Iraqi Kurds’ Independence Is Decades Overdue
The Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence, taking place on Monday, is more than likely to pass. Sadly, however, not a single country (with the exception of Israel) has expressed support for the Kurds’ impending historic decision to finally achieve self-determination. Although the passage of the referendum will not automatically lead to statehood, it represents a crucial step forward that opens the door for negotiations with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to reach a lasting, permanent agreement on statehood.
Regardless of how difficult these negotiations will be, and notwithstanding the opposition to the referendum even by the Kurds’ allies — especially the US — the Kurds must move forward with their plans.
To put things in perspective, a brief historical account of the Kurds’ plight is warranted.
The Kurds are an ethnic group originating in the Middle East and are predominately Sunni Muslims; they speak a distinct language and share a singular cultural identity, despite being scattered across four countries. For centuries, the Kurds have been the largest stateless ethnic group (currently 30 million) in the Middle East, living under various empires and despots –where they faced discrimination and oppression, while being denied the right to enjoy their unique culture.
When the Kurds did attempt to establish a homeland, their efforts were short-lived: an independent Kingdom of Kurdistan that emerged in the aftermath of World War I lasted less than two years (1922-1924) before it was parceled out between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. In 1946, Iranian Kurds (with the support of the Soviet Union) declared a republic called Mahabad, but it collapsed the same year, when Iranian forces retook the territory.
Unsurprisingly, the four countries that most oppose Kurdish independence are the worst offenders of Kurdish human rights: Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. They have systematically and ruthlessly oppressed their Kurdish minorities, which has left an indelible mark of resentment and disdain toward these countries.
Turkey houses the largest Kurdish community (15 million people, approximately 18 percent of the Turkish population). They have been fighting to preserve their ethnic identity and way of life, but their plight under the brutal reign of Turkey’s President Erdogan is hard to enumerate. A UN report documented human rights violations including killings, disappearances, torture, destruction of houses and prevention of access to medical care, among scores of other abuses. Many Kurdish journalists are in jails and a dozen Kurdish parliamentarians were recently arrested, while collective punishment tactics have been employed against Kurdish towns and villages.
The eight million Kurds in Iran (nearly 10 percent of the population) officially enjoy political representation, but have historically experienced profound sociopolitical inequality, which emboldened the militant wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (KDPI) to turn to violence. In recent years, the conflict between the two sides has further intensified, forcing many Kurdish civilians to flee the country.
In Syria, the two million Kurds (about 9 percent of the population) have largely been politically inactive — though persecuted — under the Assad regimes. In the past five years, they have established a semi-autonomous region that Turkey vehemently opposes, fearing that it could prompt its own Kurds to seek autonomy à la the Iraqi Kurds.
None of these countries have the legal or moral right to oppose the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum.
There are seven million Iraqi Kurds (roughly 15 percent of the population), who have been the target of persecution from day one following the establishment of the state of Iraq in 1922. The Kurds were mercilessly victimized under Saddam Hussein’s regime, which killed at least 50,000 Kurds during the 1980s. Hussein also gassed 5,000 men, women and children to death in 1988. Since 1991, the Kurds have consolidated autonomous rule under American protection, which gave them the space to build a self-governing region that now enjoys all the markers of an emergent independent state.
Years of subjugation, mistreatment, discrimination and brutal repression have left the Iraqi Kurdish community determined to never again subject themselves to the whims of any Iraqi government. Kurdish nationalism is the real engine behind their drive toward statehood, and they will never compromise that — regardless of the near-universal opposition to their political independence.
The Iraqi Kurdish president, Mr. Barzani, has rejected a warning from the US that pursuing independence at this juncture will further destabilize the region and irreparably divide Iraq. “When” he asked, “have we ever had stability and security in this region that we should be concerned about losing it? When was Iraq so united that we should be worried about breaking its unity? Those who are saying these, they are just looking for excuses to stop us.”
The irony is that while the Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish governments want their Kurdish communities to be loyal citizens, they have never understood that the Kurds’ allegiance to their respective countries depends on the way that they are treated, the freedoms they are granted and the civility that they are accorded. To demand unconditional loyalty while robbing the Kurds of their basic human rights is the height of hypocrisy and falsehood.
Moreover, the raging madness in the Middle East further strengthens the Kurds’ resolve to establish autonomous rule.
The Iraqi government will eventually resolve to negotiate with the Kurds — provided that Kirkuk is not included in the new state. Kirkuk is a contentious issue because of its huge reservoir of oil, and the fact that nearly half of its population are Arabs and Turkmen. Although Barzani insists that Kirkuk must be included in the referendum, he must work with the Iraqi government to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution.
The US and the EU must demonstrate that human rights, freedom and democracy are the inherent rights of every ethnic group, wherever they may reside — especially when they are grossly mistreated and their basic civil and human rights are systematically violated. Preaching the gospel of human rights but denying them to people who have been subjected to persecution and marginalization is hypocritical, deceitful and sinister.
The US’ hypocrisy is particularly daunting because the Kurds have and continue to faithfully fight side-by-side the US and its allies against ISIS. Rejecting their quest for self-determination after years of suffering and brutalization is unconscionable and shameful.
The US and EU must be at the forefront of supporting Iraqi Kurdish independence, and help bring an end to the historic travesty that has been inflicted on this population.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.