Kurdistan's independence: How to untie the Iraqi Gordian knot?

Kurdistan in Iraq is on the threshold of fateful decisions. After much hesitation the leadership decided to carry out a referendum on Kurdistan independence on 25 September 2017, thus closing a circle which opened 56 years earlier with what the Kurds term "September revolution" (thawrat aylul) against the Iraqi government headed by `Abd al-Karim Qassem. By adopting the referendum method the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) joined many other states and political entities which employed this procedure.

The first state to have gained independence through referendum was Liberia.  In the referendum which took place in October 1846, 52% supported independence paving the way to the declaration in July of the next year. However, it was only in 1862 that the United States recognized and accepted Liberia's independence. Since that first case up to the present time some 32 states gained their independence through referendum.

In the last decades, political entities such as Quebec in Canada, Catalonia in Spain and Scotland in Britain have used the referendum procedure in order to achieve independence but none was successful so far. Kurdistan in Iraq is another such case, however, unlike in these entities where the referendum remained a domestic issue in the Kurdish case the decision aroused immediate reactions from neighboring countries as well as various international states and bodies. The question is therefore what should the KRG do to cross smoothly not just the referendum but more importantly the transition period towards independence?

The proverbial term "Gordian knot" means solving an intricate problem by a bold action or by thinking out of the box. The metaphor is associated with Alexander the Great who according to the Greek mythology managed to untie an entangled knot by cutting it with his sword. Kurdistan in Iraq (KRI) is facing a similar dilemma in its drive for independence: Will it separate from Iraq by declaring independence in one bold stroke or do it through negotiations with the central government in Baghdad for amicable separation.

It seems that Erbil has opted for the second alternative building its strategy on the following moves: Make fait accompli on the ground; call for a referendum on independence; hold negotiations with Baghdad on peaceful separation; and initiate a world- wide campaign to justify the move and convince the neighbors and the international community of the viability of a Kurdish state and its benign consequences.

From the Kurdish point of view the most important development was the fait accompli which they made on the ground when the Peshmerga-- the Kurdish army took control of Kirkuk and the other disputed areas in summer 2014. They managed to do so as a result of the crumbling of the Iraqi army in front of Da`ish and the so called Islamic State which they established in June-July of that year.  The Kurdish leadership's second move was the raising of the Kurdish flag on 21st of March 2017 which corresponds with the Kurdish national day of Nowruz.  Indeed, if there is one single problem that has complicated Kurdish Iraqi relations it is Kirkuk and the disputed territories, the bone of contention between the two parties since the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1920.

Historically speaking, the oil rich Kirkuk province was the Jewel in the Mesopotamia's crown over which Turkey, Iraq, Britain and the Kurds vied for influence. Being the Great power of the time and the mandatory country in Iraq, Britain engineered the annexation in 1926 of this region which was part of the Mosul vilayet to the newly established state of Iraq. In so doing Britain forsook it promises to the Kurds to establish an entity of their own and lay the basis for the struggle between the central government and the Kurds over the region. 

As long as they were a weakened minority the Kurds could not stop the central government from changing the demography of the region which started in the late 1920s with the Arabization process of the Kirkuk city and the province as a whole. Nevertheless, the process did not change drastically the demography so that according to the estimation the census of 1957 showed slight majority for the Kurds. When the balance of power shifted temporarily to the Kurds' side their leadership headed by Mulla Mustafa Barzani demanded the inclusion of Kirkuk province in the autonomous region promised in the autonomy agreement of March 1970. The compromise was that a census be carried out in Kirkuk to find out the number of Kurds in the province. 

However, Saddam Husayn the then strong man and the one behind the agreement signed it for the sake of gaining time only. Thus, not only did he not carry out a census but from 1972 onward he initiated various moves to frustrate the Kurdish demand for Kirkuk. These included the nationalization of Kirkuk oil, changing the name of the province into Ta'mim, (which means nationalization), and altering the geographical division of the province. Worst of all from the Kurdish point of view was the drastic Arabization policy which resulted in deep demographic shifts: While in the 1957 census Kurds constituted 48 percent of the population and Arabs 28 percent, in the 1999 census, Kurds amounted to only 21 percent of the population while the number of Arabs had increased to 72 percent. 

The pendulum shifted once again to the Kurdish side after the fall of the Ba`th in 2003 when the Kurds felt strong enough to redress the demographic changes,  demand a census in the disputed territories and  call for a referendum on independence to be held on 25 September 2017 that would include these territories. Aware that the weak point in the referendum is Kirkuk region because of its extreme heterogeneity the Kurdish leadership is attempting to mobilize support among the Turkmen, Assyrians, Arabs and other minorities by emphasizing that it is a Kurdistani and not Kurdish region, that they would be much more secure and prosperous in a Kurdish- led state and that their rights would be secured in a pluralist society.   

Meanwhile talks were held with Baghdad which will demand Kirkuk for itself. 

This is a mere transitional point the main question for how long it will wait. Like Liberia or let the momentum disappear.     


Seven golden rules might be useful in the transitional process.


*Put the referendum in a historical context

The historical context is important not just for building cohesive national movement but also for justifying the move vi-a-vis the international community. The points that should be stressed are that Kurdish principalities predated the Iraqi state; that Britain gave a promise for a Kurdish state after Sykes Picot agreement; and that from the very beginning the Kurds aspired for independence and fought for it.


*Draw comparisons with other cases in the world

Two important points should be stressed. First, the world map of the states is neither fixed nor holy. Many new states were added to the list in the last two decades and Kurdistan should not be an exception.  Second, the size of 30 existing states is between 500 and 300,000 people. Kurdistan has some six millions.


*Draw lessons from the experience of other states

As the mantra of unsurmountable obstacles keeps recurring regarding the unviability of a Kurdish state, the Israeli experience might be a model of a successful case against all odds.

--Israel declared independence against the advice of the US.

--Israel had to struggle not just against the Arabs of Palestine but against seven Arab countries as well. It had also to fight against the British mandate which went as far as to send holocaust survivors back to Europe.

--Israel exploited the opportunity to declare independence on the very eve of the end of British mandate. Timing was crucial for the success.

--In the cabinet that decided for independence six voted for declaration four voted against.

--Determination, courage and lack of other choices were the three determinants that helped the leadership in its decision.


*Use wisely the changing mindset toward Kurdistan

In the past the Kurds were considered a destabilizing element in the region, now the world came to realize their important contribution for stabilizing the region and for fighting radical Islamists. As there is nowadays greater sympathy in the world for the Kurdish cause the KRG should use it for mobilizing support not just among the big states such as the US and the EU but also the smallest countries. For a state with 10,000 or less population has the same power of vote at the UN as the big ones.


*Look and act beyond the referendum

It is crucial to use the momentum of the referendum for declaring independence shortly afterwards. This is what the Kurdish people expect and this is how the world interprets the meaning of this referendum. The timing is crucial, namely before Daish is uprooted and Baghdad regains its power. The KRG's main fear is the reaction of the surrounding states. However, while in the past the Kurds in Iraq were a mere proxy or a card in the hands of these states now the Kurds have learned the rule of the game and can use other states as a card for their own cause.


*Build on strong societal basis

Looking beyond the referendum, the most important ingredient for the success of a Kurdish state is strong democracy. This is important for the cohesion of Kurdish society as well as for world support.  All the failed states including Iraq and the new one South Sudan have suffered from lack of democracy and herein their collapse.


*Break axioms

The instinctive reflex of the international community is to block the emergence of any newcomer into its midst. One important conclusion is therefore that one should decide independently on independence rather than wait until it is granted, because no outside power will grant it out of free will.

 — Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, and author of The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders. 

[The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BasNews]