Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State

How much longer do they need to wait?

View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011
View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011 (James Gordon)

Western countries are falling into the familiar habit of discouraging Kurdish self-determination.

American and European officials have urged Iraq’s Kurds to delay their independence referendum, scheduled for next Monday.

The reasons are by now well-known: a Kurdish state would anger the Turks, destabilize Iraq and complicate the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All of which is true, but there will always be a reason to deny the Kurds self-rule. They have been stateless for generations. If it isn’t Turkish apprehensions today, it will be fears of an Iranian-Turkish condominium tomorrow.

The Kurds, one of the most progressive people in the Middle East, deserve better.

Iraqi unity

Of all the arguments against Kurdish independence, the one in favor of Iraqi unity is the most persuasive.

Should the Kurds leave, it could very well precipitate the collapse of Iraq. Without the Kurds, Shia and Sunni Arabs, backed by Iran and the Saudi-led Gulf states, respectively, are likely to fall out.

But nobody asked the Kurds if they wanted to play arbiter. They were forced into Iraq against their will. When they rebelled, Saddam Hussein imprisoned them in concentration camps where they were staved to death. Others were killed in mass executions or gassed. Between 50,000 and 100,000 died in what has been called a genocide. One out of three Iraqi Kurds were displaced.

Arab leaders in Baghdad complain that a Kurdish flag now flies over Kirkuk, but where were their troops when the Islamic State attacked the ancient city?

Where, indeed, has Iraq ever been when the Kurds needed it? All Iraq has given them is humiliation, subjugation and death.

To deny the Kurds their freedom because the people who repressed them might otherwise turn on each other is a moral travesty.

Not a liberal democracy

There are internal arguments to be made against independence. The Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, has used the war against the Islamic State as an excuse to remain in office beyond his mandate. Two factions, one led by Barzani, the other based in the city of Sulaymaniyah, divvy up state offices and revenues among their allies.

Iraqi Kurdistan is not a liberal democracy. Its politics are highly personalized. There is corruption and nepotism. Institutions are too often accountable to clans and interests as opposed to the public and the law.

But the Kurds do better than most in the region. Factions have largely avoided violence since the civil war of the 1990s. Foreign companies say they can do business in the region. Contracts are typically honored and enforced. The courts function.

Having suffered repression at the hands of larger ethnic groups for centuries, the Kurds show a humanity and a generosity to others that is sorely lacking in their part of the world. Kurdish soldiers have protected Christians, Turkmen, Shiites and Yazidis from the Islamic State. Kurdish gender norms are also surprisingly liberal.

If Kurdistan isn’t ready for independence now, when will it ever be?