Kurdistan in Iraq is on the threshold of fateful decisions. On September 25 it will carry out a referendum on Kurdistan independence, thus closing a circle which was opened 56 years earlier in the “September revolution” (thawrat aylul) against the Iraqi government, headed by Abd al-Karim Qasim. By adopting the referendum method the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will join many other states and political entities to have employed this procedure.
The first state in the world to have gained independence by way of a referendum was Liberia in Africa. In the referendum which took place in October 1846, 52% of the population supported independence, paving the way to the official declaration in July the next year. (However, it was only in 1862 that the United States recognized Liberia’s independence.) Since that first case some 32 states gained independence by way of referendum.
In the past decades, political entities such as Quebec in Canada, Catalonia in Spain and Scotland in the UK have employed the referendum procedure to achieve independence, but none were successful so far. Kurdistan in Iraq is following on their footsteps, however, unlike in those cases where the referendum remained a domestic issue, in the Kurdish case the decision aroused immediate reactions from neighboring countries as well as various international states and bodies. The question therefore is whether the KRG has a strategy for not just the referendum but more importantly the transition period toward independence.
The proverbial term “Gordian knot” means an intricate problem that can be solved by bold action and thinking out of the box. The metaphor is associated with Alexander the Great who according to the Greek mythology managed to untie an tangled knot by cutting it with his sword. Kurdistan in Iraq (KRI) is facing a similar dilemma in its drive for independence: will it separate from Iraq by declaring independence in one bold stroke, or do it through negotiations with the central government in Baghdad for amicable separation?
Erbil has opted for the second alternative, building its strategy on the following principles: create a fait accompli on the ground; call for a referendum on independence; hold negotiations with Baghdad on peaceful separation; and initiate a world-wide campaign to justify the move and convince neighbors and the international community of the viability of a Kurdish state and its benign consequences. From the Kurdish point of view the most important move was the fait accompli, which they achieved when the Peshmerga – the Kurdish army – took control of oilrich Kirkuk and the other disputed areas in summer 2014. It managed to do so because the Iraqi army crumbled in the face of Islamic State, leaving a vacuum which the Peshmerga was quick to fill.
The Kurdish leadership’s other move was raising the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk on March 21, 2017 – which corresponds to the Kurdish national day of Nowruz – to symbolize the region’s belonging to the Kurds. Indeed, if there is a single issue that has complicated Kurdish-Iraqi relations it is Kirkuk and the disputed territories, the bone of contention between the two parties since the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1920.
Historically speaking, the oil-rich Kirkuk province was the jewel in Mesopotamia’s crown over which Turkey, Iraq, Britain and the Kurds vied for influence. Being the great power of the time and the mandatory country in Iraq, Britain engineered the annexation in 1926 of Kirkuk region, which was part of Mosul vilayet, to the newly established State of Iraq. In so doing Britain forsook it promises to the Kurds to establish a Kurdish entity while setting the stage for the struggle between the central government and the Kurds over the region.
As long as they were a weakened minority the Kurds could not stop the central government from annexing Kirkuk. However, when the balance of power shifted temporarily to the Kurdish side its leadership, headed by mulla Mustafa Barzani, demanded the inclusion of Kirkuk province in the autonomous region envisaged in the autonomy agreement of March 1970. The compromise was that a census be carried out in Kirkuk to decide its fate.
Saddam Hussein, the then Iraqi strongman and the figure behind the agreement, signed it for the sake of gaining time, so that not only did he not carry out a census but from 1972 onward employed various measures to frustrate the Kurdish demand for Kirkuk. The worst of these was his Arabization policy, which resulted in profound demographic changes: while in the 1957 census Kurds constituted 48% of the population and Arabs 28%, in the 1999 census Kurds amounted to only 21% of the population and the Arabs to 72%.
The pendulum shifted once again to the Kurdish side after the fall of Ba’athist Iraq in 2003 when the Kurds felt strong enough to start redressing the demographic changes, demand a census in the disputed territories and call for a referendum on independence to be held in September of this year which would include these territories as well.
Mindful that Kirkuk and the disputed territories are the Achilles heels in the referendum because of their extreme heterogeneity, the Kurdish leadership has been attempting to mobilize support among the Turkmen, Assyrians, Arabs and other minorities. In its appeal to them it emphasizes that the region is not Kurdish but Kurdistani, namely belonging to the people of the land, that these minorities would be much more secure and prosperous under a Kurdish-led state and would enjoy freedom and tolerance in an envisaged pluralist democratic Kurdistan.
Concurrently, talks were held with Baghdad in the attempt to reach an amicable divorce which would leave the Kirkuk region under Kurdish control. However, reactions of the central government to the very idea of a referendum, let alone to separation, were not very encouraging. As to the reaction of world countries, ambiguity is the name of the game. Some countries repeat the mantra of a unified Iraq, others support Kurdish independence behind the scenes, and a small minority supports it publicly.
Indeed, the referendum itself is a mere transitional point and the main question is what will be the Kurdish leadership’s next step, assuming (as it does) that it will win majority of votes. Here too there is studied ambiguity, aimed at lulling the “enemy.”
In the past the Kurds were considered a destabilizing element in the Middle East, now the world has come to realize their important contribution to stabilizing the region and in fighting radical Islamists. Thus, the Kurds might use world sympathy for declaring independence shortly after the referendum.
The KRG’s main fear is the reaction of the surrounding states. However, while in the past the Kurds in Iraq were a mere proxy or a card in the hands of these states, now the Kurds have learned the rules of the game and can use other states as cards in their own cause.
Looking beyond the declaration of independence, the most important ingredient for its success is strong democracy. This is important for the cohesion of Kurdish society as well as for attracting world support. All the failed states, including Iraq and now South Sudan, have suffered from lack of democracy and herein lies the cause of their collapse.
To sum up, the instinctive reflex of the international community is to block the emergence of any newcomer into its midst. One important conclusion is therefore that one should decide independently on independence rather than wait until it is granted, because no outside power will grant it freely. In these circumstances, the main question mark is whether Kurdistan will follow the Liberian model or let the momentum disappear.