Returns show a high percentage of Iraq’s estimated eight million Kurds turned out to vote in a referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Region and other areas of the country with a substantial Kurdish population. An even higher proportion of voters – reported to be above 90% – voted yes. Much of the world, though, is unsympathetic, and statehood in today’s world depends on recognition by other states. So what happens now?
To be sure, there is not and should not be any automatic right of self-determination. It was one thing for people in colonies ruled by governments thousands of miles away and deprived of many of their rights to opt for independence in the wake of World War II. It is something else altogether for a region to secede from an existing independent country. A world of frequent secession would be in even greater disarray than the world we already have.
The question then naturally arises: under what circumstances should leaders and populations seeking to leave one country and establish their own be supported? There is no universally accepted set of standards, but let me suggest some that should be applied:
- A history that indicates a clear collective identity for the people in question.
- A compelling rationale, in the sense that the population must be able to demonstrate that the status quo is imposing a large political, physical, and economic price.
- The population makes clear that it strongly favors a new and separate political status.
- The new state is viable (the last thing the world needs are more failed states).
- Secession does not jeopardize the viability of the rump state or the security of neighboring states.
By these standards, there is a persuasive case for Kurdish independence. The Kurds have a strong sense of collective history and national identity, and failed to achieve statehood after WWI through no fault of their own – even though the case for it was as persuasive as those of other groups whose national hopes were satisfied. The Kurds of Iraq suffered greatly (including being attacked with chemical weapons) at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. An independent Kurdistan has the potential to be economically viable, given its energy reserves. And Iraq without Kurdistan would still be viable, as would other neighboring countries.
Nonetheless, the desire of the Kurds in northern Iraq for a country of their own is mostly being resisted. Iraq’s central government, worried about the loss of territory and significant oil reserves, strongly opposes Kurdish secession. Turkey, Iran, and Syria all oppose Kurdish independence anywhere, fearing that their own Kurdish minorities could be “infected” by the “virus” of Kurdish statehood and seek to break away and create a state of their own or join the new Kurdish entity carved from Iraq.
Iraq’s central government has threatened to close its airspace to planes flying to or from the Kurdish region. And Turkey has threatened to cut off the pipeline on which Kurdistan relies to export oil. The danger in such moves is that the viability of the new entity (which would be landlocked) could be jeopardized, not to mention the risk of military clashes.
The United States opposes Kurdish independence, concerned that the opposition of the neighboring states could fuel further turmoil in an already turbulent Middle East. But it is also true that the Kurds meet many of the criteria for statehood, operate a political system with democratic features, and have been a loyal and effective ally against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. And the opposition of an illiberal Turkey, an imperial Iran, an Iraq heavily influenced by Iran, and a Syrian regime that owes its survival to Iranian and Russian military intervention strengthens the geopolitical argument for Kurdish statehood.
One option for the US and the European Union (which has been similarly cool to the idea of Kurdish independence) would be to support or participate in negotiations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Such talks could aim for a compromise over how resources and territory might be divided or shared. Parallel talks involving Turkey and the KRG could address both economic and security concerns.
The US and the EU should also make clear that any support on their part for Kurdish separatism is not a precedent for others. There are already more than 190 countries, and the emergence of new ones is neither simple nor straightforward. Each situation needs to be judged on its merits. Groups have every right to participate in the determination of their future, but not to decide it by themselves. The Kurds of Iraq have made their preference known; it is neither fair nor sustainable to refuse to take their goal seriously.