Iraq: Kurdish secession and full independence?

Should Iraq slide back into authoritarianism, Arab chauvinism and repression of Kurdistan, we should all support Kurdish secession and full independence.  The Iraqi state is not some sacred entity – it should only continue to exist if it works to safeguard the needs and aspirations of its people.  As long as the new Iraq respects Kurdish autonomy and attempts to abide by its democratically ratified constitution, however, an Iraqi Kurdish bid for full independence would amount to the height of folly.

While I can certainly understand the Kurds’ emotional desire for statehood (I’m from Quebec), we need to consider why nations generally seek states of their own.  They do so for security and in order to be “masters in their own home” (“Maîtres chez nous” as we say in Quebec).  Masters of their own homes can live their culture and freely determine their educational, language, employment and other public policies.    Even if national elites also often have their own self-interested power-seeking reasons for seeking statehood, they justify the need for independence by brandishing these national aspirations.

Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys these freedoms already.  Why risk all these incredible gains, born of unlikely circumstances in 1991 and 2003?  What’s more, remaining part of Iraq increases Iraqi Kurdish security.  In addition to their peshmerga national guard, Iraqi Kurds can call upon the country’s national army should they face threats from abroad.  An independent Iraqi Kurdistan of some four million people could never stand up to regional heavy weights like Turkey and Iran, or even middle powers such as Syria.  By playing a prominent role in Baghdad, Iraqi Kurds instead speak and act as part of a state of some 30 million, all the while helping to make sure that Baghdad never returns to viewing them as enemies.

Some Kurds, especially those in the diaspora, want Iraqi Kurdish independence so that “South Kurdistan” can one day stand up for the rights of Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria.  While a dedicated friendly voice for the Kurds at the U.N. and other forums would certainly be nice, what could a small isolated Kurdish state really do for its brethren besides risk its own existence?  A strong Iraqi voice might prove much more effective at such forums.  Pan-Kurdists would also do well to be careful of what they wish for.  Besides the extremely risky prospect of trying to unite all of Kurdistan, such mad irredentism would only lead to civil strife if it ever succeeded: Would  elites in different parts of Kurdistan, with different cultures, histories, political experiences, policy preferences, dialects and even different written scripts, get along in one political unit?  The 1994-98 civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan would pale in comparison to the strife of a united Kurdistan.

In fact, the best thing that Iraqi Kurds could do to help themselves and their kin in neighbouring countries (and Kurds in other parts of Iraq, for that matter) would be to remain good Iraqis in an autonomous Kurdistan.  A successful multi-national Iraqi state could make it clear that the unitary, oppressive nationalisms of neighbouring Arabs, Turks and Shiite Persians kills diversity for no good reason.  Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq, on the other hand, would just confirm the fears of neighbouring states.  They would conclude that giving Kurds an inch leads to them taking a mile.  Reforms in Turkey would ground to a halt, and Teheran and Damascus would feel all the more convinced of the need to maintain chauvinistic policies of cultural and political denial.

So when Iraqi Kurdish leaders like Jalal Talabani proclaim their Iraqiness, when Massoud Barzani works hard for an inclusive government in ongoing coalition talks, or when Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari tries to represent all of Iraq’s interests abroad, they should not be criticized for betraying Kurdish nationalism.  Rather, their people should find relief in the knowledge that their elder statesmen understand where Kurdistan’s interests really lie, at least for the time being.  Just as the Iraqi state is not some sacred entity, Kurdish statehood should not become some kind of national fetish.  Statehood should be viewed as a costly means to an end: why pay the price and run the risks unless absolutely necessary?  As difficult as it may seem given their history in the country, Kurds should wish the new Iraq a bright future with them in it.

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since early August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).

Original title: Iraq Piros be? (Long live Iraq?)

November 11, 2010


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