Iraqi Kurds have never made a secret of their longing for full-fledged statehood and there were indications – as recently as last week – that some regional actors might support such an eventuality. Still, the announcement (or “threat“) by the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, to hold a referendum on independence has elicited a mixed reaction – even among Kurds themselves.
Has Barzani misread the signals from neighbouring countries, or misunderstood US warnings to set aside those aspirations? Has he decided to override them and capitalise on an opportunity that many Kurds feel may never come again? Or is this a case of showmanship – a way to raise the stakes and gain leverage for his demands of a new Baghdad government?
During a visit to Erbil last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry asked the Kurdish authorities to support Iraqi unity and Baghdad’s fight against the “existential threat” posed by an al-Qaeda offshoot now known as the Islamic State.
Falah Mustafa, de facto foreign minister for the KRG, is not worried about the US. “I believe that in today’s world, it is the people who have the decision and the Kurdish people have suffered a great deal as a result of distorted policies,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone from the US. “The time has come for the Kurdish people to determine their own future. We are not the reason behind the breakup of Iraq, or the problems it faces today.”
If the US feels it has the right to make such a request of the Kurds, it is because Washington’s intervention has been integral to the measure of autonomy the Kurds now enjoy. Following the 1991 Gulf war, a Western no-fly-zone was imposed over northern Iraq, facilitating the establishment of the Kurdistan Region. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 further helped the Kurds to prosper, with billions of dollars of investment. But similarly if the Kurds have the Americans to thank for these achievements, then some Kurds will admit that they have the Sunni Rebellion to thank for gains made since mid-June.
Darya Ibrahim, a Suleimaniya-based Iraqi Kurdish journalist, says: “The Kurds have delayed this decision long enough. We waited and waited so that we could do it legally and if this is not the right time, then when is the right time? We had to wait for ISIL to come in and help push things along!”
The Kurds have delayed this decision long enough. We waited and waited so that we could do it legally and if this is not the right time, then when is the right time? We had to wait for ISIL to come in and help push things along!
The onslaught of the Islamic State – formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – has left a security vacuum across Iraq, which the Kurdish Peshmerga troops have rushed to fill. On June 12, Peshmerga were deployed in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk with the stated aim of protecting civilian populations. With Kirkuk, dubbed the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, firmly in hand, some pundits assumed the next step was either annexation to the KRG or independence.
But even among the Kurds, there is consternation that Barzani’s move may be hasty and ill-timed. As one source close to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party cadre told Al Jazeera: “You get to declare an independent Kurdistan once, and that’s it. So after all these years better get it right,” said the source who wished to remain anonymous. “Also, is there a point in having a Kurdistan if a strong ISIL are your neighbours?”
Kurdish advocates for the referendum on independence argue that this is an opportune moment because of a weakened Baghdad.However, sceptics point out that Kurds refrained from making a unilateral declaration of independence a decade ago when Saddam Hussein was ousted. At that time, it had less to do with a fear of challenging Baghdad, and more to do with incurring the wrath of neighbouring countries.
Today, despite encouraging signs, and possible backdoor assurances, none of these countries have changed their positions on the question of Kurdish independence.
“It was never a fear of Baghdad,” said the source close to the PUK cadre. “Rather it was Iran, Turkey and the US – all of which remain firmly opposed to a separation of Iraq – so the weakening of Baghdad doesn’t change that much really.”
But will the wishy-washiness of neighbouring countries over Kurdish aspirations be a hindrance this time around? KRG foreign minister, Falah Mustafa, is adamant: “I ask the neighbouring countries whether [Kurds] have been a factor of stability or instability? Have we not been able to introduce a successful example of governance? …These are achievements we have made in the last decade or two,” he said. “Our history of governance is successful. We have shown that we have a better system than the rest of Iraq.”
He adds: “Look at our history, we have made friends internationally. Where were we, and where are we today?”
If there are questions over the viability of a Kurdish state carved out of northern Iraq during the current turmoil, one need not look too far back in history. In 1945, Kurdish nationalists in northwestern Iran declared the “Mahabad Republic“. Historians are divided over how to view this republic: Was it a pawn between the Allies and the Soviet Union, or an early prototype of Kurdish statehood? Whatever the case, it failed to achieve official recognition, and was unable to bring in Kurdish tribes from outside the small Mahabad territory. When the Soviets pulled out of the region, the Iranians reasserted control and hanged the republic’s Kurdish leaders for treason.
If the Mahabad Republic was unable to survive in isolation without Soviet support, could an independent Kurdistan survive without the support of the US and neighbouring countries?
Mustafa is unfazed.
“Times have changed,” he says. “The republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad, we have to judge it by its own circumstances. But we have been able to run our own region since 1991… even after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. And, we have the support of the international community. If tomorrow we go towards independence, will we be able to keep it? That is the question.”
As events unfold across the greater Middle East, the prospects of an independent Kurdistan are growing stronger. For many Kurds, it is now no longer a question of “if”, but of “when”.