On September 25th, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum for independence from the Iraqi state.
The plebiscite reflects the aspirations of the Kurdish people for self-determination. Though non-binding, 93% of the voters supported the referendum, revealing the strength of the Kurdish will for independence.
Historically, countries in the Middle East have denied sovereignty to non-Arab and non- Muslim groups in favor of Arab or Islamic hegemony throughout the region. Therefore, the idea of creating minority states has always been met with resistance and even violence.
In the Arab world, there are substantial non-Arab minorities, such as the Kurds, and non-Muslim minorities, such as Christian Arabs. Some of these minorities were integrated into their respective countries, but others were legally discriminated against or oppressed in some way or another. The only minority group to successfully achieve self-determination were the Jews, and Israel therefore remains a symbol of indignation to the much larger Arab and Muslim majority countries in the region.
This attitude has been encapsulated by the Palestinian Authority’s reaction to Kurdish secession in Iraq. Despite its own aspirations for self-determination, the PA has declared opposition to Kurdish independence because “Kurdish independence would be a poisoned sword against the Arabs,” according to Saeb Erekat, a senior adviser to the PA. Again, the Palestinians seem to hold onto this old Pan-Arabic, Pan-Islamic view that sovereignty of minorities is not to be tolerated.
Although they are Muslim, the Kurds have retained a distinct language and culture, and have viewed themselves historically as a separate non-Arab group with a unique tradition. About 25 million Kurds live in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey altogether.
In Syria, the Kurds have been discriminated against systematically; they lack Syrian citizenship and are entitled neither to medical care nor even bank accounts. In Iraq, they were subjected to coerced Arabization and under Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds and expelled many hundreds of thousands more.
In Iran, Kurds have been coerced into cultural assimilation and many of their political and intellectual leaders have been executed. Thus, when the Kurds approved the referendum in Iraq, the large Kurdish population in Iran was jubilant. leaving the Iranian government uneasy.
After the Kurds approved the referendum, Turkey threatened to cut off their oil pipeline to the region. The Iraqi government also made threats aimed at boycotting and making the Kurds’ lives increasingly difficult. Even worse perhaps, Iraq joined forces with Iran, aiming to secure Iraqi control over border crossings from Kurdish-controlled areas.
Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told the Kurds that the U.S would not recognize the referendum, calling it ‘illegitimate”, the coalition of Iraq, Iran and Turkey against the Kurds should be strongly repudiated. The U.S can try to mediate in the negotiations in order to pacify tensions between the Kurds and their neighbors, but should also strongly oppose measures against the Kurds.
The Kurds have been an invaluable tool in the fight against ISIS; for that reason, have proved to be one of most reliable allies we have in the Middle East.
Moreover, Iran continues to be a rogue state that carries out destabilizing activities in the Middle East and elsewhere. If the Kurdish referendum promotes Kurdish dissidence in Iran, this should be a welcoming development in itself.
In addition, for the government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in Iraq to use Iran as recourse against the Kurds, it is an evidence of how unreliable the Iraqi government is. Iran has established Shiite sectarian rule in Iraq and made way for the Sunni alienation that eventually gave rise to ISIS. The U.S must remain determined in its message that alliances with Iran are not to be tolerated.
Curiously, a news analysis published by the New York Times criticized the Kurdish leadership as monarchical, non-democratic, dynastic, and therefore unworthy of self-governance. These assertions are clearly untenable, given the fact that the governments of those neighboring countries that reject Kurdish independence are also patently undemocratic, yet their legitimacy is not questioned. The Times, which enthusiastically champions Palestinian self- determination, forgets that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is a corrupt and oppressive kleptocracy– not much better than a monarchical dynasty. Furthermore, there are very few examples in history where countries that gained independence immediately established a democratic government.
The U.S should stick to principles. We must act pragmatically, but we must also view the Kurds as our allies. We owe them and should not betray them. Members of Congress have spoken out on the issue; the Administration should do the same.