The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is all set to carry out a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence, thus closing a circle which was opened 56 years earlier in the “September revolution” against the Iraqi central government, headed by Abd al-Karim Qassim.
The feeling of attaining full independent is getting stronger by each passing day in Kurdish areas. Cities are rising where the Kurdish flag flutters and the road signs, the street and store names and the media are in Kurdish, the official government language. It could take visitors to Erbil, the Kurdish capital, several days to realise they are in Iraq. By adopting the method of referendum, the KRG will join many other states and political entities to have employed this standard procedure.
Usually a declaration of independence needs to be preceded by a referendum. Without establishing the will of the people of Kurdistan on the issue, KRG leaders can hardly claim a popular mandate for such a move. Most recent independent states, such as South Sudan, held referendums first. But many Iraqi politicians and groups are declaring this referendum unconstitutional. As the experience in Yugoslavia showed, when ethnic or religious cleavages explode, the most effective path to peace may well be separation. And a Kurdish state has a real chance of thriving, as it could manage to combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy. This would amount to a win for pro-Western liberal forces in the Middle East. Let’s have a look at the factors which could make independent Kurdistan a success story in the region.
Strong Security Apparatus – The Peshmerga armed forces of KRG are an effective and well-trained Kurdish military force that defends Kurdistan very well. When the Iraqi military melted away after putting up only minimal resistance to ISIS in 2014, it was Peshmerga only which stopped the expansion of IS and even rolled it back. Peshmerga have decades of experience warring against powerful opponents such as the once elite force of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards. Peshmerga is very much capable of defending sovereignty of an independent Kurdistan.
Vibrant Economy – KRG now exports 600,000 barrels of oil per day, with up to a million per day on the horizon with existing and pending deals with large multinational oil companies. The KRG’s budget deficit has thus shrunk 99%, from $4 billion in 2013 to just $63 million in 2016. Together with efforts to boost agriculture (Kurdistan is nearly self-sufficient for food now), manufacturing and the private sector in general, the future prospects of the region look better than that of many states.
Unity of Political Parties on Independence – All leading political parties in Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Party – wholeheartedly support an independent Kurdish state.
Weak Baghdad – The Iraqi government in Baghdad will not be able to stop the Kurds as it lacks the required military strength to do so. The Iraqi army harbors deep structural problems like large scale desertions, widespread corruption and low morale. In this case Baghdad can’t afford to start any military campaign against Kurds. Even the chances of outside military intervention are slim as Syria being weak, and Iran and Turkey otherwise pre-occupied on other fronts.
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. The Kurds tried to make Iraq work after 2003 on the condition of federalism and a binational Iraq of equals with minority rights, but that hope has faded. Kurds are entitled to seek independence to enhance their secular and more progressive society as well as better relations with all neighbours.
Given how Kurds have been treated in the countries in which they live, it’s no surprise that they have demanded the right to govern themselves and are willing to fight for that right. So, it’s high time that the international community caught up with Kurdish desires and help the Kurds build stable, democratic institutions instead of taking the side of those who want to rule over the Kurds.
The West should respect the yearning of disenfranchised and oppressed peoples, beginning with the Kurds, for freedom, democracy and competent governance, which remains vital for a durable Western imprint on the region’s future. Time has come for the first redrawing of the Middle East map since the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which sliced up Ottoman empire possessions into nation states.
But it has still to be seen how Kurdistan chooses to separate from Iraq – like whether they do so by declaring independence in one bold stroke, or do it through negotiations with the central government in Baghdad for amicable parting of ways. It will be in the interests of both of them that separation happens through negotiations from which both sides can maintain key official linkages such as shared defence and foreign policies and hydrocarbon production which would benefit both sides in the long term.
Image: President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani meets with U.S .Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Erbil, northern Iraq, August 22, 2017. Photo: EPA/GAILAN HAJI