It has been more than a year since Kurdistan’s referendum on independence. It was the moment when Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly in favour of becoming a separate nation state from Iraq, and its population dared for a brief moment to believe that it might actually become a reality.
The referendum felt, at the time, like both the culmination of years of work and the first step along a new path for Kurdistan.
The immediate aftermath quickly dashed those hopes. It featured invasion from a combination of Iranian and Iraqi forces, the seizing of Kirkuk when the PUK’s leaders ordered the withdrawal of peshmerga forces, ostensibly to protect them, and the quashing of attempts to achieve independence.
The time since has featured a growing Iranian economic and military influence within Kurdistan that is troubling, including direct Iranian attacks on Kurdish soil to target what it perceives as its enemies. There have also been increased efforts to put down any sense of Kurdish separatism by Iran within its own borders. The message from the recent bombing by Iran seems to be a clear repetition of the message sent in the immediate aftermath of the referendum: that Iran feels able to reach into Kurdistan with impunity.
The referendum’s political aftermath created almost as many shockwaves within Kurdistan as the military impact. The backlash against the moves towards independence claimed senior political figures, most notably in the resignation of President Massoud Barzani, with the result that a new generation of Kurdish politicians had to move to ensure stability and engage in rapid dialogue with Kurdistan’s international partners.
Old fault lines have reopened, with the KDP’s clear commitment to independence at odds with the PUK’s apparent betrayal of the referendum in siding with the Iranians. It has left Kurdistan as partisan and divided as it ever was, the need to come together to solve the crises of former years blown apart by the aftermath of what should have been Kurdistan’s most unifying moment. There has been significant jockeying abroad by figures within the PUK in particular to present themselves as the ‘official’ face of Kurdistan, and thus secure a seat at the table in those international discussions where geopolitical issues affecting the region are decided.
More than a year on, and it is still too early to assess the long term impact of the referendum. The long-term is yet to happen, and in many ways, Kurdistan is still sorting out the fallout from the vote. Even so, some general trends can be identified.
One key one seems to be that, counterintuitively, it is not Iraq that matters in this context so much as Iran. Baghdad’s influence is what Kurdistan is seeking to break free from, yet Iraq is beset by its own issues, and Iran is the major regional power. Iran is also strongly committed to preventing any Kurdish breakaway within its own territory, and sees any attempt by Iraqi Kurdistan to find independence as likely to result in contagion within its Kurdish population.
Another point is the reinforcement of the notion that Kurdistan can rely on its international partners for support right up to the point where they must pick a side. It frequently gets warm words from allies around the world, and did even in the days leading up to the referendum, yet Kurdistan must not forget that major international players such as the US are interested in Kurdistan largely because of what it can contribute to their own interests. The aftermath of the referendum has shown that there is no reasonable expectation of practical support for independence unless Kurdistan can offer them something in return.
In this sense, Kurdistan must take responsibility for its own independence. As Martin Luther King Jr once put it ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’ The temptation for some in Kurdistan is to say that it is too dangerous now to keep pressing for independence, and that we must hope for the world to give it to us without any further argument. That is not how these things work, though. The world will not give Kurdistan independence, because it is too invested in things as they are. Kurdistan must seek opportunities to take that independence instead.
At this point, the push created from that first referendum is gone, put down by outside forces with the assistance of some within Kurdistan who saw that independence would harm their own chances at power. Yet I feel certain that there will be further referenda in the future, to underscore that Kurdistan’s desire for sovereignty has not gone away. Patience is needed, but also the determination not to simply wait for independence to happen but to go out and actively create the conditions where Kurdistan’s neighbours will have no choice but to allow it.
By Davan Yahya Khalil