ERBIL – Ninety-three percent of Kurdish voters supported “Yes” in the independence referendum held on Monday, initial results released by the High Elections and Referendum Commission show.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the commission said that out of 4.5 million eligible voters, 3.3 million had cast votes, a turnout of 72%. The final results will be approved by a court of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The Iraqi central government in Baghdad has ordered the airports in the Kurdish region closed in retaliation for the vote, and Iran and Turkey are also threatening sanctions. Kurdish sources confirm that the international airports in Erbil and Sulaiymaniyah will likely be closed on Friday, unless the international community pressures Baghdad to change its demands.
On Monday, Abdul Karim, a civil servant, went with his wife and daughter to Erbil’s historic citadel after voting in the historic independence referendum. He was affable and enthusiastic about the chance to vote for independence. But he had one question. “America calls for democracy, but what are you doing now?”
His question was addressed to Americans, but it is a sentiment many expressed in the region of 8 million. Where was the international support? Where were the international monitors and observers, the former US presidents and senators? How could European countries that accepted the Scottish referendum, not see Kurds as having the same rights as their neighbors? How could countries that stood with Kosovo in the 1990s, not see Kurdistan through similar eyes.
Many of the region’s residents are perplexed at how the world is not celebrating alongside them.
The questions people in the Kurdish region ask don’t have easy answers. Kurds are victims of history.
First, they were victims of the colonial era, being divided between countries carved out of the Ottoman Empire without a say. Despite being victims of colonialism, they did not benefit from the decolonization and anti-imperialism of the 1960s. Instead when they sought to struggle for rights in the 1970s they describe being betrayed by the US. In the 1980s the same international community that went to war for Kuwait in 1991 ignored them as they were gassed by Saddam Hussein.
Then in 2003 when the US sought regime change in Baghdad and supported democratization, Kurds agreed but asked for autonomy. They received it, but Kurdish leaders said in the lead-up to the referendum that Baghdad violated its promises to Erbil, cutting the budget and not resolving disputes.
Now in 2017, when they planned a referendum vote suddenly they found themselves ignored by cynical Western states that seem to be tired of engaging with the Middle East. Kurds who voted “Yes” for independence see immense hypocrisy in Western states that talk about human rights and democracy but have not had a strong voice supporting the Kurdish region’s decision to hold a vote.
Before the referendum the Kurdish region believed it could count on support from some members of the international community. It had good relations with Turkey and relations had warmed with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In addition numerous Western states had partnered directly with the Kurds in the war on Islamic State. Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani, at a press conference on the eve of the vote, asked why the international community supported Peshmerga to fight ISIS but not their families to vote and choose a future. He said he was disappointed, but that the stated positions of many Western states were not fixed views, they could be changed. Nevertheless he wondered: If independence is proper for other countries, why not Kurdistan?
On Monday, US Rep, Trent Franks of Arizona submitted a resolution to Congress, calling to support the “people of Kurdistan Region of Iraq [to] have the right to determine their status as a sovereign country.” This was a step in the direction Kurds expected.
However, in Turkey and in Baghdad, rhetoric against the Kurdish region has increased. There are threats to close borders and reduce trade. The US coalition, which is supporting the Kurds and Iraq in the conflict against Islamic State, does not want to see distractions from the mission, and any conflict between Baghdad and Erbil would distract from the war effort.
This was the reason given for Washington opposing the vote. There is a deeper attachment to the status quo of “one Iraq,” but the Kurds wonder, if Baghdad seeks sanctions against the Kurdish region, will the US try to appease Iraq’s central government.
The overall feeling is one of disappointment in the international community tempered with determination for independence. Kurds are steeling themselves for difficult times ahead lasting from several days to months as they face Baghdad’s anger and also threats from Iran and Turkey. They say that the region has passed difficult tests before, but they also expect that their real allies will emerge.
“We’ll see” is a common refrain, suggesting that being patient is the best answer. A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday indicated that “Moscow respects the national aspirations of the Kurds,” a positive statement for the Kurds. The US also seems ready to encourage Baghdad not to close the airports.
The hope is that Turkey will recognize not only the economic importance of the link to Kurdistan but that it has common interests as it has in the past with the region. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a common interest in a stable and moderate Kurdish region that is also a bulwark against Iranian influence in Baghdad and Syria. Eastern European countries, which still remember getting independence from the Soviet Union, are also expected to warm to the Kurdish region’s aspirations.