KURDISTAN REGIONAL Government President Masoud Barzani gestures during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, in April. .
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
Iraqi Kurds’ have finally set a date for a long-discussed referendum on independence. The time of the move, announced last week by Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, gives Israel a unique opportunity to openly support democratic self-determination for the Kurds.
The Jerusalem Post has supported full Kurdish political sovereignty for both moral and geopolitical reasons. In 2014 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his support, as have Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. But the timing of the referendum, slated to take place in September in provinces controlled by the Kurds in northern Iraq, is particularly auspicious.
The conflict between Qatar and a coalition of Sunni nations that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, has opened the way for broader Sunni support for Kurdish self-determination. Israel would not be alone in calling for the Kurds to be given the right to decide if they want independence. The US – which under the Obama administration refrained from supporting Kurdish independence in deference to Turkey – might now change course under US President Donald Trump due to the new geopolitical situation.
Shortly after Barzani announced the referendum, Saudi Arabia came out in support. Other Sunni states in the Saudi-led coalition will likely follow. The reason for Saudi support is not a new-found affinity with the Kurds but the conflict with Qatar. Turkey has sided with Qatar in its clash with the Saudi-led coalition. And one way the Saudis can punish Turkey is by coming out in favor of Barzani’s referendum initiative.
Egypt under Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has tense relations with Turkey, after Turkey and Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and opposed the military coup launched by Sisi. Turkey also supports Hamas, which Egypt views as a destabilizing force in Sinai.
Open Israeli support for the referendum will undoubtedly antagonize the Turks. However, while there have been improved relations with Ankara after years of tension in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, ties between the countries will never be as they were with Turkey’s Kemalist political leadership. Turkey is openly hostile toward Israel and openly supports its enemies. At the beginning of June, Turkey’s ambassador in Tel Aviv invited Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel – which was outlawed by Israel – to break his Ramadan fast at an Iftar function at the ambassador’s home.
Support for Kurdish self-determination will also anger Iraq. However, the Baghdad government has repeatedly rejected forming an inclusive government and has instead established a government for the Shi’a by the Shi’a under growing Iranian influence. Iraq is the product of a century- old artificial and anachronistic colonial carve-up under the Sykes-Picot Agreement that ignored cultural, ethnic and sectarian identities.
Still, the creation of an autonomous Kurdish nation in northern Iraq would bring many challenges. Kurds themselves are split. The more conservative Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which has relatively good ties with Turkey, is at odds with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). 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, three nations that oppose its creation and are united in their opposition.
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 a potential danger to that quest.
A unilateral decision by the Kurds to take control of Kirkuk could lead to conflict. The area is home to rich oil reserves.
Nevertheless, Israel has been presented with a unique opportunity to support the right of Kurds to decide for themselves if they are interested in embarking on the establishment of an independent state in northern Iraq.
The fallout in relations with Turkey that will likely result is a price worth paying.