In a nonbinding referendum held last week, a clear majority of the 6 million Kurds of northern Iraq voted to declare independence. This comes as no surprise. The Kurds were promised a homeland in the same post-World War I regional shakeup that produced the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish home in Palestine. But, while the small Jewish nation got its state, the much larger Kurdish nation languished as a despised minority in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.
Historically, Israel and the Kurds have been quiet allies — and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the only leader in the region to welcome the outcome of the referendum. In contrast, while Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been reliable partners with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the United States lobbied against the Kurdish independence vote.
It is not that difficult to understand the U.S. position. Self-determination is no simple undertaking. Without international sanction and support the effort can devolve into chaos and genocide. We have seen that happen before, most recently when the secession of one part of Yugoslavia in the 1990s ignited ethnic hatreds that led to genocide in Europe for the first time since the Holocaust. The warnings are clear: Unilateral moves can unleash terrible destruction.
“The fragmentation of Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion and of the Arab Middle East since 2011 has afforded the region’s Kurds an unusual opportunity to reach for greater independence,” writes Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher, who, as a Mossad agent, took part in clandestine missions in Kurdistan. But the international table is not yet fully set.
So while the Iraqi Kurds, for the most part, have taken full advantage of opportunities to pursue independence — and deserve our continued support — a unilateral declaration of independence appears destined to fail, as it should. Landlocked and surrounded by larger, hostile countries, Iraqi Kurdistan would lose all the benefits the Kurdish population currently enjoys, in exchange for a symbolic — and pyrrhic — victory. Rather than pursue that course, we hope that Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani will use last week’s vote as leverage in ongoing negotiations with the central government in Baghdad for greater autonomy within Iraq.
Undoubtedly, those dreaming of a greater Kurdistan for the region’s 34 million Kurds will be disappointed. But a state founded through international action rather than unilateral declaration has a better chance of survival and success. While it is plainly unfair to ask the Kurds to be patient — particularly because so many have suffered for so long — we are convinced that if there is to be a state of Kurdistan one day, it will only come about as part of an internationally sanctioned move that brings that state under the protective umbrella of the world community.