After yearning for independence for generations, Kurds in Iraq are planned to take a major step in that direction with a ballot set for September 25.
While the ideas of democracy and elections paint a rosy picture, in essence, the vote expected to sanction a separate state, would be a gaffe- an oversight…a mistake to say the least. Primarily because it will result in aggregating turmoil in a part of the world already agitated by the fight against the Islamic State. It would also further threaten Iraq’s territorial integrity.
Postponement makes better sense.
In many ways, independence seems to be a rational and logical next step for the five million Iraqi Kurds, who imprinted out their semi-autonomous territory after the 1991 Gulf war. The Kurds think they are entitled to this long-promised referendum especially given that their military forces have played a key role in helping to defeat the Islamic State,
Kurdistan has progressed into a relatively peaceful region. It was lucky enough to have oil and gas resources that opened up trade with Turkey and Iran and brought in the needed revenue. After the 2003 American invasion, Washington worked with the Iraqis to draw up a constitution that ensured Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous status.
The Kurds have sought an independent state since at least the end of World War I. While the Constitution pledges them a role in the federal government as well as regional autonomy, the Kurds believe the Shia majority has not given them a square deal. This may be in all reality be true. However, the referendum would only intensify tensions and make it trickier to stabilize Iraq. It would also serve as a distraction for the United States, Iraq and their partners who are currently entangled in various operations against ISIS and simultaneously trying to rebuild Iraqi communities.
The vote, set for September 25, will take place in the three governorates that make up the autonomous Kurdish region (Erbil, Dohok, and Suleimaniah), as well as other disputed areas that are claimed by both Kurdish Iraq and Baghdad: Makhmour in the north, Sinjar in the northwest and Khanaqin in the east, and most importantly, the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
However, all is not sunshine and roses. There are also serious problems. Two families, the Barzanis and the Talabanis control politics. Corruption is widespread. As a result of political infighting, Kurdistan’s parliament has not met since October 2015- the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, remains in office four years after his term ended. Declining oil prices and disputes with Iraq’s central government have left the Kurdistan government in debt. Kurdish authorities are also accused of discriminating against minorities.
Most of all, the main question is, could Kurdistan make it as an independent state if Iraq and neighbouring states stayed hostile to the idea?
Some Kurds have dreamed of merging the whole community- 30 million people across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran- into a single unit. The idea’s non-practicality worries leaders in Turkey and Iran who view a greater Kurdistan as a territorial threat.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister recently cautioned that the Iraq vote would contribute to instability. Iraq’s prime minister said the vote would be illegal because it conflicts with Kurdistan’s constitutional binders as part of Iraq’s federal government. Moreover, a major chink in the armour is that the boundaries in the referendum include Kirkuk, an oil-rich area the Kurds control and want to incorporate.
The Americans and Europeans have advised the Kurds to delay the vote until after next year’s Iraqi elections. Even though, Mr. Barzani has responded by assuring that the vote would not lead immediately to independence but rather a protracted negotiation with Baghdad over a split, at this point, postponement is the better option. A Kurdish breakaway is risky; without adequate groundwork, it would further relegate Iraq’s Sunni minority to the side-lines, a group which is already subjugated by the Shia majority and quarry to Sunni extremists like ISIS.
Self-determination is an understandable. But just voting for independence offers no assurance that whatever state emerges will govern fairly.
Kurdish leaders should first ensure that Kurdistan’s democratic institutions are functioning, the economy is strong and they have support from Iraq and other countries before striking out alone. There are many options of which the easiest might be delaying the referendum until after the Iraqi elections are held and then hold the referendum under the support and monitoring of Iraq and the UN. This will give a chance for the Kurdistan Region’s leadership to make better internal and external preparations, and create a better environment in the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Kurdistan Region.
The writer is a LUMS and University of Warwick Alumnus. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI).