On Monday the 25th of September, 93% of Iraqi Kurdistan voted for independence from the central government in Baghdad. This impressive result, on a high turnout of 72%, has been the cause of international anxiety. The USA had warned the Kurds against holding such a referendum; Turkey, Iraq and Iran were furious. Now that the expected ‘yes’ vote has been given so resoundingly, actions and words have become ever more severe.
The issue is this: the Kurdish peoples, spread out over the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, have for a long time been the largest cultural and ethnic group without a state of their own. For a long time, too, they have been persecuted and oppressed by the governments of the countries they have been part of. Most vociferous in his oppression of the Kurds was Saddam Hussein, whose forces in 1988 infamously conducted a chemical attack on the population of Halabja, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan, which killed thousands of civilians.
Not only have the Kurds faced oppression at ‘home’: they have had mixed support from the West. At its most generous, the West has supported a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan after the First Gulf War, as well as fighting alongside and supporting them against Saddam in 2003. The overthrow of that regime was an undoubtedly great thing for the Kurds. But Kurdistan has been betrayed by the West multiple times. The carving up of the old Ottoman Empire after the First World War left the Kurds nationless, and in the 1980s the US cut relations with the Kurds after supporting them against Saddam in the 1970s, thus leaving the path wide open for the Ba’athist’s genocidal rage to vent itself against them.
Given that the Kurds, one of the most democratic, politically liberal and feminist groups of people in the Middle East have been staunch allies in the fight against theocratic fascism, holding the line against Al-Qaeda and now Islamic State, one could hope for vehement support for them from the international community in the wake of Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum result. This would be too much to expect however- Baghdad has stopped all flights to and from the region whilst Turkey has sent troops to the border and threatened to cut off oil pipelines. The US on Monday declared disappointment over the holding of the referendum. Syria does not acknowledge anything but a single unified Iraq; Iran also lectured the Kurds on the wrongheadedness of the vote.
Perhaps, instead of the West worrying about the potential fallout of the claim for national self-determination of the oppressed yet strong Iraqi Kurds, our governments should rejoice at this development. Why ever not- a democratic, liberal allied state in the Middle East would be the result. Since the hopes for a unified, secular Iraqi republic have gone awry, it is time to support the Kurds in this enterprise. It would not be easy, given the competing claims espoused by the regional powers, but it would be achievable and morally justified.
Perhaps the fact that the Kurds have democratically declared their independence should mean that talks should be started with central government, rather than Baghdad and others emanating aggressively against the people who held the front line against Islamic State when the Iraqi army broke and fled. Perhaps solidarity for the Kurds should be the rule of the day. And perhaps that might just mean the West finally supporting, without reserve, the world’s largest people without a state against the impositions of a government alien to them.
In memoriam, Jalal Talabani (Mam Jalal): 1933-2017- a hero of Kurdish freedom fighting.
Image: Ask Gudmundsen