Exercising self-determination has isolated the Kurds

The Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq has provided a golden opportunity for the West that they will surely squander.
 
The Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence for the region in Monday’s referendum. Out of 3.3 million voters, 92% voted in favour of secession from Iraq, with a turnout of 72.6% and, it seems, no allegations of vote tampering. Few collective expressions of self-determination in history have been so conclusive and airtight.
 
So why am I so convinced it will never happen, at least not peacefully?
 
It is profoundly unfortunate for the Kurds that they find themselves living in the most complex of geopolitical webs, with nearly every major power in the region opposed to their bid for independence.
 

Map showing the Kurdish populations in the Middle East // Source: BBC

 
First, the obvious: Iraq’s ruling party considers the referendum to be unconstitutional, and prime minister Haider al-Abadi has already urged the Kurds to ‘cancel’ the results and threatened to “impose Iraq’s rule”.
 
Worse, Turkey’s despot, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – ever fearful of the concept of Kurdish autonomy – has already promised a war, vowing to “close the oil taps” and halt the flow of food trucks to majority-Kurd northern Iraq. Iran and Syria have also come out in opposition, with one Iranian senior adviser calling president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, “a middleman for Zionists, who seeks to implement their plans for the division of Muslim states.”
 
Naturally, Iraq will not support the partition of its territory, particularly due to the valuable oil and gas fields in the region, and in the numerous Arab-populated “disputed territories” the Kurds had claimed from ISIS where, on Monday, the vote was also held. Iran, Syria and Turkey all have their own Kurdish populations, whose aspirations for independence must be tempered at all costs. Russia has yet to explicitly reject or condemn the referendum result and, with Putin on his way to Ankara, it will be interesting to see how Kurdistan’s top funder of oil and gas deals manages the situation.
 
A Kurdish brigade outside the village of Qarqashah, Iraq in August, 2016 // Source: Associated Press, Susannah George

 
Opposition in the West – though not unanimous  – has been fairly predictable among those whose actions will matter. Most statements have centred on the need for stability, and the insistence that “it’s not the right time” for a people, crudely and arbitrarily separated a century ago, to finally be allowed determine their own fate. Of course, there will never be a right time. There is no economic or political incentive to support Kurdish independence, only the opportunity to finally uphold international law at a time when it truly matters.
 
In an era when negative public opinion of Islam facilitates the destruction and exploitation of Muslim countries, the Kurds are evidence that Islam and liberalism are compatible. Secularism is an essential part of their ethnic identity and nation-building strategy, balanced with the many religious identities within the Kurdish regions. It’s something worth preserving, and it’s something worth rewarding with autonomy.
 
It’s nearly a hundred years since Sharif Pasha presented his Memorandum on the Claims of the Kurd People, and their claims have only grown stronger. Their role in the war against ISIS cannot be understated (a debt is truly owed), and the referendum provides a clear and legitimate mandate for independence under UNGA resolution 2625, which sets out the duty of states to respect peoples’ right to self-determination. For Europe and the US to not help the Kurds now would be an injustice, and their track record in the region does not fill me with confidence. There are too many vested interests for the right thing to happen. 

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