Don’t the Kurds deserve the chance to create their own state in the Middle East?

By : Gary Kent

Dramatic events at home have obscured far-reaching developments abroad. Two thousand miles away, the Kurds in Iraq vote on September 25 on whether they wish to remain in the country or negotiate statehood. The emergence of a strongly pro-Western country could transform the Middle East as it recovers from the bloody nightmare of the so-called Islamic State, known as Daesh.

The Kurds in Iraq run a quasi-state already on the road to independence. In my visits there I rarely remember I am in Iraq. The Kurds issue their own visas at the airport, their flags flutter everywhere, they have a commendable security record, and played a decisive role in defeating Daesh on the battlefield.

 They tried to make Iraq work since it was liberated, as they see it, by the invasion in 2003. They exercised their right to self-determination by remarrying Iraq and won a pan-Iraqi referendum in 2005which endorsed a federal constitution theoretically favourable to their interests.

Independence was put on the back-burner but it has become increasingly obvious that there is little appetite in Arab Iraq for a binational country of equals. Hopes ended when calamity struck in 2014. First, the Baghdad government unconstitutionally cut all Kurdistani federal finances. Second, Daesh suddenly captured a third of the country, the Iraqi Army collapsed, and the Kurds were left to hold the line alone.

The imminent defeat of Daesh in Mosul requires new thinking about how Sunnis, Shias and Kurds relate to each other. Status quo powers say it is not the time for Kurdistani sovereignty but Kurds beg to differ.

I recently met the veteran Kurdistani politician and former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari in their capital, Erbil, which was nearly ravaged by Daesh but saved by Western airstrikes. He believes that current international and regional conditions suit the Kurdistani drive for sovereignty.

Syria is too weak to exert a veto. Iran is vehemently opposed but faces intense economic and military pressure from America and the Gulf States. Many think Turkey will always resist but ignore an historic detente between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey. Zebari says that President Erdogan has been ‘reasonable’ and says Turkey would benefit from Kurdistan’s secure energy supplies and it being a buffer against the expansionism of Shia militants. Zebari notes that the Iraqi prime minister has spoken of the Kurds’ natural right to independence.

Kurds also reckon that the West owes them for their bravery in defeating Daesh. They have also won praise for their religious pluralism and moderation as well as looking after nearly two million refugees from Mosul and surrounding areas.

Independence is complicated by the fact that Erbil and Baghdad have so far failed to finalise the border between them and the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk, which is mainly Kurdistani.

Critics also argue that Kurdistan is too politically divided and economically weak to seek sovereignty. Their parliament has been suspended for the last two years after some street violence in a long-running dispute over the expiry of the president’s term although most parties have now backed the referendum.

Their economy has been devastated by war, the cost of refugees, a deep slump in oil prices, and Baghdad cutting their finances. All that exposed a deeply dysfunctional economy where state jobs go to party supporters in return for little work. The private sector is puny and non-energy income is tiny. The Prime Minister and his deputy have pioneered radical reforms to eliminate fake jobs and to live within their means.

Saying now is not the time for a referendum or independence is making perfection the enemy of the good and improving. Statehood, in my view, could also spur on reform which could be better supported by allies just as they do for other strategically vital countries.

The veteran Kurdistani leader and current President Masoud Barzani told me in Erbil that “we oppose violence and are ready to show flexibility over the timescale but not the principle. We cannot be stable or subordinate in Iraq.”

Kurds will probably back independence in the referendum in September while their leaders persuade the world of the benefits of an independent Kurdistan.

Source : Chronicle Live