AT FIVE in the afternoon on Friday, September 29, two commercial airliners pulled away from their gates at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Zagrosjet’s Airbus A321 holds as many as 200 passengers, and the Pegasus Boeing 737 holds 189. They were the last to leave the Kurdish region of Iraq before Baghdad ordered the airport closed in retaliation for an independence referendum held on September 25.
The scenes at Erbil International Airport were more festive than dour. Although one journalist compared it to the feelings on the “rooftop of the US Embassy in Saigon,” local Kurds were not fleeing. Kurdish protesters with balloons and flags came to demonstrate against the “blockade” being imposed on the region by Baghdad. According to Rudaw, a local news channel, the airport serves around 5,000 passengers a day.
Despite threats from Baghdad, Iran and Turkey, sentiment in the Kurdish region is optimistic in the wake of the referendum that saw 93% vote for independence and a 72% turnout from among the more than 4 million eligible voters.
“Today we wake up and see nothing has changed, Kurdistan is still standing,” wrote one woman on Facebook. Others posted defiant memes referencing Kurdish history, “We have no friends but the mountains” or said any sanctions would make the Kurdish region stronger. Some pointed out that Baghdad’s attempts to stifle Kurdistan were one more piece of evidence as to why Kurdistan needs independence from an abusive and Iranian-backed regime.
The threats have united the Kurdish political parties and resulted in the reopening of the local Kurdish parliament. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani led the independence referendum drive when he announced it in June after conferring with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and smaller Islamic parties.
In the end, the Islamic parties and Gorran, as well as PUK and KDP, all supported the vote.
However, in the wake of the referendum, the powers arrayed against the autonomous KRG in northern Iraq are impressive. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’ite leader in Iraq, rejected the referendum.
Iraq’s parliament has prodded the government to send troops to the disputed city of Kirkuk. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called on the Kurds to surrender their border crossings, which the autonomous KRG runs, to Iraqi personnel. Turkey has also threatened sanctions and said it would now work directly with Baghdad rather than the Kurdish region to which it previously had been close.
The US led international opposition to the Kurdish vote, claiming it distracts from the war against Islamic State and that it is a unilateral action that will lead to the breakup of Iraq, in which the US had invested billions since the 2003 invasion.
A September 29 statement by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed that the “US does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum” and claims “the vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” Tillerson tempered his comments, urging Iraqi authorities “to reject threats or even allusion to possible use of force.”
Kurdish politicians and locals say the US is hypocritical; if it claims to support democracy, why doesn’t it support Kurds who want their region to be independent.
Although many states paid lip service to rejecting the referendum, there is a groundswell of support for Kurds in many Western newspapers.
Influential former policymakers such as Richard Haass have written in support, as well as intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, who went to the Kurdish region for the vote. The US House of Representatives is considering a resolution sponsored by Trent Franks (R-Arizona) supporting the Kurds. US Senator and leading Democrat Chuck Schumer also supported the referendum.
French President Emmanuel Macron invited Abadi on September 30 to Paris for talks about the Kurdish issue.
Kurdish insiders say other countries support the Kurdish region, including in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The main message: “Let’s see who our friends are now.”
One Kurdish official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the region has “many friends around the world and in the coming period this [opposition] will change. We are not the first [to declare] independence, nor the last. The free world needs to be freer and free nations have to be open to welcome other nations.”
The Kurds now find themselves as they have before ‒ a victim of regional concerns about their rising power and a victim of cynical pragmatism by Western powers.
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq is leading the drive toward independence because it is already the most independent of the four Kurdish regions, called Rojhelat, Rojava, Bakur and Bashur, or Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern Kurdistan.
These are the areas of Kurdistan that were divided into Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq in the 1920s after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and the British and French briefly administered Iraq and Syria.
Many Kurds see this as a 100-year history of betrayal and waiting for their time.
When Masoud Barzani invited more than 300 reporters to one of his official offices north of Erbil in the mountains, he greeted them with a history lesson. “It is necessary first to give a history of relations with Baghdad which goes back 100 years.”
An hour later, he reminded the audience of the same time frame.
“We have waited 100 years and independence was not delivered and we decided and our people have decided. We took responsibility, and we are ready to die for independence.
We are ready to pay any price for our independence,” he said.
Kurds have already paid a heavy price for these desires.
They suffered at the hands of Turkish and Arab nationalism and at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s religious extremism.
Kurds in Iraq suffered the worst under Saddam Hussein, with almost 200,000 killed and thousands of villages razed in a campaign of genocide in the 1980s. The leading Kurdish parties also fought a civil war with one another in the 1990s.
The US, which some Kurds say betrayed them in 1946 when they set up the Mahabad Republic in Iran and in 1975 when the US ended aid to Kurdish fighters in Iraq, has been a key partner of the KRG since the 1990s. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish leadership was encouraged to embrace a new federal Iraq that would guarantee its region autonomy.
The demand for independence enshrined in the recent referendum has a long pedigree.
A State Department cable from March 1975 included a statement from the late Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani “that the Kurds be permitted to declare their independence as Cyprus did.” The US sought, in 2005, to encourage the Kurds to embrace a new constitution and federalism.
US diplomats in Baghdad also have been critical of demands for too much Kurdish autonomy as it seemed to go against their plans for rebuilding a “unified” Iraq.
“Given the Kurds’ longstanding desire for autonomy ‒ if not full independence ‒ from Baghdad, many of our contacts wonder how long the Kurds will remain engaged seriously in the national [Baghdad] government’s formation.”
The Kurds claim that the Iraqi constitution they supported in 2005 was never faithfully observed by Baghdad. Article 140 and the demand that Kirkuk hold a referendum that would lead to it being incorporated into the Kurdish region never happened. The Americans told the Kurds to be patient.
“Come to Baghdad and engage the leaders there,” a political officer told Kurdish representative Tanya Gilly in 2006. On September 14, 2017, the US special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS told the KRG the same thing in Erbil.
“A path focused on a sustained process of negotiation, dialogue… to resolve many of the outstanding issues that are confronting the region,” he said.
For Kurdistan leaders, the US may be a close ally but its focus on “dialogue” is not always in good faith. The US knows that Iran’s influence grows every year in Baghdad, and Iran has replaced Saddam’s Iraq as the main opposition to an independent Kurdistan.
In February 2017, Barzani visited Turkey and the Kurdish flag was raised at the airport.
The symbolism was profound.
Under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey grew increasingly close to the Kurdish president and the KRG ‒ partly because it wanted the KRG’s help against the PKK, but also because it viewed with suspicion the rise of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and Iranian influence in Baghdad. However, its concerns about Kurdish aspirations have always been mixed.
According to US diplomatic cables, in 2004 Turkish officials suggested an enlarged corridor from northern Iraq for oil and energy. Turkey’s interests in northern Iraq are historic, dating to the 1920s when Turkey had claims to Mosul province.
Turkmen minorities in Tal Afar and Kirkuk have long been supported by Ankara. A July 2004 US cable notes: “The Turkish reasons are that if the Iraqi Kurds get autonomy or independence this would revive separatist sentiment in southeast Turkey.”
TURKEY HAS been against the KRG’s dominating Kirkuk. It also initially expressed concerns about the degree of autonomy granted the KRG, which runs its own airports so that different visas are required for Baghdad. It also runs its own border security. The Turks found, however, they could work with the KRG over the years on security.
The Turkish fear of Kurds in Turkey taking inspiration from the independence drive in Iraq are mirrored in Iran and Syria.
A US cable from 2006 about Kurds in Syria says: “Kurdish activists continue to develop ideas about a Kurdish role in a future Syrian democracy, taking many cues from their Kurdish brethren in Iraq.”
To counter fears that an independent Kurdistan seceding from Iraq would destabilize Turkey and Iran – and an already destabilized Syria – Barzani vowed on the eve of the referendum that he looked forward to an independent Kurdistan having a “good relationship with them [neighboring countries] even if they have a negative reception [to the vote] we are working to correct the negative and we are friends and we were never a factor of instability. We will foster peace and stability in the region.”
The problem the Kurds face in the region is that they must find pragmatic reasons to encourage countries to work with them beyond simply presenting a moral, democratic and historical reason.
Most countries in the region saw George W. Bush’s democratization calls as destabilizing.
The Palestinian elections in 2006 led to the rise of Hamas and the separation of Gaza and the West Bank. Elections in 2012 in Egypt led to the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power. In 2013, it was overthrown by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Gulf states also opposed Arab Spring democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011.
Nevertheless, the Kurdistan Regional Government gained a different set of allies over the last few years as former US president Barack Obama sought out the Iran nuclear deal. With Iran growing stronger in Baghdad and backing the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Sunni-Arab states began to see Erbil as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism.
The fact that Iran not only opposes Kurdish rights but that Iraqi Shi’ite militia leaders such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri were trained in Iran places Erbil on the same side as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The Kurds are mostly Sunni, but it is not simply a Sunni-Shi’ite issue; the Kurdish region’s leaders have more in common as nationalists with leaders in Cairo and moderates in the Gulf who oppose Islamist groups.
But even in the case of the Saudi-Gulf alliance with the KRG, pragmatism trumps emotion. Riyadh has worked hard to patch things up with Baghdad in the last year, including opening a border crossing and diplomatic visits. According to a 2010 US cable, Sheikh Khalif bin Zayed told Kurdish leaders in Erbil that “Kurdistan’s best future is as part of a unified Iraq and any move toward independence would result in hostile reactions with its neighbors and reverse all the successes that Kurdistan has achieved.”
Israel is another key regional supporter of Kurdish aspirations. Since the 1960s, Israel developed a unique relationship with Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, supporting their insurgency against Saddam Hussein. In the run-up to the referendum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked both expressed support for Kurdish independence. Kurds held aloft Israeli flags at rallies in Europe and in Kurdish cities such as Dohuk and Akre. After the vote, however, Turkish anger over the vote resulted in pressure on Israel to tone down its public support. Conspiracy theories in the Middle East paint Kurdistan as a “second Israel,” a term former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malaki used on September 17. In the Kurdish region, I saw SUVs with Israeli flags, and many Kurds told me that Israel was the one country they could count on for support.
THE SUCCESSES of Kurdistan can be seen from the moment one gets off a plane in Erbil. Erbil International Airport’s new terminal was completed in 2010 at a cost of $500 million. The old airport is now used by the US-led coalition that is fighting ISIS and is also where administrative coordination of Kurdish training by the coalition takes place. The new facility has impressive layers of security to get to it, including a vehicle check and a separate bag check before one even gets to the arrivals and departures halls.
In 2014, Erbil was named the Arab tourism capital by the Arab Council of Tourism.
A government website said at the time that the city was building $1 billion of new hotels and had seven “world-class hotels” hoping to welcome 3 million tourists by 2014. Unfortunately, that was the year Islamic State poured across the border, capturing Mosul and other Iraqi cities in June and then attacking Kurdistan in August.
The war against ISIS gave the Kurdish region new purpose, but challenges came, as well. More than one million displaced people came to the Kurdish region, including hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fleeing genocide; Assyrian and other Christians from the Nineveh plains; and many Arabs from Mosul, Hawija and elsewhere.
Kurds, who had been refugees in the 1980s and 1990s, were now welcoming others.
In his speech before the referendum, Barzani said the Kurdistan region and a Kurdish state would be one of coexistence, emphasizing “federalism, pluralism and democracy.”
He said, “Arabs are our brothers” and that Turkmen, Chaldean [Christians], and other minorities should welcome independence.
“Concerning IDPs and refugees, Kurdistan is their home and they are part of our family, and they can stay and live in peace as long as their areas are not liberated,” he said.
Nevertheless, there are tensions.
Kurdish officials such as Kemal Kirkuki, a former speaker of the local parliament, has proposed creating an autonomous Sunni area within Iraq. Sunnis are the ones who underpinned Saddam Hussein’s genocidal policies, and he settled them in minority areas, such as around Kirkuk.
Now the situation is reversed, with Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs being the powerful groups. Reversing Saddam’s crimes has overshadowed the last decades in Kurdistan. Now, the Kurdish region finds itself in the odd position of working with Sunnis in Iraq to counterbalance the Iranian-backed government in Baghdad.
In the lead-up to the referendum, the KRG was pressured deeply to postpone it. Many in the region and the international community thought Barzani could be convinced, but he and leaders in the KRG felt that if they kept waiting indefinitely their enemies would grow stronger. Defeat of ISIS would mean the international community would no longer need the Kurds as an ally.
During the war, the coalition set up the KTCC training center for Kurdish Peshmerga, and the US helped pay the salaries of the soldiers as Baghdad cut Kurdistan’s budget. Kurdistan also exported its own oil via Turkey.
Iran’s influence has also grown in Baghdad with the incorporation of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces of Shi’ite militias into the official Iraqi Security Forces.
Sitting at his headquarters on the frontline near Hawija, one of the last pockets of ISIS in Iraq, Peshmerga leader Hussein Yazdanpanah said Iraq is now a “militia state.” It is a “country of thieves and corruption who steal. It is against human rights principles.”
Yazdanpanah was born in Iran and came to the Kurdish region of Iraq years ago where he helps lead the Kurdistan Freedom Party.
Kurdish leaders have worked closely with Baghdad since the 2016 Mosul offensive began. Iraqi armed forces were allowed to transit through the Kurdish region to get to frontlines around Mosul. But this was under the calculation of the Peshmerga generals and leadership who didn’t want to conquer Mosul.
The Peshmerga had created frontlines from northern Sinjar through Nineveh to Kirkuk, which were the borders the region wanted. With the Iraqi army conquering Mosul by July 2017, the Kurdish leaders understood that the Shi’ite militias now would be on their doorstep.
On May 30, the Shi’ite militias reached the Syrian border near Sinjar. Seven days later, Barzani announced the referendum after talks with other Kurdish parties.
Turkish officials close to Erdoğan think KRG miscalculated. Ilnur Cevik wrote in The Daily Sabah on September 25: “What is sad is that he [Barzani] is digging the Kurds of Iraq into this nightmare. It is a pity that a statesman like Jalal Talabani was not around to restrain him and prevent the mess.” Talabani is the head of the PUK who has had health problems recently.
On the ground in the Kurdish region, support for the referendum has dismissed fears that angering Turkey and Baghdad could set the region back, rather than bring it statehood.
“We expect very hard challenges and difficult days and we understand there will be difficult days ahead,” said a Kurdish policymaker close to the leadership.
On the streets of Erbil, almost every building was adorned with flags in the leadup to the vote. A giant poster at the ancient citadel in the middle of Erbil showed the Kurdish region breaking the chains of Iraq and flying away.
The idea of flying away from Iraq appears on other Kurdish independence memes on social media, as well. One shows a man in Kurdish traditional clothes climbing stairs to the sky as countries in the region shoot arrows into him. Another poster put up in Ainkawa, a mostly Christian suburb of Erbil, showed voters lined up and ascending stairs to the sky.
Most Kurds interviewed on the day of the vote said they could no longer live within Iraq; it had committed the genocide. They wanted their children to grow up in a free and independent country. Local officials said the UN charter guarantees a right to self-determination. General Assembly Resolution 1514 of 1960 also supports selfdetermination, as does official US policy since Woodrow Wilson.
Even though Kurdish officials talk about the right to self-determination and compare their vote to the Catalan vote for independence held on October 1, they do not always admit that Spain has stifled the Catalan vote. Referendums on independence in places such as Quebec, Puerto Rico and Scotland have happened because their countries accepted them. Countries such as South Sudan, East Timor and Kosovo, which gained independence against difficulty, did so because they received widespread support from the US and the international community.
The Kurdish region has a long way to go to get to those points. But Kurdish officials think this referendum will be a step on the road and have said that within two years they will seek full independence.
Kurdish leaders such as Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani now have a message of dialogue for Baghdad. “Our message to the international community is to come and help us in this process that we want to do through negotiations with Baghdad. This is the best help for Baghdad and us,” he said.
At a press conference broadcast live on September 25, after he had voted with his family, Barzani went on to say: “We did the referendum to enable people to express their will. The next stage is not war or violence.
Let’s come and talk. When they are ready, we are ready to fly to Baghdad to talk to them.”