Commentary | The Uncomfortable Politics of the Kurdish Referendum

Commentary | The Uncomfortable Politics of the Kurdish Referendum

Chris Mullaney.jpg

Chris Mullaney

- International Scholar
- MENA Affairs Specialist
- The Middle East Institute

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Since its founding in the wake of World War I, the modern state of Iraq has struggled to develop any semblance of national identity. The country was arbitrarily created by European diplomats, combining three Ottoman provinces with differing ethnic, cultural, and economic ties. For the better part of the past century, the country has been run by parties that ranged in governing style from disinterested to downright exploitative. All of this, combined with the effects of a series of devastating wars, has created a number of deep divisions in Iraqi society. For Iraq’s two largest minorities – Sunni Arabs and Kurds – the creation of their own states is an attractive solution to these problems.

Following the Kurdish referendum on independence, this issue has once again been brought to the forefront of international politics. Certainly the reasons for the creation of an independent Kurdish state are compelling; Kurds are the region’s fourth largest ethnic group, speak a distinct language, and are concentrated in a contiguous area, but lack any semblance of statehood. Split across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Kurds have faced state-sanctioned violence and persecution for decades. Given all these issues, Kurdish independence would seem to be a readymade solution. Unfortunately, as with all cases of new state formation, international politics greatly complicates matters, making a complete Kurdish secession from Iraq unfeasible.

In the wake of the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence, in which 92% of voters backed independence, the international community has predictably come out in opposition to both the vote and the results. Only two prominent countries – Russia and Israel – have announced their support for the referendum. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors have forcefully opposed the referendum, with Ankara considering cutting off Kurdish access to a lucrative oil pipeline, Tehran threatening further blockade and isolation, and Baghdad contemplating military action. Given this intense opposition from its neighbors, it is difficult to imagine the landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan functioning as an independent state.

The United States, for its part, has been unequivocal in its opposition to the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Despite partnering closely with Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS, the United States has been loath to back Kurdish independence, due in part to intense opposition from Washington’s NATO ally, Turkey. Support for the Kurds has been a point of contention recently between the two countries, and the U.S. has tried to avoid inflaming these tensions further. Following the vote, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated American opposition to the referendum, saying that “the vote and the results lack legitimacy.”

Beyond regional political concerns, the United States has generally been opposed to new state formation except in a few specific circumstances. Even when the creation of a new state appears to be justified, the United States has hesitated to support it in order to avoid setting international legal precedent. Further, the U.S. is concerned that backing an independence referendum in Kurdistan could bolster other independence movements around the world, creating global instability. One need only examine the recent referendum in Catalonia to see that calls for independence can have a profound destabilizing effect even in Western democracies. Ultimately, the creation of new states is problematic for the stability of the international state system, which the United States has historically been committed to protecting.

This leaves Iraqi Kurdistan in an uncomfortable position. Despite the sympathetic views of many in the West, who recognize both the problematic history of Iraq’s creation and the invaluable role that Kurds have played in the fight against ISIS, the realities of international politics make material support for independence problematic. Iraqi Kurdish leaders may have overplayed their hand by holding the referendum, which has further exacerbated tensions within Iraq, while also stoking instability and panic in the region as a whole. At the same time, the Kurds have lost the backing of their most prominent international allies, seemingly leaving them at the mercy of their neighbors.

Although the United States has legitimate reasons for its opposition to the referendum, now is not the time to abandon the Kurds. Instead, the United States should pursue a resolution to this problem that accounts for the legitimate grievances of the Iraqi Kurds, while avoiding instability and violence. In order to resolve these issues, dedicated American leadership and a commitment to pursuing unorthodox solutions will be necessary. An effective solution may need to go beyond the dichotomy of states and non-states in order to accommodate all of the parties involved.

While such a solution is difficult to conceive of in the abstract, there are several steps that can be taken to provide Iraqi Kurdistan with greater international recognition short of full statehood. Such solutions, while not ideal for any party, may be necessary in the face of such an intractable problem. On a domestic level, Iraqi Kurdistan has essentially functioned with complete autonomy since the 1990s. Still, a number of issues remain that must be resolved, especially with regards to governance of Kirkuk. The Kirkuk region contains a mix of both Arabs and Kurds – as well as a significant number of Turkmen – but was included in the referendum for Kurdish statehood. A power-sharing agreement for the region, including sharing of oil revenues, could help ease tensions.

At the international level, the United States and the international community should pursue more creative solutions. While Iraqi Kurdistan is not an official state, it should at the very least be granted the status of a non-member observer in the United Nations. Iraqi Kurdistan should also gain access to the World Trade Organization and other international economic organizations in order to effectively integrate it into the world economy. Meanwhile, in all international negotiations between Iraq and another party, Iraqi Kurdistan should be given representation, such that its interests are accounted for in every international agreement. With access to these international organizations, Iraqi Kurdistan would be able to achieve international recognition and a high degree of autonomy, while still remaining a part of Iraq.

While it might seem to be a state in all but name, Iraqi Kurdistan would retain aspects of the Iraqi state, including economic integration and security cooperation. The formation of a quasi-state in Iraqi Kurdistan is by no means an ideal solution to the problem; it would likely still face some opposition from neighboring countries, and it would hardly resolve the myriad issues facing Iraq. But ultimately, if this type of unorthodox solution can provide Iraqi Kurdistan with the recognition and autonomy that its people desire, while avoiding instability and military action, it may be the best resolution to an intractable problem.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Banner Photo Credit:

  1. "Free Kurdistan" by Jan Sefti, Flickr

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