More than a century ago, a single suggestion made by an Oxford-educated British woman changed the fate of a nation. Gertrude Bell, an officer in Britain’s post-First World War Arab Bureau, proposed annexing a number of Ottoman provinces to the newly established Iraq, in order to keep the religious balance in the country.
King Faisal I, a foreigner who had been brought from outside by the British to rule Iraq, was a Sunni Muslim and the majority of the people under his reign were Shia. To help increase the Sunni presence, Bell suggested handing three Ottoman provinces to Iraq that had a majority of Kurds, a distinct ethnic group who are predominantly Sunni Muslims. Today, 25 September, the Kurds in Iraq are going to the polls to take part in a referendum on independence. They will be answering a question that they were not asked when Bell’s suggestion was accepted: Do you want to be part of Iraq?
For a Kurd, nothing is easier than answering a Yes/No question about independence – it is perhaps the only aspiration that unites Kurds. It is not so much the question, but the circumstances of the asking that makes this vote more complex.
Modern Iraq has been nothing more than a nightmare for the Kurds. Iraqi governments have used all means to crack down on the Kurdish political struggle, reaching a peak with Saddam Hussein who used chemical weapons and concentration camps to kill thousands. During the first Gulf War, the US, the UK and France put Kurds under their protection in 1991 by imposing a no-fly zone in the Kurdish areas.
This allowed for the emergence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish entity named the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI). As soon as they were on their own, Kurds started a bloody civil war which lasted for a decade and led to the death of further thousands. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani, were the main parties in the war, and a peace process brokered by the Western powers led to an agreement dividing the KRI into two administrative zones.
Following the fall of Saddam regime in 2003, the Kurds united their administrations and became main players in the new Iraq. But this did not extinguish divisions – the KDP and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), led by Barzani and Talabani families, strengthened their grip on power and divided the revenues of the oil-rich region amongst themselves. Despite interrupted periods of democratic opening and the presence of a strong political opposition, corruption, nepotism, tribalism and the silencing of dissent have been features of KRI’s experience.
Masoud Barzani, the 70 year-old de facto president of KRI, has been in power since 2005. His legal term ended in 2013 but was extended by the parliament for two more years. When political parties refused to extend his term again in 2015, he shut down the Kurdish parliament, causing a political crisis in the region. In June 2017, he decided to hold the referendum on independence.
Coming in the midst of a serious conflict among the Kurdish parties, the decision to hold a referendum divided the parties into two camps; for and against not the referendum, but the decision to hold it. While no Kurdish party is against the independence of Kurdistan, some have reservations on the timing and the way Barzani had announced it without the Kurdish parliament. This conflict continued up until yesterday when all parties decided to go ahead, take part and vote Yes, fearing consequences of going to the referendum disunited.
Kurds see independence as an issue beyond partisan politics and the yes vote would win in any referendum. But the failures of the KRI experience and the financial crisis could translate into protest votes. The small number of intellectuals and businessmen who have called for voting No in the referendum say they don’t oppose independence but the corruption and authoritarian tendencies manifested in the last 25 years of Kurdish autonomous rule.
In contrast to the bulk of Kurds, the old and new powers with control over the region, the UK, US, and France among many others, oppose the referendum. The annexation of Kurds to Iraq was carried out in the name of stability but led to anything but. Now, foreign opposition to Kurdish independence is similarly justified with reference to concerns for stability and fear of a disruption in the fight against Islamic State. The fascination with the fight against IS as the single most important measure is deeply rooted in a long standing Western dismissal of social and political dynamics in the Middle Eastern societies in favour of larger narratives.
This fascination has led the US and UK to turn a blind eye to Masoud Barzani’s grip on power and his suspension of the democratically elected parliament. The leader’s prestige as the head of a very strong Kurdish intelligence system and many parts of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces made him an indispensable ally for the US-led coalition against IS.
Now IS’s end is looming and Barzani wants to make sure that the territory Kurds have gained in the last three years will be kept. This includes the controversial oil-rich city of Kirkuk that is among the most important disputed areas between KRI and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The Kurdish Peshmerga has full control of Kirkuk and many other disputed areas which Kurds call “Kurdistani areas outside KRI”.
Although there is a very significant Arab and Turkmen presence, Kurds constitute the majority of the city’s population. While Kurds are generally among the very few pro-Western groups in the Middle East, pro-Barzani media has recently been fuelling anti-Western sentiments and playing on the sensitive nationalist feelings of the Kurds. He enjoys the image of being the leader who defies the international community and goes all alone by himself for a long awaited independence.
But despite the complexities behind why the vote is taking place, the Kurds will vote Yes and the Western powers should support it. If they do, even against the protestations of neighbouring countries, there is a chance that the Kurds will be able to address the internal problems they face.
Kurds want an independent but also democratic Kurdish state. They want a state where they are not deprived of the freedom to speak their mother tongue but they also want a state where they can speak their mind. Whatever the reasons for it taking place, this referendum offers not only a chance to correct Bell’s mistake almost a century ago, but also to create a rare example of a Muslim Middle East Democracy.
“Kurds have no friends but the mountains” is the most popular proverb among the Kurds. Today, it is the duty of the international community to prove them wrong.
Dana Nawzar Jaf is a researcher in Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the Chevening Scholar at Durham University