recent days throughout the Kurdish region and abroad in the lead-up to the independence referendum vote on September 25. The vote will take place in the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
At the same time as the rallies, Kurdish forces in eastern Syria are on the verge of defeating ISIS in its capital of Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control 70% of the city after months of brutal combat, according to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst on Kurdish affairs who is reporting from Syria.
Divided for 100 years between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria after the decline of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Kurds have reached an unprecedented level of autonomy in recent years, and there is a sense that this is a unique period in history. But it comes with tremendous pressure from foreign governments that claim that too much Kurdish independence can add instability to a region that is already unstable.
During a September 14 press conference in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, US Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk said the United States believes “this referendum is ill-timed and ill-advised. It is not something that we can support.”
McGurk – whose task, alongside 70 coalition partners, is to defeat ISIS – said that this is the “position of the entire international coalition.” He claimed that all these countries have come to the Americans and said they do not support the Kurdish referendum.
“That path is a very risky one,” he told reporters.
The White House doubled down on this statement on September 15. “The US does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum later this month.” The referendum is “distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS.”
The reactions are bizarre. Never before in history have so many Western democracies come together to oppose a democratic referendum.
This has not deterred Kurdish leaders. On September 15 the regional parliament met in Erbil, and two of the largest political parties supported the referendum.
The enthusiasm has gripped Kurdish communities in the diaspora, where large rallies have taken place in Oslo, Geneva, Cologne and elsewhere.
A unique feature of these rallies has been the presence of Israeli flags at all of them. This is because of historical warm relations between Israel and the Kurds dating back decades. It is also because of other connections that transcend pragmatic alliance, including feelings that Jews and Kurds have been historically persecuted in the region and share similar enemies.
According to reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on September 13 that Israel “supports the legitimate efforts
of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state.”
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked supported the referendum at a speech at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s World Counter-Terrorism Summit on September 11 and suggested the US should follow suit.
The lack of US support is not surprising. The US State Department has been deeply invested in supporting Iraqi unity since the 2003 invasion. On the other hand, since the 1990s in the conflict with Saddam Hussein, and later, in the fight against the Iraqi insurgency and against ISIS, the Pentagon’s policy has been to aid and support the Kurds. This means the US has supported Kurdish autonomy, but has been wary of the next step.
This is not in line with US support for self-determination in other places, such as South Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor.
The problem in Iraq is that the US feels a special commitment to Baghdad in the wake of what Colin Powell described to George W. Bush as “If you break it, you own it.” An independent Kurdistan, counter intuitively, would mean US failure to “fix” Iraq.
In an irony, the US attempt to bring democracy to Iraq is seen in Washington as being undermined if Kurds seek a democratic “Kurdexit” from Iraq, the way the UK has sought Brexit.
America’s Iraq policy increasingly dovetails with Iran’s, and that should worry policy-makers.
THE SAME contradiction exists across the border in Syria, where Kurds have come great distances since the Syrian rebellion began in 2011. Under the Assad regime Kurds were denied basic civil rights, even citizenship in some cases, and suppressed. Speaking Kurdish was enough to get people in trouble at university. Now, Kurds with the People’s Protection Units have played the leading role in defeating ISIS. But this has now brought them face-to-face with the Russian-backed Syrian regime in places like Deir al-Zor as ISIS is defeated. On September 16 the SDF claimed that regime aircraft bombed their positions.
In many ways, the current rise in Kurdish hopes and power bookends the dreams unleashed by the Arab Spring rebellions of 2011 that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, led to the Syrian conflict and created major tension in Bahrain and throughout the region.
In the region, Arab nationalism and Kurdish rights have been at odds, as regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s committed genocide against Kurds. Religious sectarian extremism has also targeted Kurds, from Islamic State to the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias.
The Arab Spring did not lead to democratic governments, and what oxygen it had has been sucked up by the return of authoritarian governments and religious extremism.
Kurds ended up as a bulwark against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but the next step after September 25 in the KRG and after the defeat of ISIS is not clear. It leaves many questions: In Syria, can Kurds withstand pressure from the Russian-backed Syrian regime? What will Iranian-backed militias do in Iraq? Will the referendum affect the KRG’s relations with Turkey and its export of oil? What effect will it have on Kurds in Turkey?
The US role is unclear. It has partnered closely with Kurds, but its long-term commitment in Syria is unclear, and its nonplussed view on the Kurds’ right to decide their future in Iraq is clear.
The referendum and SDF victories also affect Kurds in Iran. Aso Saleh, an activist with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, said that what happens in Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq will affect Kurds in Rojhelat, or the Kurdish region of Iran. He connects it to previous incidents such as the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the election of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as president of Iraq in 2005, and the rise of ISIS in 2014.
“In all cases we see a movement in Rojhelat,” Saleh said. He hopes that it means that the “[Iranian] regime can open doors to negotiations.”
According to Saleh, although negotiations won’t likely lead anywhere, it does mean that Iranian Kurds may be inspired to demand more rights, autonomy or self-determination.
Kurds face many of the same hurdles they faced in the past. In 2008 when KRG President Masoud Barzani spoke with US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, he told the ambassador that Baghdad had continually betrayed the KRG. According to leaked diplomatic cables, the ambassador told Barzani that a confrontation with Baghdad would risk “losing everything the Kurds have achieved so far.”
As the referendum nears, Kurds seem to be saying that it is time to stop listening to warnings and follow their hearts, as many other nations seeking independence have done in the past.