The Coming Kurdish Referendum.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the Kurds and their quest for independence and the establishment of a Kurdish state. That piece was published in the Jerusalem Post and you can access it here. On September 25, 2017 the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) will vote on a referendum on independence. Support for the referendum – and nobody expects it to fail – fulfills a Kurdish dream. The proposed Kurdish state would be in the Iraqi Kurdish region which has begun to establish some state institutions and has enough resources to sustain the new state.
But the interesting question is how the Kurds proceed after the referendum vote. The Iraqis are assuming that support for the referendum would simply open up conversations and negotiations concerning outside issues. In fact, the referendum will not change much on the ground but will send a message to the Iraqis and the rest of the world that Kurdish independence should be respected.
The referendum is actually a rhetorical device that expresses Kurdish recognition and their commitment to a democratic process that indicates serious intent. The Kurds have been slow to develop their own cultural and political institutions (not entirely their fault) and in the past have been more interested in concessions from Baghdad such as the Federalist structure that now governs the relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqis.
There remains opposition to Kurdish independence, even on the part of the United States, when the broader array of complex international relations is taken into account. Most notably, the United States always has to consider its relationship with Turkey. The Turks have had a contentious relationship with the Kurds for a long time and view some Kurdish political groups as a threat to the stability of Turkey. One goal for Kurdish leaders is to convince Turkey that they are no threat. Moreover, the US while supportive of the Kurds in many ways still uses them to manage the US relationship with Iraq. So the US has told the Kurds that they can do nothing toward independence or changing their status that threatens a stable relationship with Iraq.
In an interview with Bilal Wahab, a Fellow at the Washington Institute, he makes the case that the Kurds remain unready for independence and there are still many questions for the multi-ethnic state to answer. There are religious minorities (Yazidis, Zoroastrians) and ethnic minorities (Arabs, Turkmen) all of which must be integrated into some semblance of a democratic society. Is it going to be a true liberal democracy where all groups are equal in the eyes of the law, or is one group, namely Kurds, going to be privileged. Moreover, what about the question of those Kurds in other countries such as Turkey and Syria? Will they be welcome?
The Kurds have been promised a homeland and independence since World War I. There referendum for independence is a good start and I support it all of its rhetorical and practical deficiencies notwithstanding. But the journey from a discriminated against ethnic group to an independent state is a long and twisted one. Still, the Kurds are in line to start this journey with an initial “Declaration of Independence.”