Kurdistan has long been a land of opportunity in both material and social respects, yet far too often, it has also been a land of missed opportunities, particularly in regard to the possibility of an independent state.
Since 1991, Kurdistan has had numerous opportunities to grasp greater autonomy and even independence. From its institution as an autonomous region, it could have insisted on full independence. Again, on the fall of Saddam, it could have declared the moment for an end to its links to Baghdad. It could have used any of the many political and military crises in Iraq as the catalyst, or Baghdad’s refusal to honour the terms of its funding agreements.
None of these moments came to pass, though. Even the referendum that clearly showed the desire for independence did not lead to it, as the countries surrounding Kurdistan employed military force to prevent the possibility, while the outside world stood by to allow them to do so. In this situation, we must ask whether Kurdistan is doomed to always squander the opportunities it has for independence, and always to be caught on the cusp of it, or whether it will actually happen at some point in the near future.
The elements that have caused the many failed pushes towards independence are relatively well established by this point, resting on a combination of internal division and outside pressure. Internally, it seems surprising that there should be so many arguments about the idea of independence when it seems clear that the vast majority of Kurdistan’s citizens support it, yet those arguments persist, perhaps because many of them aren’t really about independence. They’re about who would have power in a post independence state, what form that state would take, and the impact on long established groups.
These internal divisions found their most dangerous expression in Kurdistan’s civil war, which established dangerous precedents for the surrounding states being able to enter Kurdistan to interfere, showed that they would see few sanctions for doing so, and reinforced the dangerous perception in the outside world that Kurdistan’s factions would be incapable of running a state together without the arguments becoming too great. Even today, in the aftermath of the referendum, the tendency has been for the region’s main parties to retreat into their long held bastions of influence around key cities.
The outside pressures on Kurdistan are, if anything, even greater. The difficulty in charting a path towards independence is largely that it requires balancing the interests of a number of surrounding nations, several of which are entirely set against the possibility and prepared to back up that position with force. Turkey, Iran and Syria all have sections of their Kurdish populations who are either engaged in active resistance to the governments there or have been in the recent past. All tend to see any move towards independence by Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential rallying call for their own Kurdish areas, and feel that they must stop it in order to prevent any spread of the idea.
The wider world, meanwhile, tends to make all the right noises about Kurdistan’s people having the autonomy to decide what to do with their lands, and calls them close allies when they are fighting wars on their behalf against a range of threats, yet settles for a kind of disinterested neutrality from a distance while Kurdistan’s neighbours are putting down any move towards independence. They do so in the name of not wishing to interfere further in the Middle East’s affairs, or in the even more nebulous name of stability.
These three elements seem like a toxic coincidence, a trio of factors flung from the darkness to beset Kurdistan in just the wrong combination, yet there is nothing coincidental about them. Instead, Kurdistan suffers from one great factor that is both curse and blessing: an abundance of natural resources, particularly oil. These resources are what the region’s factions have historically fought for control of, what its neighbours cannot afford to let go of along with their Kurdish areas, and what the international community wishes to see continuing to flow outwards from the area, even at the cost of human rights or sovereignty.
Put like that, is Kurdistan doomed to stay in the position it is, trapped by the very resources that give it the economic capacity to sustain independence? There are certainly those who would argue that Kurdistan is better off seeking an accommodation within the existing Iraqi state, yet does the answer have to be so limited.
Kurdistan’s Jewish allies in Israel have shown that an independent, self supporting state in the Middle East is possible, and have demonstrated the importance of such a state for a people if they are to be truly safe in the face of groups who would see them as lesser citizens at best and a problem to be removed at worst. They have also shown Kurdistan that there are at least some countries nearby who are willing to offer it support as an independent, moderate voice in the region.
Does this mean that independence will not be both difficult and potentially dangerous? No, of course not. It is a possibility though, and an opportunity. Kurdistan has failed to grasp far too many such opportunities in the past, so perhaps this is the moment when it must. What will future generations think of us if we do not achieve independence? Will they think that we did not have the opportunity, or that we squandered it when it was there?
By Davan Yahya Khalil