In 2016, Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told me that Mideast chaos had already destroyed the region’s old borders.
“There are new realities on the ground,” Barzani proclaimed, in his hilltop palace above the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil. Prime among them: as peshmerga fighters liberated Kurdish lands from the Islamic State, the time was ripe for Iraqi Kurds to hold a referendum on independence.
With the Islamic State caliphate vanquished, the referendum is finally set for Sept. 25. It won’t call for an immediate split, since the Iraqi Kurds want to negotiate their separation from Baghdad. Think of it as a Kurdish Brexit.
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Yet the referendum is fiercely opposed by the central Iraqi government and by neighboring Turkey and Iran, who fear it will inspire their own Kurdish rebels. And U.S. officials also strongly oppose it, insisting Iraq must remain one unified country.
Washington should think again. Barzani is correct, the Mideast times are a-changin’.
Rather than block a Kurdish separation from Iraq, Washington should be helping mediate a peaceful divorce.
Before explaining why, let me specify that no Mideast group deserves self-determination more than the Kurds.
An ancient non-Arab ethnicity with origins in western Persia, the Kurds have dreamt of independence since 1920, when the great powers promised to carve a Kurdish state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the World War I allies divided the beautiful, mountainous Kurdish lands among Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Gassed and slaughtered under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds have achieved a growing degree of autonomy since 1991. That’s when the United States set up a no-fly zone over their region to protect them from Saddam’s vengeance.
After the 2003 ouster of Saddam, the 6 million or so Iraqi Kurds set up their own regional government, which took on aspects of statehood. Although mostly Sunni Muslim, Kurdistan has become a haven for Christians and other Iraqi minorities fleeing persecution from the Islamic State and other jihadis.
The pro-American Kurds have also become an important U.S. ally, serving as a base for Western NGOs and a headquarters for contingents of U.S. troops. They have no hostility toward Israel.
So why is Washington opposed to a Kurdish referendum on whether they should establish a state?
For one thing, the obstacles to Kurdish statehood are enormous, from internal Kurdish divisions to a flailing economy undercut by low oil prices. Moreover, the Kurds’ landlocked territory depends on Turkey and Iran for the export of oil and trade, and Iran is especially hostile, from fear that Kurdistan could become an American base.
But U.S. officials claim their biggest objection is the timing of the ballot. A “yes” vote on the referendum may mean the Kurds won’t take part in Iraq’s 2018 national elections. Since the Kurds are usually a force for moderation, their absence might make it easier for Iran to engineer the ouster of moderate Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
Washington also fears the referendum will undercut the fight to squash the last remaining pockets of the Islamic State in Iraq by sparking fighting between Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Kurds.
So U.S. officials have asked the Kurds to delay the referendum until after the 2018 elections. But Barzani has refused unless he is given a guarantee that Washington – and Baghdad – will endorse a later date for a referendum as well as the Kurdish right to self-determination. So far, no such promises have been made.
A better U.S. approach would be to work to facilitate a peaceful outcome to the referendum.
This vote is really about giving the Kurds greater leverage in negotiations with Baghdad. The Kurds have deep grievances with Iraq’s government (and vice versa) over control of oil and finances – and disputed territories. These grievances have grown as Kurdish fighters have liberated some of the disputed lands from the Islamic State, which they now want to keep.
Since negotiations with Baghdad have gone nowhere, Kurdish leaders have lost patience. Yes, the aging Barzani is looking to his legacy and wants to be the leader who achieves independence. But he also knows he won’t achieve his goal without a successful divorce from Baghdad.
As I was told by Hoshyar Zebari, a top Barzani aide and former Iraqi foreign and finance minister: “On the road to independence, the referendum is only one step. Many think we will have the referendum on the 25th and independence on the 26th. Life is not that simple. Building a state needs a lot of homework.”
That homework may include devising a formula that joins Iraq and a newly sovereign Kurdish Iraqi state together in a confederation. Barzani indicated as much to me in his interview in 2016.
Such a formulation could allay some fears among Iraq’s neighbors. It might convince them that Iraqi Kurds are not aiming to unite with the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, or Syria. Indeed, they are not.
As Barzani indicated, the current Mideast chaos has created new realities on the ground that may have rendered current Arab forms of statehood untenable. New forms of federation and confederation may be needed.
If Washington ever develops an overall strategy for the Mideast, it must include new thinking about the territorial reshaping of the region. Supporting the Kurdish referendum would be a good place to start.
Trudy Rubin’s email is email@example.com.