Last week, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan held their first independence referendum. The results were telling, with over 90% of voters expressing their wish for independence. However, despite the Kurds’ warm relation with the United States, the State Department released a statement “opposing violence and unilateral moves by any party to alter boundaries.” While the reasons behind US opposition to the referendum are pragmatic and understandable, we could be losing out on the potential to support a Middle Eastern grassroots democracy with the potential to completely shift the regional power balance in favor of the West.
The Kurds are an ethnic group that inhabits the region of Greater Kurdistan, which includes parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish people have their own culture and official language, and are believed to have inhabited the Greater Kurdistan region since at least 612 BC. Throughout history, Kurdistan has been controlled by vast Muslim empires, from the Umayyad Caliphate to the Ottomans. In recent history, Kurdish nationalism was put down by the new Turkish state in the aftermath of World War I, and the Kurdish lands were integrated into the region’s current states. Kurdish nationalism has persisted though, and has reemerged during the destabilizing fight against ISIS. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been some of the most effective against the Islamist State, and many believe the Kurds have earned their independence through this fight.
The United States opposed the Kurdish referendum over fears of further destabilization during the fight against ISIS, but an independent Kurdistan could potentially be a strong US ally in the region, as the Kurds share many values of freedom that Americans do. Though most Kurds practice Islam, many practice a secular form. There are also large numbers of Christians, Zoroastrians and Yazidi, making religious freedom an important aspect of Kurdistan. Additionally, the Kurds support democracy for their home and autonomous Kurdish governments have developed institutions to make this possible. The Middle Eastern democracy the United States has always wanted is ready. It only needs support.
One unexpected source of that support has been the state of Israel. Many Kurdish Jews live in Israel but retain ties to Kurdistan. This has promoted Israeli support for decades. The support is mutual, since the Kurds see Israeli independence as a model for their own. The Kurdish struggle for independence takes after Israel’s. Wars with Arab neighbors and secular attitudes towards religion promote cooperation, as well as common modern enemies. Kurdistan’s geographic position puts it between Turkey, Syria, and a aggressive Iran. The Kurds also share few sympathies with the Palestinians, as a Peshmerga commander stated, “It’s not their state; in the years leading up to the late 1940s they sold their land to the Jews, now they want it back. They have rejected multiple peace offers because they want to throw the Israelis into the sea and that will never happen. I have no sympathy for them." With Israeli support, it is more than possible that Kurdistan can become a model democracy for the region.
Another nation that an independent Kurdistan may help in the long run is Iraq. While Iraqi officials have understandably condemned the referendum, removing the Kurds from the Iraqi political equation may improve Iraq’s chances for government stability. From a simple point of view, the Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis are the three major groups in Iraqi politics. All three of these groups fight over political control and appointments. In the past, each group in power has used its position to attack the other groups, none more so than Saddam Hussein’s air raids on the Kurds. An independent Kurdistan would remove a major player from the field, potentially making government appointments and negotiations fairer and more transparent to the international community. It would hurt Iraq in the short term through the loss of oil wealth, but if the international community is willing to accept and protect a stable, sovereign Kurdistan from potential Iraqi invasion, Iraq itself could see stability in the future.
Any observer of history can tell you the Kurds have earned their right to self-determination. If Kurdistan is formed, it will change the face of the region forever. It is now up to the international community to throw their support behind what could be the Middle East’s greatest chance for a functioning democracy.