The result of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum was never in doubt, but the budding state’s future is. Of the 72 percent of registered voters who turned up at the polls, a little more than 93 percent opted to separate their homeland from Iraq. Independence, however, is fraught with the dangers of disputed borders, ferocious opposition from its neighbors and internal dissent.
As a longtime “friend of the Kurds” who made his first illegal attempt to enter Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran in 1974 with ABC News’ Peter Jennings but succeeded many times thereafter, I want to see them free and secure. More than that, my wish is to see them avoid the destruction and displacement of the kind that Saddam Hussein inflicted on them in 1975, 1988 and 1991, when the United States abandoned them to their fate. Their leaders would be well advised to proceed with caution. The Iraqi Kurds’ antagonistic leaders are Massoud Barzani in Arbil and Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, a formidable woman who acts as a kind of regent while her husband, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, languishes in a semi-coma. The Barzanis and Talabanis, though rivals, guided their people through the dark years of genocide by the Iraqi government and brought them to the semi-independent status they enjoy today. For that, they deserve our respect. They probably do not deserve my advice, but I’ll offer it anyway.
These creative, original, brave and endearing people must do all in their power to avoid the fate of others who also fought for their seats at the table of nations. Independence is not synonymous with freedom. The promise of self-determination may portend a descent into abject submission. Independent Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Sudan, Kosovo and other states have shown that the flag of liberty can become the cloak of tyranny. Given the refusal of all adjoining states — Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq itself — to accept an independent Kurdish state, a precipitate move toward independence will lead to a defensive war in which the Kurds will have justice, but little else, on their side. Wartime governments, whether under Abraham Lincoln from 1861 to 1865 or the German Kaisers from 1870 to 1918, push human rights aside in the struggle for survival. The Kurds will not benefit from living in perpetual conflict with everyone around them.
This is a delicate moment for “southern Kurdistan,” as Kurdish nationalists call the Iraqi portion of the vast Kurdish territory that includes slices of Turkey, Iran and Syria. “Southern” (or Iraqi) Kurdistan has no coastline, and all its bridges to the outside world traverse enemy territory. Iran has declared its border closed to Kurdish trade. Turkey is threatening to do the same. The Syrian route is blocked by civil war. To the south, Iraq is mobilizing troops along the disputed frontier that will become a fixed international border if and when its secession-minded province achieves independence.
Iraq’s Kurds have shown since 1991, when the United States and the United Kingdom declared their region a “safe haven,” that they can govern themselves. Though Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war in the early years, the two factions have kept the peace since then. Out of that zone of relative security, to which many Arabs fled first from Saddam and later from the Islamic State, came the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a federal Iraq under the 2005 constitution. It has survived the onslaught of the Islamic State and economic collapse due to low oil prices and financial disputes with Baghdad. Critics lament rampant corruption at the highest levels. Internal divisions cannot be discounted. Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group writes that many pro-Talabani Kurds “support Kurdish independence in principle, but oppose it if it delivers a Barzani-led state.”
Meanwhile, the KRG remains a haven for persecuted minorities. It is an admirable example of tolerance and secularism in a region where both are in decline. Kurdish independence, even in its de facto rather than de jure form, must be preserved as much for the Kurds as for the Yazidis, Christians and others who live among them. A hasty declaration of independence, using the referendum as justification, would invite invasion by Turkey, Iran or both. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly Sunni fundamentalist government and the Shiite mullahs of Iran disagree about everything except the Kurds: that their own Kurds will never achieve autonomy, let alone independence, and that Iraqi Kurdistan must not set an example.
Baghdad, too, is ready to wage war against the Kurds, using the arms it received from the United States after suffering defeat at the hands of the Islamic State in 2014. That war will be not over independence per se, but over the issue that divided Kurds from Arabs under the country’s historical monarchy, subsequent dictatorships and current government: the city, region and oil deposits of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a Middle Eastern Schleswig-Holstein, a place no one knew about but which caused several German-Danish wars that took over seven decades to resolve.
Kirkuk’s symbolic importance is as much a casus belli as its oil is. It was the reason for the failure of agreements on Kurdish autonomy between Saddam and the founder of modern Kurdish nationalism, Barzani’s colorful father Mullah Mustafa. The elder Barzani rejected autonomy without Kirkuk, and Saddam prolonged a pointless civil war rather than cede the city. Neither side would compromise then, and no side is negotiating now.
The Kurds are the most incomprehensible people I know. They are among the most religious of Muslims, whose attendance at the mosque is as strong as their love of alcohol, music, dance and erotic jokes. They pray because they want to, not because religious police force them to. Their openness puts them at odds with Turkey’s Erdogan and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. As warriors in baggy trousers and bandoliers with Kalashnikovs swung gingerly over their shoulders, they adorn themselves with floral bouquets like young maidens. They dance like dervishes, and they will give travelers their own beds rather than let them sleep in discomfort. They are contentious, argumentative, tribal, feuding, blasphemous, devout and, in my eyes, the most admirable nation in the Middle East.
In a perfect world, they would have their independence with the support of all those who oppose it. But this world is imperfect. Turkey and Iran are more powerful than the nascent Kurdish state. The Arabs of Iraq will not willingly relinquish Kirkuk. American military power will not solve this conundrum, although deft diplomacy might. It’s worth a try.