Kurdistan’s Rough Road to Freedom
Kurds in northern Iraq control their own land, maintain their own military, and share a common culture and language. They also have an overwhelming desire to separate from Iraq and become an independent state. But can a de facto nation become a real country if it isn’t recognized by the diplomatic community and offered a seat in the U.N.?
That’s the question confronting Kurdish Regional Government president Masoud Barzani this week in the wake of a non-binding referendum in which the region’s 4.5 million eligible voters authorized KRG leaders to initiate a process that might lead to independence. Turnout was over 70 percent, and more than 90 percent voted yes.
The exercise of direct democracy did not please Sunni and Shia neighbors in Turkey and Iran. Tehran called the vote “illegal,” banned all flights to and from Kurdish airports, then threatened to seal its border and start damming rivers. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also threatened to close Turkey’s border and plug the pipeline carrying oil from Kurdistan to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Baghdad denounced the entire exercise and announced it would be sending tanks into Turkey for a joint military exercise along the Kurdish border.
Erdogan’s bluster is not taken seriously in the Kurdish capital of Erbil since Turkish developers have billions invested in the region, and Ankara earns money off every barrel of crude transiting Anatolia. Tehran poses a more serious threat since Shia militias, called Popular Mobilization Units, and the Quds Force, which functions as Iran’s Foreign Legion, roam Iraq with impunity.
“We expected Iran to be hostile but hoped Turkey would take a more nuanced view,” admits Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, director of the Kurdistan Regional Government Liaison Office in Washington. “We did not declare independence; we declared a referendum that empowers the government to negotiate an amicable split with Baghdad.”
The fiercest critic of Kurdistan’s possible secession may be the U.S. State Department, whose diplomats are schooled from their first day at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center to believe little good can happen when a nation-state splits up. “Back in the early 1960s when African nations began gaining independence, the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa faced the question of whether to eliminate the old colonial boundaries and create new frontiers using tribal, linguistic, and economic data,” says Charles Hill, a former high-ranking official at State who now is diplomat in residence and international studies lecturer at Yale University. “The OAU decided not to redraw any lines. Unfortunately, six years ago, they decided to break up Sudan following a referendum and it’s been hell to pay ever since.”
Independence referendums aren’t that unusual. A 1999 plebiscite sponsored by the U.N. enabled East Timor to leave Indonesia. In 2014, Scotland voted to remain in the U.K., which two years later decided to exit the European Union. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 that created the independent nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic did not prompt turmoil in Europe.
Proponents of a unified Iraq argue that Kurdistan is different, since a sovereign Kurdish state with a population of 6 million that is excised from Iraq will affect the aspirations of the 22.5 million Kurds residing in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Politicians in Erbil concede that independence could be destabilizing if it is not pursued in a respectful, methodical way. But they vehemently reject Washington’s assertions that any movement toward an independent Kurdistan will detract from the war against ISIS and foreclose any support Kurds might have received in future negotiations with Baghdad.
Were it not for the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Iraq might be a terrorist state today. When ISIS invaded in 2014, Iraq’s army discarded its uniforms, abandoned its weaponry, and fled south to Baghdad, allowing Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, and the entire Sunni Triangle to be incorporated into the Islamic State. Kurdish soldiers stopped the ISIS advance 17 miles outside Erbil then evicted terrorists from the suburbs of Kirkuk. When the mountain town of Sinjar fell to ISIS, Kurdish fighters from Syria pushed them out, halting the genocidal elimination of the Yazidi people. Over the past three years more than 1,800 Peshmerga have died in Iraq’s war on ISIS. (Peshmerga, by the way, translates as “those who face death.”)
Since 2014, the territory under Kurdish control has increased 40 percent, to include most of Kirkuk Province and part of the Nineveh Plain north of Mosul. Some of the land is used to shelter 1.8 million Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State. Many are Sunni Arabs fearful of returning to Anbar, Saladin, and Diyala provinces because of rampaging militias controlled by Iran and its Baghdad allies.
The situation is even worse for Christians, whose numbers have declined from 1.4 million at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 to 250,000 today. Ethnically cleansed from Baghdad and pushed out of Nineveh by ISIS militants, many today live in the Erbil neighborhood of Ainkawa where the Chaldean archbishop is located. They, too, would like to return to Christian villages north of Mosul where until recently Aramaic was the primary language. The odds of that happening are slight since Iranian militias are busily turning the remaining buildings still standing into mosques.
The main impediment to a peaceful resolution of Kurdistan’s future is the fate of Kirkuk, the province and city where Iraq’s oil was discovered in the 1920s. Kirkuk’s oil fields are far less productive than those around the southern port city of Basrah, but Kirkuk is symbolically important to Arabs and Kurds alike.
Historically, Kirkuk was home to Assyrians, Kurds, and Turkmen, but in an attempt to secure its oil for Baghdad, Saddam Hussein began forcibly removing Kurds in 1991 and giving their homes to Arabs. By 2003, when U.S. troops arrived, 500,000 Kurds had left, and the city had a majority Arab population.
According to Iraq’s constitution, Kurds are entitled to 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues after “national accounts” like military spending are paid for. In practice, however, other expenses resulting from cost-plus contracts signed with oil companies working in the south reduce the KRG’s cut to 13 percent. This reduced allotment, which often never arrives, combined with the expense of fighting ISIS and caring for displaced refugees, has left the KRG so short of money that government employees routinely miss paychecks. Most Baghdad-based diplomats believe the KRG is moving toward independence because it no longer has confidence in Baghdad’s Shia politicians.
Despite Kurdish contributions to the war and Erbil’s openly expressed admiration for America, Washington remains a strong supporter of Baghdad and still dreams of Iraq becoming an Islamic Finland, separating Sunni and Shia in the Middle East. Siding with the Kurds risks having Iraq and Iran—both of which have petroleum reserves equal to two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s—aligning themselves into a theocratic petrostate.
For former deputy national security adviser James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to both Turkey and Iraq, the logic of America’s foreign policy is unassailable. “Gratitude is subjective,” he says. “The Kurds are an asset, but a unified Iraq is a bigger asset.”