Kurdish Referendum: The Case For (and Against) Kurdish Independence

Yesterday, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq. While this referendum is not binding, it may well trigger a process that inexorably hurtles towards sovereignty. Though to be fair, the journey from non-binding referendum to independence in defiance of both the international community and hostile neighboring states is a long one.


With a population of over five million, the Kurds of Iraq make up somewhere between 10-15% of the Iraqi population – the third largest Kurdish population in the world, behind Turkey and Iran. With a total population of 25+ million strong, the Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East.

At the end of World War I, as the Allies were carving up the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish region within the Empire was split between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. A fourth neighboring region is in Iran which was not part of the Ottoman Empire. By having four sovereign masters, the aspirations of Kurdish nationalists were not only crushed within each state, but also by the other states as well (there have been more than 20 Kurdish rebellions of various sizes and aims since the fall of the Ottoman Empire). This was because each state feared that a sovereign Kurdish neighbor would inflame their own Kurdish minority. As such, the Kurds were left bereft of a state and divided among these powers.

However, since the end of the First Gulf War (1991) Iraqi Kurdistan, under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed autonomy within Iraq, and the 2005 Iraqi constitution now codifies that autonomy. It’s already a state in many ways – with its own army (the Peshmerga) and an independent oil strategy. It recently took control over disputed territories from Iraq, and while it’s foreign and defense policy is not formally separate from Iraq, in truth it functions entirely independently and often is at odds with Iraqi policy.

The Case for Independence

So why should the (Iraqi) Kurds have independence? The real question is Why not? Like all other nations, they are entitled to self-determination under the UN Charter (Article 1). They have a coherent national identity and, as mentioned above, are effectively already a state.

To be sure, there are over a thousand independence/separatist movements globally, and giving them all independence is simply not workable. However, states or groupings that comply with the criteria for sovereignty as set out in international law (specifically stated in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States) should be entitled to exercise that right to formal or declared independence (the criteria being a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states). Suffice it to say that the Montevideo Convention whittles down the thousand-strong list dramatically, but the KRG certainly qualifies under this convention.

Another reason why the time is ripe for Kurdish independence is Iraq. Simply put, Iraq is a failed state. It does not control large swathes of its own territory, and the authority it exercises in the areas it controls is anything but robust. Its army initially disintegrated when it faced off with ISIS (though now with help of the international community, it is slowly retaking lost land). It regularly makes the list of the most fragile states in the world. In fact over the last few years its ranking has only been getting worse – it dubiously just made it back into the top 10 this year. Moreover, in 2016 it was also ranked as the 10th most corrupt country on Earth.

The Case against Independence

Almost the entire international community was against the KRG holding the referendum. Iraq called the move illegal, and together with Turkey and Iran are ‘considering counter-measures,’ including sanctions (cutting off Kurdish attempts to export its oil through Turkey, shutting borders, other punitive measures), and ominously the threat of military intervention. As stated before, Turkey and Iran (and to a lesser extent, Syria) don’t want a Kurdish state on their borders as it has the potential to serve as a lightning rod for their own restive Kurdish populations.

The UN, US, EU, UK, France, and Germany all came out against the referendum. The White House called the referendum, “provocative and destabilizing.” Russia it seems was the only major power that did not to call on the Kurds to cancel the vote (and is now set to become the biggest investor oil and natural gas investor in Iraqi Kurdistan).

The argument against independence is essentially twofold: 1) Iraqi Kurdish independence is destabilizing, both within Iraq and within the neighboring states that have sizeable Kurdish populations; and 2) as the US (and others) has pointed out, Kurdish independence undermines the fight against ISIS, as Kurdish-Arab coordination is instrumental in taming the terrorist group.

Debunking the Case against Independence

Does an independent Iraqi Kurdistan destabilize Iraq? The question itself implies that there is currently a modicum of stability in Iraq. There is not. As mentioned above it is a failed state. It does not control much of its land. It is corrupt. And everyone is killing everyone.

Would Iraqi Kurdish independence inflame the nationalist cravings of the other Kurdish regions in the neighboring states? Hardly. There are already robust Kurdish separatist movements in all of these countries. The Kurdish region of Syria, Rojava, is basically an autonomous region already, and set to establish a new parliament. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – considered by the US and the EU (though not the UN) to be a terrorist group – has been fighting for independence for years. Their rebellion is the fifth Kurdish rebellion against their Turkish overlords in the last 100 years. In Iran, there are various Kurdish separatist movements, the Kurdish Free Life Movement being the main player (and on the US terror list).To be fair, it is clear that not all Kurds in either Turkey or Iran want independence – for some, equal rights will do.

The truth is that the Kurdish regions within the neighboring states should also be entitled to sovereignty if they so choose. It seems that Rojava in Syria is content with autonomy. For now. The Kurds in Turkey (and perhaps Iran) should absolutely have their own state, in areas in which they are a majority – though terror cannot be their method of actualization. These countries should not be allowed to repress Kurdish aspirations indefinitely.

The idea that a Kurdish state leads to the destabilization of the region is patently absurd. ISIS, civil war, terrorism, the use of chemical weapons, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons are all on the agenda already. Iraq and Syria are failed states and that has nothing to do with the Kurds, who, if anything, give a semblance of order to the region. And we haven’t even mentioned Afghanistan.

Finally, the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdish army, has been actively involved in the fight against ISIS. Why would this change if Iraqi Kurdistan is independent? They could all just as easily coordinate post-independence. It is after all, already a distinct army.

As to the international community’s rejection of the Kurdish referendum and/or independence, it is extremely unfortunate. The US has an opportunity to be bold, and finally to start to move to solve some of the problems inherent in the Middle East. We need to move past the idea of a unified Iraq. For the betterment of the people in the region. The question is, How much longer will it take for this to sink in?

Eyes Wide Open

It is fair to say that should Iraqi Kurdistan gain independence soon, a liberal democracy it will not be. There are enormous problems and challenges that this nascent country would face – problems it already faces. For one, nepotism is endemic. The KRG leadership is dominated by the Barzani family, with the president, the prime minister and the head of the security forces all related. Alarmingly, the president’s mandate expired years ago and he continues to lead.

The economy is another enormous concern. Erbil (the capital) was once considered to be the next Dubai. In 2011, before ISIS, FDI magazine said that it was “one of the most business-friendly cities in the entire Middle East.” Fast forward to 2016 when the Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister said, the “biggest threat facing the real existential threat facing Kurdistan today is the state of [its] economy.” There is an overreliance on oil and natural gas, which means that, with a 50% drop in the price of oil, the KRG has been hit hard. To this we should add: revenues owed to Erbil from Baghdad have not been paid; almost 2 million refugees from Iraq and Syria are currently in its territory; it has a very bloated civil service; and corruption is rife.

[On the positive side is the fact that the KRG is working with the World Bank on a host of issues, including reforming the electricity sector and grid, reforming the civil service, and putting in place some of the most progressive investment laws anywhere in the Middle East. It also has abundant natural resources and has simply bypassed Baghdad vis-à-vis direct oil exports.]

Finally, an independent Kurdistan will be a landlocked country with hostile neighbors entirely surrounding it. Some of these neighbors are extremely powerful, others less so. If it isn’t careful, it could be cut-off from the rest of the world.

The referendum on Monday was a step along the way to rectifying a historical injustice. The Kurds, like everyone, are entitled to independence if and when they declare it. We should welcome them into the family of nations.

About the Author
Ari Rudolph is a political risk analyst currently working in philanthropy. Before graduating from Hebrew University with a Masters in Diplomacy and National Security, Ari served as a lone-soldier in the IDF. Over the years, Ari has lived and worked in Johannesburg, Washington, D.C., New York and Israel, where he worked at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
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