Chances are good you haven’t heard much about the Kurdish independence vote in Iraq, which is a shame because it’s way more important than the Catalonian vote that sometimes pops up on world-news-only broadcasts.
And if you’re like most Americans, you might not know much about this at all, so here’s what’s happening. The Kurds are a nationality without a nation: they are, in fact, the largest nationality who lack a country. Back at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was divided up among the players, the Kurdish people—distinctly different from Arabs, Turks, Persians, Dari, and the other groups who live in the Middle East—found their lands divided up by almost arbitrarily drawn lines. Their homeland was quadrisected between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
The Kurds always assumed this was a temporary oversight, given that Kurdistan, as a national name, existed in theory since the 14th Century.
Lots of new nations didn’t like the Kurdish people. Turkey horribly oppressed them from the beginning; Iran and Syria have kept them under a tight fist, and we all remember that Saddam Hussein gassed them in 1988 while ostensibly at war with Iran, not the Iraqi province of Kurdistan.
With the fall of Iraq in the 21st Century, the Kurds of Iraq always sort of assumed their long, internal exile was over and that Iraq would be carved up again and Kurdistan would once more be a real place. This didn’t happen.
With the Syrian civil war, Kurds in Syria hoped this could be their chance, and they demonstrated their loyalty to the West by utterly punishing ISIS wherever they found them: the Kurdish fighters are absolutely stunning in terms of bravery and efficiency. Of course, this didn’t happen, either. But in the meantime, the Kurds of Iraq proved they could function as a real government, and have something like an autonomous shadow goverment in place.
Fed up at last with waiting, the Kurds of Iraq voted for independence last week, 93% of voters announced they demanded independence. What could go wrong with that?
Lots—the Turks are terrified of this, knowing that an independent Kurdistan to the East will make the Turkish Kurds inconsolable. And if they elect to join their families in Iraq, or even declare themselves independent, Turkey will suffer a massive blow economically.
Likewise, the Iranian Kurds in the South could well decide they’re done with blackguards in Tehran, and declare their independence. If Iranian Kurdistan revolts, the leaders in Tehran are smart enough to know the rest of Iran could follow…and Iran, as our readers already know, is inherently unstable and would have fallen ten years ago had Obama backed the incipient revolution. Tanks are already rolling to the Iraqi border, warily watching what the Kurds do next.
Syria, already unstable, would surely collapse if the Syrian Kurds declared themselves separate. They’re the best-performing military in Syria’s battle against ISIS.
Not surprisingly, others are against this move. Russia depends upon Kurdistan as a natural junction of its oil business, and an independent Kurdistan would change the rules and lessen Russian control in Syria. Kurdistan would have a lot of oil, and are not friendly to Russia. They are friendly to Europe and the United States, which is bad, bad, bad for Russia. And the United States, God bless us, is despairing that the Iraq we sacrificed so many American lives to free could collapse with the loss of Kurdish stability.
About the only folks rubbing their hands gleefully for the Kurds is Israel, who appreciate that the Kurds would almost certainly run their new country as a stable, free democracy that’s mostly secular. Women are treated fairly well per Kurdish tradition,* and their Muslim population is, to put it mildly, pretty easy-going. As a hint, Kurds are very tolerant of both Jews and Christians.** Plus, taking the wind out of Turkey’s and Iran’s sails would be very good for Israel’s long-term survival.
Many of their non-Kurdish neighbors are displeased: whole countries in the area have suspended business with the Iraqi Kurds, canceling flights, shutting down supply lines, and more. Iraq itself is correct that the vote is illegal because it violated Iraqi law—law that the Kurds themselves helped pass years ago. In fact, Iraq views the vote as an act of secession. Iraq is already partnering for military exercises with Turkey and Iran—if you can believe it—to demonstrate that the Kurds don’t stand a chance if they continue.
But not all Kurds are in favor of independence. Many are declaring the vote a symbolic gesture: the truth is that Kurdistan would start off badly in debt, with a government not quite mature enough to avoid catastrophic, early mistakes. Independence, yes, but not just yet. This is something the United States does support, and we have advised them to take this in baby steps.
The Czar’s view? Well, he’s a bit sympathetic to the good folks of Kurdistan. If they can organize themselves, if they can restructure their debt, and if they can guarantee first-world freedoms, then yes—the sacrifice made by so many Americans will be justified if Kurdistan can create a stable, peace-loving democracy in the most unstable, bloodthirsty, and medieval region in the world. It’s about time our investments there paid off. And Kurdistan could do it.
Yet, if Iran, Turkey, and Syria suffer as a result of oppressing the people of Kurdistan for over 100 years, that’s just gravy.
* Still some work to be done.
**Compared to their neighbors, that is.