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Why is the International Community so Hostile to Kurdish Independence?

Iraqi Kurds numbering 5.2 million are voting today in a Kurdish independence referendum. The referendum includes the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) territories and contested provinces of Kirkuk, Shingal, Makhmur, and Khanaqin.

The ballot reads: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?” Either ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ The balloting already started in diaspora on September 23, the results so far showing a close to 98 percent of ‘Yes.’

Kurdish independence vote takes place despite the international community’s pressures. The UN Security Council raised concern over the KRG’s unilaterally holding the referendum. Turkey, Iraq and Iran in a joint statement expressed their unequivocal opposition to the referendum, warning counter measures. Turkey threatened with sanctions and deployed military vehicles and personal to its border with northern Iraq.

If Self determination is a right, as inscribed in the UN Charter, why is the international community persistently hostile to Kurdish expression of will for self-determination?

As expressed, the international community is concerned that the Kurdish referendum might undermine the fight against the Islamic State. There is also an unuttered belief that a successful separation of Iraqi Kurdistan might inspire independence movements.

Of all enigmas surrounding the Kurdish independence, the most concerning perhaps is the international community’s fear that an independent Kurdish state may further destabilize the already volatile region.

This fear predominantly stems from a zero-sum understanding of the international community—an understanding which constantly feeds the principal approach of keeping the existing borders intact. This approach has served for further violence and has been maintained by the international community at the expense of grave human rights violations, oppression, and injustices against the local peoples.

As a matter of fact, the seemingly bad examples of separation are regions where host states work to turn the newly separated part into a failed state through conflict instigation and exporting violence. Host states destabilize these parts either directly or through their militias and allies.

Thus it is not the independence per se that generates conflicts or invites instability, but the hostile attitude and the belligerent policies of host states and/or neighboring countries that insist in their destabilizing moves.

South Sudan is illustrative at this point. Sudan with its Arab allies and militias did not cease infiltrating conflict and instability after the South Sudanese separation in 2011.  Malaysia invested in turning Singapore into a failed state. While the attempts succeeded in the former, they failed in the latter case.

Added to the international community’s fear is the anxiety of neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Iran, because of their existing Kurdish minority populations. My research shows that due to a history of conflict with their Kurdish populations, they seem to have developed Kurdophobia—any Kurdish gain is considered an existential threat to their own security and national unity. As such, Kurdish empowerment elsewhere might instigate further demands from the Kurds in these respective countries.

In a nutshell, Turkey approaches Kurdish independence as a win-lose. Turkey’s official stance has been one of denial and disapproval—an obstinate stance that is saturated by its existential fear of any Kurdish gain. Turkey’s Kurdophobia for decades has been fueling the Turkish war against Kurds.

If Turkey can overcome its deeply entrenched Kurdophobia, and look for the prospects of building the foundations for stronger cooperation with the newly independent Kurdish State, it will be one of the, if not only, beneficiaries. As it were after the establishment of the Kurdish de facto autonomy in 1993 in Iraq, despite Turkey’s initial furry and threats against the Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq. Thus, rather than fomenting the seeds of tension and conflict with the Kurds, Turkey should look for the opportunities that arise from Kurdish independence.

In addition to economic, security and energy cooperation, an independent Kurdish state will efficiently, and resourcefully, mediate between regional actors and their Kurdish minority populations. The KRG has mediated for decades between the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Turkey. The Kurdish state will have a vested interest in helping them peacefully resolve some of the entrenching, seemingly intractable issues the Kurds have with their host states.

The international community has to accept Kurdish independence with all of its complexity and dynamism. A broader understanding of the issues surrounding Kurdish independence and a collaborative approach to help resolve some of the entrenched relations, through win-win solutions, can make the region a better place. Such constructive approach will contribute to regional stability and global security.

The international community and the Iraqi Central Government can choose peace and stability through collaboration and constructive engagement with the Kurds, or to maintain the status quo and force the Kurds to remain part of Iraq—an option that seems hard to endure and particularly difficult for Iraqi Kurds to accept.

And a third possibility, and perhaps mostly disregarded, is the Kurdish pursuit for statehood notwithstanding the concerns of the international community or the Iraqi State. This is a trajectory that neither the international community nor the Iraqi government would want, as this might instigate conflict between the Iraqi Central Government and the KRG and lead Iraq into a new phase of civil war in the post-Islamic State era.

Kurdish independence is a reality and will materialize. However, it should be pursued through constructive diplomacy and mutual respect both for the rightful claims of the Kurds and genuine concerns of the international community and the Iraqi Government.

Huseyin Tunc is a New York Mediator and Researcher working on the Turkey’s Kurdish conflict at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University. He has published, including in the peer-revived journals.

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