After years of struggle, the Kurds of Iraq have finally made a vocal decision about their future. They have cast a vote, and the vote is in the favour of independence.
For the uninitiated: on Monday last, the 25th of September, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – the semi-autonomous government established in the Kurd-majority region of Northern Iraq, known variously as Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Kurdistan – called a referendum asking its citizens if they desire to gain complete independence from Iraq. As expected, the Kurds of Northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly – 93% – in favour of acquiring a separate, independent state of their own.
Although unanimously believed to be unbinding and even “illegitimate” – except, of course for the KRG – the vote is being termed a historical development, as a unique declaration of independence; however, what many might not remember is that September 25 was not the first time such a referendum was conducted in the region. The semi-autonomous state that has held de facto autonomy since 1991, held a similar referendum in January 2005, conducted by the Kurdistan Referendum Movement, in which as many as 98.8% of voters voted in favour of independence. This was long before the emergence of ISIS – or ISIL or IS or Islamic State, whichever you prefer – which is generally considered to be major a catalyst in speeding up the Kurds’ movement for independence. 2005, on the contrary, was a time when the American invasion of Iraq might be considered to be at its peak.
One would not be wrong in concluding that it was neither the emergence of ISIS, nor the American invasion of Iraq, nor the Iraq-Iran war of the ‘80s that truly triggered the sentiment of independence among the Kurds of Iraq. The Kurd’s struggle for independence and the seeds of an independent Kurdistan were sown far back in the past, even before 1970 when Iraqi Kurdistan first gained autonomy within Iraq. However, despite their strong desire for independence, the Kurds have thus far been unable to achieve that Holy Grail. But why is that so?
One of the most important reasons behind the Kurds’ inability to gain independence thus far is the lack of international support that they have, which translates into a lack of international pressure on Iraq over the issue. Even after the referendum of September 25, Israel was the only country that declared its support for an Independent Kurdistan. Why its immediate neighbours – Turkey, Iran, and the war-torn Syria, if asked – do not support Kurdish independence is not hard to guess.
While 5 million Kurds live in Iraq, 8 million of them live across the border in western Iran, 2 million in northern Syria, and as many as 18 million Kurds occupy south-eastern Turkey. Each of Turkey and Syria have cooperated fully with Iraq in its attempts to shut down what its Prime Minister terms a “sectarian, racist state”: while Turkish President Erdogan has threatened to turn the tap off on Iraqi Kurdish oil, Iran shut off its airspace for traffic heading to and from the Kurdistan Region. Both have shown their intent to lend military support to Iraq with Iran holding war games on its western border – the one that borders Iraqi Kurdistan – and Erdogan has dropping thinly veiled hints that it may attack the infant state in the dark of the night. The reason behind their actions is quite simple: neither wants their thus far tamed Kurdish population to be reinvigorated with a desire for independence, after watching their Iraqi brethren succeed.
The superpower of US, on the other hand, despite showing disfavour of the referendum, might find itself a reluctant supporter of the Kurdish Independence movement, because of its citizens’ popular support for Kurdish freedom, and basically freedom of choice, in general. It is reluctant since in supporting the movement it would have to go against its allies Turkey and Iraq, and has several other arguments coming from quarters within, that render supporting an Independent Kurdistan foolish.
However, contrary to the very well-informed opinion of such highly informed intelligentsia, this scribe naively believes that the Kurds of Iraq and of everywhere else have as much right to self-determination as do such independence movements initiated by populations that we, the Pakistanis, approve of, e.g. the Kashmiris and the Palestinians. True, many might argue that the Kurdish movement indeed is based on racial and linguistic differences, instead of religious, but who are we to decide what reason is a strong enough basis for demanding independence from a state that does little to support its citizens of a particular racial stock? True, the formation of an independent Kurdistan would weaken the Islamic state of Iraq – the actual state, not the terror organization – but didn’t the creation of Pakistan and the independence of India weaken the British Empire? That, we declare patriotic support for, but when it comes to another’s similar fight for self-determination, and independence from oppression, we step cowardly back.
Well, ceteris paribus, perhaps Pakistanis should cease to expect the world to stand with Kashmiris when they, themselves, cannot stand in support of another minority, in a region far, far away, unrelated to their own – something that Kashmir is to many across the globe.